Is a constitutional reset the answer to Brazil protester demands?

Brazil's Constitution was created in 1988 following years under a military dictatorship. This week, President Rousseff proposed a referendum on a constitutional assembly to create sweeping political reform.

By , Contributor

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    Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (c.) sits with Cities Minister Agnaldo Ribeiro (l.) and Planning Minister Miriam Belchior (r.) as they meet with representatives of social movements at the presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on Tuesday, June 25. So far, Brazilian protesters don't appear appeased by Rousseff's proposals.
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In an effort to end the widest series of street protests Brazil has seen for decades, President Dilma Rousseff made a vague offer of sweeping changes to the country's 25 year old Constitution. But whether her gambit will work, or meaningful changes will be made, remain open questions. 

The proposal to hold Brazil's first constitutional assembly since the current Constitution was adopted in 1988 was made after protesters were unmoved by President Rousseff's promise on Friday to fight official corruption by strengthening Brazil's freedom of information act.

The tin-eared proposal underscored one of the major complaints of the protesters – that Brazil's leaders are out of touch – and drove tens of thousands of Brazilians back to the street the next day.

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So now, Rousseff has come with a bolder proposal. But it will have to address years of anger at a system many Brazilians believes serves politicians and business interests, not the public, if it's to work. 
 
“Here the politicians only come knocking on our door at election time,” says Neide Sacramento, a house cleaner protesting on the gritty edge of São Paulo this morning. “But once election time is over they disappear. We do not see them again.”

Democratic fervor

This week’s proposal for a constitutional assembly could offer the country a chance to fix its Constitution and address widespread corruption.

"The streets are telling us that the country wants quality public services, more effective measures to combat corruption ... and responsive political representation," Rousseff said Monday.

The Constitution written in 1988 is highly inclusive and ended up allowing an outsized voice for the political fringe. The result has been hundreds of thousands of candidates running in each election cycle, spending billions of dollars of often illegally raised funds amid a scrum of over 20 political parties seeking seats in Brazil's National Congress.

It is common for politicians to then go on and sell their votes in return for government pork or lucrative state appointments. This kind of behavior was on full display last year when the Supreme Federal Court convicted the former leadership of the ruling Workers Party of operating a massive vote buying scheme in congress during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Critics say it is no wonder only 12 percent of Brazilian voters trust congress.

A 'distraction?'

Some have claimed the offer of a plebiscite is nothing more than an effort to deflate the protests, with little concrete plan to move forward or create change.

In order to hold a plebiscite, the National Congress must pass a law authorizing it. But this is the same legislative body that has been sitting on various political reform proposals for years without showing the slightest inclination of bringing them to a vote. A proposal to publicly finance election campaigns has knocked around the Congress for 15 years without ever being called for a vote.

By opting for a process involving a constitutional assembly instead of demanding a vote on existing reform bills, Rousseff has chosen a way “of distracting the people out in the streets,” said Carlos Velloso, the former head of Brazil's Supreme National Court, in an interview on Brazilian television Monday.

Long-time campaigners for political reform also criticized the president’s proposed constitutional assembly, fearing it could be dominated the country's political parties. “It would be a way for Brazil’s political elite to dominate the debate,” says Márlon Reis, director of the Movement to Combat Electoral Corruption (MCCE), a network of over 50 civic organizations dedicated to curbing corruption in Brazil.

At a meeting Monday with Rousseff, the MCCE and other members of civil society demanded that a plebiscite be held within 45 days to decide on which type of change was best for Brazil. Congress would then be asked to vote the most popular proposal into law without the need for a drawn-out constitutional assembly. The president promised to study the idea.
 
Should that not happen, they have promised to continue a campaign to gather up the millions of signatures needed to turn their own proposal into a constitutionally sanctioned “popular initiative,” which allows citizens to present bills to Congress for a vote once they have backing from one per cent of the electorate. Given Brazil’s large population, that would amount to almost 1.5 million signatures, but backers of the proposals say they would need more to force it through a reluctant Congress.

The president's proposal might yet be made redundant by a society stirred into action and no longer willing to follow the lead of their political leaders.

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