Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dilma Rousseff’s anti-corruption struggles

The president of Brazil is having struggles; her cabinet members are dropping like flies as her anti-corruption drive is being manipulated by politicians pushing their own means. 

 Brazil president DIlma Rousseff. Image:

Anti-corruption drives are supposed to be a thing of beauty. But putting corruption above all else might not be the best way to run a state, and this is quite beautifully displayed by the political recession in which President Rousseff finds herself. Brazil’s wiliest, and, to be honest, some of its average, leaders have often used the media to one-up each other, but its complicated system of coalition governance (the current government majority in parliament is made up of ten parties, and the opposition, six) sports so many fingers in the pie that it is often quite hard to work out whose knife-handle happens to stick out of any particular back.

Rousseff happens to have made two honourable calls since taking the reins of the world’s seventh largest economy. The first being to weed out corruption (a huge problem – Transparency International’s corruption index places Brazil in 69th position – South Africa is 54th), and the second to slash $30 million from the state’s expenditure for the year in preparation for a turn in the roaring Brazilian economy’s fortunes. Most of these cuts came from discretionary spending enjoyed by politicians, including niche “pet” projects. This has caused severe strife amongst some leaders, and the procession of cabinet ministers leaving the side of Rousseff because of accusations, proven or otherwise, that have forced them out. The most recent under fire is Orlando Silva, the sports minister, accused of siphoning off funds from a ministry programme intended to bring recreational facilities in poor areas.

Brazil has lost four cabinet ministers during Rousseff’s seven-month presidency, and on Monday the procession began to excise a fifth. When Rousseff began her anti-corruption drive in July, she focussed it on the ministries of transport and tourism – both headed up by officials from outside the Workers Party (of which Rousseff is top member). The growing middle-class of Brazil, much like in South Africa, has far more of an issue with corruption than the poor who care more for things like housing and poverty alleviation schemes. Think Maslow. In fact, under Rousseff’s predecessor, the highly popular Lula da Silva, 36 million people moved into the lowest rung of the middle class (earning between $1,000 and $3,900 per month). Out of an electorate of 135 million, that’s a hefty number of votes. Rousseff therefore took a political opportunity, very publicly clamping down on corruption before the centre-right opposition, who are supposed to cater for middle-class concerns, did (simply, it’s like the ANC getting to a solution to Rondebosch and Randburg voters before Helen Zille wakes up). What looked like a smart political move has gone completely tits-up though, and threatens to spiral out of control. In fact, it looks nowadays as though the president isn’t even running it.

The Brazilian media, most notably the influential weekly, Veja, has whipped up allegations from a surging wave of anonymous sources who claim to be whistleblowers, which Rousseff now has to treat seriously as the drive is her own initiative – in spite of a heft portion of them having as much proof as the Yeti’s recipe for Loch Ness Monster soup.

Aside from the four members who have already left cabinet, Rousseff is due to lose a fifth, has seen 30 transport officials go, and 38 warrants of arrest have been issued for tourism ministry staff.  It’s probably also worth pointing out that her initiative has only initially examined two ministries. The Brazilian cabinet has 37. While the tourism chief has somehow kept his job, chief of staff, Antonio Palocci (who also served under Lula) resigned under a corruption cloud, the defence minister left after he told everyone he voted for the opposition, the transport minister, Alfredo Nascimento, also gave in, as did the agriculture minister, Wagner Rossi. In fact, both Nascimento and Rossi claim there is no truth to the allegations against them, but have walked anyway. Cities minister, Mario Negromonte has the same, oddly familiar noises. This last weekend has been ugly for her too: Glesi Hoffmann, who replaced Palocci as cabinet chief, has been accused of claiming unemployment benefits when she left the board of a giant power company to run for a senate seat.

The media’s willingness to air alleged/suspected/reported dirty laundry of just about anyone in cabinet has meant that political scores are being settled in the media. Allegation after allegation has been scribed and will now be processed, and obsessed over, and more people will fall. More pressure is weighing on Rousseff’s shoulders as five of the six cabinet minsters have been from other parties in her coalition – only Palocci came from the Workers Party. Whether their departures are justified or not, it is putting pressure on her governing alliance. In fact, when Nascimento was replaced by Paulo Sergio Passos (both from the Party of the Republic) as head of the transport portfolio, and intra-alliance spat ensued as members weren’t consulted in a fashion they thought appropriate. They are no longer part of the coalition although the effect of them leaving is negligible; they are a minor player.

The relationship Rousseff needs to look after is the one with the Brazil Democratic Movement Party – her vice-president, Michel Temer is the leader of the party, the second largest in Brazil. (Incidentally one of last momth’s smuttier news stories is that Temer’s sister-in-law earned the right to appear on the cover of Playboy Brazil). So don’t be surprised if the new agriculture minister gets an easy time of it, along with other PMDB-run ministries: Mines and Energy, Social Security and the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs (which oversees things like nuclear, space programmes, national intelligence). But naturally, dirt on anyone that could begin to affect the ruling alliance would be wonderful for the centre-right opposition.

Rousseff, in response to this crisis which is threatening to derail her presidency has offered meek responses so far, claiming that the “PT (Workers party) and the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) are the basis of the stability and trust of the government” while also maintaining she is not trying to force people out of cabinet. It’s not quite enough when senior politicians are falling like dominoes.  

Dilma Rousseff’s near future is going to be damn hard, and she would do well avoid making Brazil’s actual issues contest for attention.

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