A remaining challenge to global perceptions about Brazil:
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A campaign against corruption
Jul 8th 2010 | SÃO PAULO
ORGANISED crime takes several forms in Brazil. One is politics—a lucrative trade. Of the 513 members of the lower house of Congress, 147 face criminal charges in the supreme court or are under investigation, and the same goes for 21 of the 81 senators, according to Congresso em Foco, a website that acts as a watchdog. Some—nobody knows quite how many—have already been convicted in lower courts. Most of the crimes involve either violating campaign-finance laws or stealing public money.
Hitherto the politicians had little to worry about. Although the law was changed to limit parliamentary immunity for corruption, Brazilian justice is patient. Politicians have the right to be tried by the supreme court, but many cases lapse before they are heard. When the supreme court recently convicted two politicians for corruption, it was the first successful prosecution since democracy was restored in 1985. Since legislators who are impeached lose their right to run for office, many of those in serious trouble simply resign pre-emptively. They then stand in the next election and get straight back to business.
But a new law approved last month will disqualify from political office for eight years all those convicted of a serious crime, as well as those whose resignations were motivated by a desire to avoid impeachment, as determined by the electoral tribunals. To the chagrin of some of those shamed into voting for the measure, the electoral court ruled that the law will apply not just to those convicted in future, but also to those who already have a criminal record and those who resigned under a cloud during the current congress.
Quite how wide a net the new law will cast is not clear. Two politicians convicted of crimes gained interim injunctions from supreme-court justices which, if confirmed, would allow them to register candidacies. And politicians facing well-documented corruption charges who have yet to be convicted may be able to crawl back to office at the next election in October.
Nevertheless, some notorious figures may be forced out. They include Paulo Maluf, a former mayor of São Paulo who has been convicted of “maladministration” (a catch-all offence used for officials suspected of corruption), and is wanted by a New York prosecutor for money laundering. The same goes for Joaquim Roriz, who resigned as a senator for Brasília in 2007 after being accused of stealing 223m reais ($120m) from a state bank. But Jader Barbalho, who resigned from the Senate in 2001 over corruption claims and faces six separate charges in the supreme court, has not been convicted. Elected as a deputy in 2002, he is likely to stand for office in Para, an Amazonian state, this year.
The law, dubbed ficha limpa (“clean record”), amounts to “a revolution”, says Sylvio Costa of Congresso em Foco. It is the result of a petition to Congress signed by some 1.5m citizens, and was passed in record time. It follows the failure of a series of political-reform bills in Congress.
Even if some of the questioned politicians persuade state electoral courts to register their candidacies, the voters may be less forgiving. David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasília, points out that of 69 deputies accused of skimming money from ambulance contracts in 2006, only five kept their seats in that year’s election. This time some of them might not even get on the ballot.