Rousseff's referendum plan for Brazil runs into trouble

Tue Jun 25, 2013 8:41pm EDT

* Politicians and lawyers question legality of proposal
    * Lawmakers say Congress should decide political reforms
    * Supreme Court chief says Brazil's democracy not in peril

    By Anthony Boadle
    BRASILIA, June 25 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma
Rousseff's bid to defuse a sudden outburst of national
discontent by proposing a referendum on political reforms ran
into stiff opposition on Tuesday from politicians and lawyers
who questioned its legality.
    Tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets
this month in the biggest protests in 20 years, fueled by an
array of grievances ranging from poor public services to the
high cost of World Cup soccer stadiums and corruption. 
    The demonstrations against Brazil's political establishment
have jolted politicians of all stripes and clouded the outlook
for Rousseff, who is expected to seek re-election next year.
    The national capital, Brasilia, braced for more protests on
Wednesday, with some schools cancelling classes. New
demonstrations were also expected in Belo Horizonte during a
game between Brazil and Uruguay for the Confederations Cup, a
warm-up for the World Cup in 2014.
    In an emergency meeting with Brazil's governors on Monday,
Rousseff proposed a national plebiscite to ask voters whether
they agree to holding a constituent assembly to reform Brazil's
political system. 
    The bold move was seen as an attempt by a popular president
to bypass the country's unpopular Congress with an appeal to the
people. Legal experts said that was unconstitutional.
    The head of the Brazilian Bar Association, Marcus Vinicius
Furtado, proposed in a meeting with Rousseff that political
reforms be adopted by Congress based on a popular petition.
    Politicians - including the head of the lower chamber of
Congress Henrique Alves, a member of the governing coalition of
parties - said political reforms should be decided by Congress.
    Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said that under
Brazil's constitution Rousseff could not call an assembly to
amend the charter. He said political reforms should be drawn up
by Congress and then submitted to the country's approval in a
    To hold a referendum to decide what to reform would "take up
what is left of this presidential term and have repercussions
for the economy that are hard to predict," Cardoso said in a
post on the FHC Institute's Facebook page.
    Political analysts saw Rousseff's referendum proposal as a
ploy to gain time and spread the political risk of the crisis.
    "Rousseff's intention is to address the public's huge
disaffection with the political class by separating herself as
an agent of change," Washington-based Eurasia consultancy said
in a note to clients. "In practical terms, however, the proposal
is unlikely to lead to any meaningful political reform."
    Eurasia said it was not a lack of legal mechanisms that has
hampered political reform in Brazil, but the absence of will
across the political class.
    The same point was made by the president of Brazil's Supreme
Court, Joaquim Barbosa, who weighed into the debate with a news
conference after meeting with Rousseff on the issue.
    "Proposals have been sitting for years in Congress, which
has shown no interest in reforming the political system. And
that lack of interest, in part, has led to the crisis of
legitimacy we have now," Barbosa told reporters.
    It was unusual for a chief justice to be publicly giving his
opinion on a matter he might have to rule on if it is brought
before the Supreme Court. But Barbosa is highly respected in
Brazil for leading the country's biggest political corruption
trial, which led to the conviction last year of several leaders
of the ruling Workers' Party. 
    Barbosa said the Brazilian people should be consulted
directly because they were tired of political deals negotiated
behind their backs by the political elites.
    Brazil's democratic system was not endangered by the current
wave of protests, he said. "Brazil's democracy is solid enough
to weather this turbulence."

 (Editing by Christopher Wilson)