The polls have closed, results were revealed and history has somewhat been made. Brazilians cast their ballots for the country’s future leader, on October 31. The winner: Dilma Rousseff, the candidate hand-picked by outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT). The losers: José Serra of the Party of Social Democracy (PSDB) and the 43.7 million voters who hoped for change.
Yesterday, 55.7 million Brazilians didn’t just elect their first female president, a laudable and historic feat; they voted for condoning the corruption entrenched in the PT government. It may be easy to understand how Rousseff won – she now has da Silva to thank for his role as her campaigner-in-chief – but it remains difficult to grasp why Brazil did not vote against the eight-year-long fraudulent rule of the Workers’ Party.
Rousseff, a former minister and chief of staff, rode a wave of prosperity under da Silva’s coattails. The president spared no efforts to transfer his political capital and approval rating hovering at 80% to his protégée, doing most of the talking in the campaign trail (often in violation of electoral law) and crediting Rousseff for some of his government’s accomplishments.
Unsurprisingly, for PT supporters, Rousseff represents the continuation of da Silva’s social and economic policies, which elevated Brazil to the rank of eighth largest economy and helped lift around 10% of the population out of poverty. This reasoning echoed principally among the rural and urban poor and migrants to the big cities – a majority of the electorate – for whom a vote for Rousseff was a vote for Brazil’s “best president ever”.
But a ballot for da Silva’s “chosen one” was a ballot for a party that has made corruption a characteristic of its government.
Ranked 69 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index, corruption is endemic in Brazil. Even though no political party can claim a monopoly over the practice, the ruling Workers’ Party and its allies have been connected to all major corruption scandals in recent years.
Amongst the most notorious is the 2005 Mensalão (“monthly stipend”), involving allegations that the Workers’ Party paid a number of congressmen monthly allowances of around US$ 17.5 thousand to secure votes for legislation. At the time, Rousseff – then Minister of Energy and Mines – was appointed Chief of Staff when her predecessor, José Dirceu, was forced to resign for his orchestration of the Congress vote-buying scheme.
In early 2006 former PT Finance Minister Antonio Palocci stepped down amidst allegations of corruption from his management of da Silva’s 2002 presidential campaign and of breaking banking secrecy laws. Despite the scandals hitting very close to da Silva, he easily won re-election in October of 2006, and his party’s corruption remained unpunished.
Brazil’s Supreme Court indicted 40 people in 2007, including the president’s former right-hand man, on charges of corruption, racketeering and money-laundering arisen from the Mensalão. Brazil’s attorney-general said Dirceu, the “scheme’s architect”, ran a “sophisticated criminal organization”. Although nearly half of Congress was turned out as a result, a dozen involved individuals remained in the legislature. Dirceu now plays a central role in Rousseff’s team and rumors abound that Palocci will become her chief of staff.
In 2008, the Chief of Staff’s office, then led by Rousseff, was accused of producing dossiers on the personal spending of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and of pressuring the National Civil Aviation Agency’s sale of Varig airline to a favored buyer. In early September 2010, members of Rousseff’s PT were implicated in the illegal access of the tax records of Serra’s daughter and of PSDB members, including the party’s vice-president.
Erenice Guerra, da Silva’s Chief of Staff who took over when Rousseff stepped down to campaign for president, resigned in mid-September amidst allegations of taking bribes to procure government contracts for businesses. The event tarnished Rousseff’s image who, albeit not mentioned in the accusations, had a long-standing personal relationship with Guerra and frequently referred to her as “my right hand woman”. Rousseff’s ratings wavered slightly in the polls which, analysts say, pushed her once certain first round win on October 3 to the runoff on October 31.
Serra vigorously pursued these issues, repeating Rousseff was either incompetent for, as she claimed, “not knowing about them” or had committed a crime if she did know. His pleas fell largely on deaf ears.
An October 11 survey by Brazilian pollster Datafolha suggested that 75% of voters who initially intended to vote for Rousseff and then cast their ballot for another candidate did so because of the corruption allegations involving her party. But these were mainly well-educated, well-informed people, who comprise a minor percentage of Brazil’s electorate. According to analysts, the majority of Brazilians simply did not understand what went on behind the scandals.
This allowed Rousseff to brush off the affairs and pursue her path to victory on the incumbent president’s popularity and economic and anti-poverty policies.
Maybe Rousseff will surprise us and make a clear commitment to clean the government. She has to. Fears of Brazil’s legacy of corruption are amplified by the recent discovery of deep-sea oil reserves, which have a habit of providing a lucrative means of rewarding party and president loyalty.
It will take a very determined and skilled president to push the much-needed political reforms through a system run on whims of special interests. It is too early to know whether Rousseff will have the strength and desire required to do so or whether her powers will be constrained from within. Unlike her predecessor, Rousseff did not rise through the PT. Her unexpected candidacy was imposed by da Silva, once his likely successors were all directly implicated in corruption scandals.
The new president will have a tough time. As José Dirceu told a group of PT members in September, the Workers’ Party will be even more powerful under Rousseff, whereas da Silva is “twice as big as the party”.