BRASILIA (Reuters) - One month after demonstrators climbed onto the roof of Congress demanding an end to corruption and the clean-up of Brazil’s political stables, lawmakers are procrastinating.
In an initial flurry of activity, rattled congressmen abandoned a constitutional amendment that would have made it harder to prosecute corrupt politicians, senators voted to stiffen penalties for corruption, and Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of a lawmaker convicted of embezzlement.
Last week, the Air Force started posting information on who uses its planes and why after outrage at politicians jetting off to private events such as soccer games on the public dime.
But other reform proposals that would reduce privileges that politicians enjoy and make government more transparent have been shunted into committees for review or put off until lawmakers return from a mid-year recess. And when it comes to wining and dining, it appears to be business as usual in Congress.
At the peak of the massive protests last month, a million Brazilians took to the streets to vent their frustration with the poor quality of public services, high cost of living and misuse of public money in the world’s seventh-largest economy. The protests targeted the political class in general, widely seen as a self-interested elite reaping the spoils of office.
The outburst of anger shook the political establishment and brought promises of reform from President Dilma Rousseff, whose popularity has plummeted since the protests, clouding her chances of re-election next year.
Lawmakers, even from her ruling Workers’ Party, opposed her proposal for a plebiscite to consult Brazilians on how they would like to change the political system and insisted they draw up the reforms themselves. Infighting over electoral reform has caused rifts in Rousseff’s 17-party coalition.
The political parties and Congress, seen as Brazil’s most corrupt institutions in a recent opinion poll, have done so little to clean up their act that Brazilians wonder whether they got the message from the protests.
“It is very worrying how out of touch our politicians are with the streets. I have no doubt the protests will continue,” said Gil Castello Branco, founder of Contas Abertas, a group that tracks government revenue and spending.
In the midst of Brazil’s biggest protests in two decades, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, Henrique Alves, used an Air Force plane to go to a soccer game in Rio de Janeiro with his girlfriend and a dozen friends and relatives.
Brazilian politicians are used to getting away with such liberties. But in the new climate of public indignation, Alves promptly returned 9,700 reais ($4,300) in taxpayer money when his trip was publicized.
Then it was the turn of the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, who reluctantly forked out 32,000 reais for using a government plane to attend a wedding at a beach resort.
The mass protests across the nation sped up passage of an anti-bribery bill that for the first time will make private companies liable to prosecution if found paying off public officials abroad or in Brazil.
The legislation, which Rousseff is expected to sign into law by next week, was required by the United Nations Convention against Corruption and requested by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“This law is important to show that Brazil complies with its international agreements and is moving to combat corruption,” said Carlos Ayres, co-chair of the anti-corruption and compliance committee of the Brazilian Institute of Business Law.
Comptroller General Jorge Hage, Brazil’s top anti-corruption crusader, said the legislation is a vital tool to fight bribery by providing stiff fines of up to 20 percent of a company’s gross revenues and blacklisting for government contracts.
“With the people mobilizing in the streets, the Senate was under pressure to pass the bill quickly and it went through in record time,” he said.
Hage hopes the momentum generated by the street protests will lead to political reforms and, in particular, the ending of campaign financing by private companies and the introduction of public funding plus limited individual contributions.
In a landmark decision last year, the Supreme Court convicted several top aides to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the biggest corruption trial in Brazilian history.
The aides received prison sentences for their role in a scheme to buy support in Congress for Lula’s minority government a decade ago. But none have served any time yet and the aides retain their seats in Congress where they hope parliamentary privileges will save them from going behind bars.
“The fact that their sentences have not been carried out due to appeals added fuel to the protests. People are furious that these convicted criminals are still free and in Congress,” said Leo Torresan, head of Amarribo Brasil, a local partner of Transparency International.
The credibility of Brazil’s political institutions has sunk to rock bottom: 81 percent of Brazilians think political parties are corrupt and 72 percent think Congress is corrupt, according to a poll published two weeks ago by Transparency International in its annual global corruption barometer. The military is seen as the country’s least corrupt institution, the poll showed.
One reason Brazilian lawmakers are resisting political reforms that cut their legal privileges and make it harder to get re-elected is that one third of them face lawsuits or are under investigation for alleged wrongdoing, according to Congresso em Foco, a prominent watchdog group in Brasilia.
After the protests began, the Supreme Court confirmed the embezzlement conviction of congressman Nathan Donadon, who became the first sitting lawmaker to go to jail in 25 years.
Days later, another lawmaker under investigation for fraud, money laundering and tax evasion, Mario de Oliveira, resigned from Congress rather than face the noise.
But observers such as Castello Branco of Contas Abertas say politicians still don’t get it and have not changed their ways: last week, Speaker Alves threw a dinner for 80 members of his PMDB party on the taxpayer’s tab, shrimp and champagne included.
Alves’ office said it was a “work meeting” and more dinners would be held with other parties to discuss the reform agenda.
($1 = 2.2359 reais)
Editing by Todd Benson and Claudia Parsons