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Brazilian President Rousseff's first semester marred by battles with Congress, scandal

Although she has kept Brazil's economy buoyant in her first six months, the president has lost four ministers to corruption scandals and has been unable to keep her congressional allies in line.

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It is true that Rousseff has had to replace no less than four ministers in her first six months in office, including two as a result of major corruption scandals. First to go was Antonio Palocci, the president’s chief of State and congressional fixer. It was the Folha de São Paulo newspaper that discovered a multiplication of 20 in the político’s net worth over four years. Apartments and other assets had been registered under false names.

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Second was Rousseff’s transport minister, Alfredo Nascimento, a coalitional cabinet posting for the PR (Republic Party), an important ally of Rousseff and her Workers' Party. Mr. Nascimento’s ministry and PR congressional leaders had skimmed untold amounts from the massive public transport projects in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nascimento then had the gall to ask Rousseff for an additional $6.5 billion because of budget shortfalls.

While the transport minister’s entourage was forced to resign, it initially appeared that Nascimento himself had escaped the axe. Then it was discovered that the net worth of the minister’s son had increased from somewhere under $130,000 to around $20 million in a matter of a few short years. The minister’s resignation – which Rousseff should have ordered from the very beginning – soon followed suit.

It is widely suspected that the leak responsible for this scandal originated within the president’s sphere of influence. Rousseff is viewed to support a housekeeping of corrupt rent-seekers, many of whom, like Nascimento, are hangovers from President Lula’s two administrations. When Rousseff finally did choose a replacement minister for Nascimento, the PR appeared to be unhappy with choices made; this past Wednesday it boycotted a lunch for PT (Workers' Party) allies in the Lower House.

The need to pander to congressional allies is the critical reason Rousseff has not acted with greater decisiveness. Some, including the author, originally thought that what Rousseff lacked in negotiating ability, she would make up for in fearsome authority. Yet with congressional legislators disloyal to ideology and local constituencies, negotiation through pork and positions seems to be one of few alternatives.

Rousseff’s decision not to spend last year’s residual budget funds is illustrative of what can happen when legislators are denied resources. When Rousseff refused to release funds for pork barrel spending, the Lower House conducted a boycott; not even her own party would vote for critical health legislation until Rousseff caved in, disbursing the $3 billion she had sought to save taxpayers. Such defeats illustrate that Rousseff still has much to learn about legislative hardball.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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