Could generational change ease Brazil's politics of corruption?

As possible impeachment looms for Brazil's President Rousseff, some observers say the current travails could be a pivotal moment. 

Eraldo Peres/AP
As they hold a sign reading "impeachment now" opposition lawmakers celebrate after the results of the voting at a congressional committee in Brasilia, Brazil , Monday, April 11, 2016. The committee voted Monday to recommend that the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff move forward, bringing the possible ouster of the embattled leader a step closer.

As Brazil reels from protests and financial scandal, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff confronts a key milestone Sunday, when the lower house of parliament is expected to vote on whether to impeach her. Outside the building, a barrier is being erected to keep the opposing hordes of protesters apart.

But whichever path the impeachment takes, some observers see a moment with the potential to transform the political scene, challenging entrenched corruption and ushering in a new breed of politician.

“Behind all of this, what you have in Brazil is a demand for accountability, people fed up with corruption,” says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in a telephone interview. “Corruption has been endemic in Brazil, but it really was put on steroids by the government of the Workers’ Party.” 

The Worker's Party of President Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), is being hit hard by Operation Car Wash – a vast corruption investigation targeting politicians and executives who took bribes from construction companies in exchange for doling out contracts with Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. The party was founded as the party of ethics in the 1970s, making the charges even more galling.

While the Car Wash scandal has not implicated Rousseff directly, she is suffering from her party’s involvement – and the fact she was head of Petrobras from 2003-2010. If impeachment proceedings move ahead, Rousseff would be suspended from office and her vice-president, Michel Temer, would take her place.

This would hardly resolve the crisis of legitimacy facing Brazilian politics. Vice-President Temer is also in danger of facing impeachment for the very same budgetary misdeeds, not to mention comments leaked Monday in which Temer appeared eager to replace the president.

“If the vice-president took over, he might well be perceived as a traitor who conspired against the government,” says Claudio Couto, a political scientist and columnist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in a conference call hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “And that’s just one reason why his government would lack legitimacy.”

Yet while many politicians are tainted by the scandal, some see a potentially pivotal moment for the country. 

“There is no obvious knight in shining armor out there waiting to save Brazil,” says Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, in a telephone interview. In spite of that, he considers the country to be “on the verge of a tidal change in Brazilian politics right now,” where we will see “the old guard go out and new names come in.”

A new dawn?

Brazil has been here before. In 1960, then-President Janio Quadros rose to power on an agenda of taking a broom to clean out corruption. But he resigned seven months later after a failed bid to get Congress to offer him more power. The military seized power three years later. Some observers worry that any efforts at reform could, once again, fall at the first hurdle or fail to dig deep enough.

But it is possible the sheer scale of today’s scandal will prompt real reform, says Scott Desposato of the University of California, San Diego, though he urges caution in hoping that it will.

“Much of the progress on corruption has come from career prosecutors and sometimes judges, not politicians,” says Dr. Desposato, associate professor of political science, in an e-mail interview. “Perhaps just as important as new elites, is new mass attitudes. There is a less-government, lower-taxes discourse in some of the protest. That might help with corruption. But it isn’t clear yet where it will go.”

These new mass attitudes are embodied by today’s youth and middle class, say analysts. Ironically, they come from a generation inspired by the Workers’ Party’s early ideals to uphold the rule of law.

There are also politicians who share these less traditional outlooks, say observers, though most of them are at the municipal or state level. Roberto Motta, for example, is a member of Partido Novo, “a new centrist, practical party with a small government narrative” as described by Desposato, and may run for mayor of Rio de Janeiro.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington D.C., also points to the mayor of Curitiba, Gustavo Fruet, in southern Brazil, as an innovator, though “whether he has national aspirations” is another question.

“Brazil is going through a very difficult period, but when it gets out on the other side, you’re going to see a new kind of politics, a new generation,” says Mr. Shifter in a telephone interview. “It’ll be much cleaner… In the long run, this is healthy for Brazil.”

And while none of the major parties is likely to emerge from this tortuous path unscathed, Desposato points to some new, smaller parties, representing an “ideological spectrum of smaller and less intrusive government,” potentially reducing the scope for corruption.

But Filipe Campante, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, is skeptical that there is necessarily a promising new generation of cleaner politicians.

“But if you want to be optimistic about things, you notice there’s not talk of, for example, military intervention…. Everyone is trying to play the game within the bounds of current institutions,” Dr. Campante says in a phone interview. “So, if you look at the situation from a historical perspective, or you compare it with other countries at a similar level of development, it’s positive, a source of solace.”

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