Lula vs. Congress in Brazil

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brazil's president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is assuming his second term in office with a whopping 62% vote mandate. But look at some of the people he has to deal with in the country's congress: Fernando Collor de Melo, a former president impeached in 1992 on corruption charges; Paulo Maluf, a two-time Mayor of Sao Paulo convicted of fraud; and Clodovil, a camp television presenter and former stylist to the stars who, when asked to name some pet projects he would bring to the new parliament replied, "I have no projects." And this was after Brazilians voted out half of the former congress, which was already considered one of the most unproductive and corrupt in Brazilian history. The outgoing parliamentarians were so recalcitrant that Lula, in his first term, quickly decided the only way to move forward was to pay them for their support, and fully one-fifth of them were under investigation for involvement in that cash-for-votes affair or one of several other corruption scandals.

The incoming membership of Brazil's upper and lower legislative bodies, the Senate and the House of Deputies, take their oaths of office this week. How well Lula deals with them will be vital in deciding not only how he shapes his second and final four-year term but also his political legacy. Although he has reduced poverty through a far-reaching project that gives money to the poor to keep their kids in school, he has failed to pass the structural reforms he promised during his first run for office.

Political and economic reforms vital to the country's future have little chance of becoming law unless Lula can form a broad coalition from the 25 different political parties in Congress. His Workers' Party (PT) won just 83 of 513 deputies and 10 of 81 senators, which means he must form an alliance with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the country's biggest party but one with no clear ideology beyond commanding influence and retaining power. "Lula is going to need the votes of the PMDB to pass his reform projects but the PMDB is the party of the status quo and an alliance with them is going to make any reforms difficult," said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a political scientist at the Brazilian Institute of Political Studies. "I am not optimistic that much is going to change."

Indeed, the early signs do not bode well. Lula has formed a provisional coalition but its future is hardly bright. Three months after winning the election, the PT is still negotiating who gets what lucrative posts in the cabinet and the PT and the Communist Party of Brazil have spent the last two months in a very public battle over who should get the key position of president of the lower house. Lawmakers have no incentive to change their ways. The job is just too comfortable. They might lack, as the head of the Chamber's Ethics Council said last year, "ethics, morality, conduct" but each gets an annual wage and benefits package that exceeds half a million dollars. Every member of congress has a monthly discretionary fund that tops $7,000. This in a country where the minimum wage is around $167. In fact, the outgoing congress voted to give parliamentarians a 91% raise — something the country's Supreme Court temporarily put on hold.

But the cardinal sin involved is not just greed. It is also sloth. Congressional officials estimate there could be tens of thousands of bills awaiting attention, some of them dating back more than 30 years. Hubris is another problem. Responsible for policing themselves, legislators have gone easy on those involved in alleged wrongdoing and acquitted many of those accused of involvement in the scandals. Avarice is rife: faced with better offers, 194 deputies swapped parties during the last session and 14 of the new batch have switched their affiliation before even taking office. The problem for Lula and Brazil is that changing that putrid political system involves politicians voting for their demise. That isn't going to happen, and certainly not with the likes of Maluf and Collor in Congress. It's going to be a long, four years for Lula.