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A boy runs among soccer balls marked with red crosses as a protest on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro June 22, 2013. Copyright: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Brazilians are protesting, among other things, high public expenditure for sports eventsImage: Reuters

Resurrected reforms

Astrid Prange de Oliveira / sad
June 28, 2013

Protests, pacts, plebiscites: The Brazilian government has reacted to mass demonstrations with landmark promises of reform. But not all of the proposals are actually new.


All of a sudden, Brazilian parliamentarians are brushing the dust off of policy reform proposals that got bogged down in congress 15 years ago. Through citizen referenda, the population is supposed to better participate in political decisions, while corruption is being redefined as a more serious crime. But can the mass demonstrations that have been rocking Brazil really claim victory?

At first glance, this appears to be the case: After many cities reversed the public transport price increase that initially sparked the protests, Brazil's senate on Wednesday unexpectedly voted in favour of landmark legislative proposals recategorizing corruption, embezzlement and misappropriation as serious crimes punishable by a minimum four-year prison term. The proposal must still however be passed by the lower parliamentary house.

Also in this lower chamber, the mass demonstrations appear to have worked a miracle: Overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday, parliamentarians threw out a controversial proposal that would have limited the state prosecutor's investigative powers. The so-called PEC 37 would have amended the constitution to, among other things, transfer investigative powers to the notoriously corrupt police. Critics viewed this as carte blanche for corruption, and had feared that it would weaken justice and investigative bodies.

People hold posters that reads
The controversial PEC 37 proposal was scuttled altogetherImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

From parliament to prison

The seriousness of Brazil's fight against corruption is being reflected in the sensational judgment of the country's Supreme Federal Court, which on Wednesday issued arrest warrants against a parliamentarian for the first time in history. Until now, such officials enjoyed criminal immunity while still in office.

Under public pressure, parliamentarians also voted in favor of two further proposals, relating to profits from offshore oil production. Three-quarters of the "royalties" are to be invested into the Brazilian education system, while the remaining quarter should flow into the chronically underfunded public health sector.

In addition, the parliamentarians symbolically cut spending for the soccer organization FIFA. Release of 15 million euros ($19.5 million) for telecommunication services was halted, and provisional measures empowered the Brazilian communications ministry to strike such budgetary requests altogether. The question remains as to where such funding is supposed to originate.

Funding jungle

Economic writer Miriam Leitão blogged under the Brazilian daily "O Globo" that the government must still clarify where the nearly 18 billion euros promised for public transport are supposed to come from. Until now, the government has expended only a fraction of funding allocated for public transport.

A closer look at how money has been spent on past proposals indicates a possible path for current reforms. President Dilma Rousseff had already allocated those 18 billion euros for public transport in a 2010 growth package. Of this, 11 billion euros were to build out local transportation, 4 billion euros were for transport in medium-sized cities and 3 billion euros for 2014 FIFA World Cup transportation costs.

Petrobras petroleum platform anchored 175 km from the shores of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Copyright: EPA/MARCELO SAYAO
Offshore drilling is to pay for Brazil's education and healthcareImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Of even these 3 million euros for World Cup transport, only 16 percent has been spent, according to the Brazilian audit office. Twelve of 57 planned World Cup transportation projects are on hold.

Influential courts

The investments Rousseff announced for the education and health sectors after meeting with governors and mayors at the beginning of this week also go back to previously planned legislation.

Regardless of the rehashing of past proposals, calling a referendum to decide on fundamental political reforms appears to be a sure win. According to "O Globo," Rousseff on Tuesday next week will present a legislative proposal on this to congress. Through the referendum, citizens are supposed to have a say in electoral law and public investment projects.

Parties must be directly supported by a referendum, said Joaquim Barbosa, president of the Brazilian high court. Until now the greatest changes in Brazil - like the nation's independence and formation of the republic - have been initiated by elites, he continued.

Joaquim Barbosa, president of Brazil's Supreme Federal Court. Copyright: Nelson Jr. via Mariana Santos
"Time" magazine lauded Joaquim Barbosa as among the world's most influential peopleImage: Nelson Jr

Barbosa, who is 69, was lauded by "Time" magazine this past April as one of the 100 most influential people. He presided over a historic lawsuit against 38 Brazilian parliamentarians who in August 2012 were handed significant prison terms for having bought votes.

Marcus Vinicius Furtado, head of the Brazilian Order of Attorneys, also spoke out in favor of a referendum for political reform, arguing for it to be held within 45 days maximum. "It's enough to change electoral law and party financing. End the financing of campaigns by companies and define rules for clean elections ," he told "O Globo."

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