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Maturity test for Brazil's democracy

Astrid Prange / wsMarch 19, 2015

A wave of protests in Brazil puts President Dilma Rousseff under increasing pressure. Radical opponents of the government want an impeachment, but they have had little response.

Brasilien Antiregierungsproteste
Image: Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil

Following mass protests in Brazil, President Dilma Rouseff has announced that she will put the fight against corruption high on the agenda again. "We are on the right track," she said in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday. There was, she maintained, no increase in corruption: "In this country, it is no longer swept under the carpet."

Does that mean the big clean-up has started? Many Brazilians are suspicious of their unpopular president's pledge. After all, the media in Latin America's largest country uncovers new corruption scandals amongst the political elite almost every day.

Now the Brazilian government says it wants to step up the fight against bribery once again. A new draft bill, to be submitted for parliament's approval before the end of the week, proposes a more severe punishment for unlawful enrichment by civil servants, as well as illegal funding of political parties.

Rousseff's dip in opinion polls

Currently, Brazil is being shaken by a wave of political protests. Last Sunday (15 March 2015) around 1.5 million people took to the streets in various cities to call for Rousseff to step down. Many protesters suspect the president of being involved in the corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras. More importantly, they are dissatisfied with the ruling Labor Party (PT).

Brasilien Brasilia Planalto Palast Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff announced several measures to present to Congress to reinforce the fight against corruptionImage: picture-alliance/epa/F. Bizerra jr.

According to the most recent poll conducted by the Datafolha institute, 62 percent of Brazil's population rate the Rousseff administration as "poor" or "inadequate." Only 13 percent of 2,800 people polled expressed their satisfaction with Rousseff, who was re-elected only five months ago in October 2014.

In the meantime, Brazilian media is in the middle of a ferocious debate on whether the protesters' calls on Rousseff to step down are justified. "At this point, there is no legal basis for an impeachment," affirmed Eliane Brum, columnist at the Brazilian edition of "El Pais." "Election results," she said, "are also valid for people who represent a different political camp. Anything else would be illegal."

Sore losers, bad government

However, Brazil's former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who represents the opposition party PSDB, told a radio station in Sao Paulo that the president was "gradually losing the political foundations of her government." "President Dilma," he went on, "has to face reality - she is rejected by the people."

The situation is not new. Two years ago, in June 2013, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest at their government. At that time, the protests were directed at corruption scandals involving the ruling Labor Party and its coalition partners. Giving in to pressure from the streets, the parliament passed a law that made corruption a felony and introduced stiffer penalties for money laundering.

Brasilien ehemaliger Präsident Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Brazil's former President Cardoso is a staunch critic of the current governmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Despite its promise to step up the fight against corruption, the Labor Party and its coalition partners are coming under ever-growing pressure. In the wake of the Petrobras scandal, PT treasurer Joao Vaccari has been accused of corruption and money laundering.

Clean-up in congress

A large number of politicians investigated by the Supreme Court (STF) over suspected corruption in the Petrobras case have a seat in the Brazilian Congress. The 34 suspects include Senate President Renan Calheiros, as well as the parliamentary speaker Eduardo Cunha. Both are delegates of the coalition party PMDB.

Carlos Ayres Britto, former president of the Brazilian Supreme Court, does not believe that the mass protests will lead to Rousseff's resignation. Similarly, the judge labels the "military intervention" called for by some protesters far-fetched.

Brasilien Bildung Proteste
Students protesting against the Confed Cup football tournament in 2013Image: picture alliance / GES-Sportfoto

Back in 2012, he sentenced 24 high-ranking members of the government to prison for bribing parliamentarians with monthly bank transfers to ensure their approval of the government's draft legislation.

"What we see is a surge of dissatisfaction with our traditionally corrupt political system," Britto told the Brazilian press. People had taken to the streets without responding to calls from political parties or single politicians: "30 years after the end of the military dictatorship, Brazil's democracy operates at full throttle."