Reform Now?

Reform Now?

When he was first elected in 1994, president Cardoso promised a
sweeping political reform, but did next to nothing to make it happen. He repeated the
pledge after his re-election. A year and a half into Cardoso’s second term, little has
happened to indicate that a reform is actually in the works. This could change soon.
By Adhemar Altieri

Two of the most influential leaders in Brazilian politics put on the type of display in
the past week that could only serve to further harm the image of Congress, an institution
that can ill afford further blows against its credibility. This loud, ugly, but not
entirely surprising display between veteran politicians who should know better, may turn
out to be the spark that finally ignites a much-needed political reform—which, like
so many other reforms, has been gathering dust in Brasília for far too long.

Analysts have described the exchange as the political equivalent of a barroom brawl. It
involved Senate president Antônio Carlos Magalhães, of the center-right PFL—still
the government’s main ally, and Jáder Barbalho, president of the centrist
PMDB—Brazil’s largest political party and a lesser ally, looking to cozy up and gain
additional space in government. On Wednesday, April 5, each went for the other’s jugular,
as their backroom battle climaxed on the Senate floor. In separate speeches, the two
senators described each other with words like corrupt, thief, liar, undignified, impostor,
truculent, and an untranslatable piece of local slang (bajulador) for which the
closest English expression would be something along the lines of "butt kisser".
The clash included plenty of shouting and finger pointing, all of it carried nationally by
the Senate’s cable channel.

Ironically, while they lock horns over space at the federal level, PFL and PMDB are
also working hard to dissociate themselves from the central government, as part of their
strategy for next October’s municipal elections. As part of that effort, both parties were
heavily involved in the minimum wage debate that ended recently. The PFL continues to
exploit the issue, openly pushing the government to find a way to raise the amount to the
equivalent of $100 per month. Behind the scenes, the PMDB has used the PFL’s minimum wage
rhetoric to suggest that perhaps the government should consider a more "loyal"
partner—like the PMDB…

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was on an official visit to Costa Rica during the
Senate blowout, and steered clear of any involvement. But the broader political
consequences are unavoidable. The two parties involved, plus the government’s own PSDB,
form the bulk of the alliance that gives the executive support in Congress. Like it or
not, president Cardoso will have to get involved in the conflict, to preserve his own
ability to govern.

On another level, there’s the inescapable disappointment with yet another show of
disregard by top elected officials for institutions they should be working to protect. The
fallout from all this, or lack of it, will only add insult to injury: to support their
accusations, both Magalhães and Barbalho submitted "dossiers" on the other’s
wrongdoings, which turned out to be extensive collections of newspaper clippings—not
exactly solid evidence. The expected result is no action of any kind against the battling
senators, and some in the media have already raised the question: after this, how can
anyone ever be punished for breach of parliamentary decorum?

What this episode once again exposes is Brazil’s dire need for a clear, reasonable,
efficient political system, in which parties have meaning and voters can understand the
mechanics of an election and the consequences of not putting any thought into who to vote
for. When he was first elected in 1994, president Cardoso raised the specter of providing
such a system through a sweeping political reform, but did next to nothing to make it
happen. He repeated the pledge immediately after his re-election in 1998, adding that not
keeping the original promise had been a major mistake. A year and a half into Cardoso’s
second term, little has happened to indicate that a reform of the magnitude the country
needs is actually in the works. But this is said to be about to change.

Word in Brasília is that once again, the government will attempt to give political
reform priority treatment. Previous attempts to do this failed miserably, so this time
president Cardoso’s main strategists are reported ready to try a different approach.
Instead of a complete package of changes, which would involve constitutional amendments
(harder to pass in Congress) and be easier to oppose, they’re preparing a series of
specific projects, to be introduced at both the Senate and the Lower House, each dealing
with a separate issue. It’ll take longer to accomplish a full reform this way, but that is
apparently seen as a fair swap if the chances of reaching the final goal are also greater.
Isolating each aspect in a separate debate will also expose politicians who resist any and
all change—they seldom criticize political reform openly, but the fact it has gone
nowhere in almost six years is a good indication of where most politicians stand on the

Of four points which the government hopes to pass in Congress by the end of this year,
two are key. First, a so-called "barrier clause", which would impose minimum
requirements for parties wishing to enter candidates in an election. Today, there are no
restrictions of any kind, and any party can enter candidates at any level. This is a major
reason for the proliferation of small parties with no serious political objectives of
their own.

They use their candidacies to beef up a larger party’s campaign, often swinging wildly
between political extremes from one election to the next. Not surprisingly, these
mini-parties are often described as "legendas de aluguel", something like
"rent-a-party". The new proposal would force a party to demonstrate a certain
level of involvement and activity before entering candidates: state and municipal offices,
number of affiliates, elected members, and votes received in the past election, would all
become determining factors.

Party loyalty is another aspect government strategists intend to pursue. Currently,
nothing stops an elected official from switching parties, except during a one-year period
before the next election, when those who switch cannot run. Shuffling politicians are a
familiar sight in Brazil’s legislatures at all levels: immediately after taking office,
the party-shifting begins, in perhaps the most obvious display of a party’s lack of
importance in the current scenario. Following the 1998 elections, more than 60 members of
the Lower House of Brazil’s Congress swapped parties, including one who switched three
times in a single day. Eventually, the government would move on bigger themes, like the
introduction of district voting and the end of compulsory voting.

As it stands, the system currently in place in Brazil encourages the type of politics
that senators Magalhães and Barbalho so aptly exemplify. Both are known as "caciques"—the
word actually means Indian chief, but appropriately describes politicians with large
numbers of followers, usually because of their regional strength (this is the case with
Magalhães) or their power within a large enough political base (Barbalho and the PMDB).

Accordingly, both senators drag around an entourage wherever they go, and show little
or no hesitation if there’s ever a need to go beyond tough talk. It’s questionable whether
they realize they ought to be embarrassed by what they did—both are more likely to be
celebrating a victory of some sort. In practice, they function as centers of influence in
the most negative sense: this is influence exercised to extract benefits for followers and
associates—not for the benefit of all, but to benefit the few.

Author and columnist Luiz Fernando Verissimo perhaps put it best in his daily column in
the São Paulo daily O Estado de S. Paulo. A day after the clash in Brasília, he
compared it to a schoolyard shoving match, and concluded:

"It had the makings of a balanced, thrilling bout, to be decided by points of
rhetoric or possibly a verbal knockout. Instead, what we saw was an embarrassment: the
Brazilian politician reduced to his inexpressive essence, wasting our time in a battle of
inarticulate egos."

The Magalhães x Barbalho clash disappoints not just because it exposes the poor
quality of political leadership in Brazil, and the great distance that still must be
covered before the political scene in this country progresses as much as other areas have.
It is also disturbing because in the Cardoso era, this is precisely what many in Brazil
hoped to see gradually removed from public life. To see it solidly entrenched, live and in
color, is a sobering wakeup call that the government must answer. Clearly, the hope is
that this new plan to forge ahead with political reform is for real, and hopefully this
time, successful—even if it is almost six years behind schedule.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada and the United
States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston,
Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada and Brazil. Altieri is a
member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The Greenfield Consulting Group to
identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the editor of InfoBrazil (, an English-language
weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and economy. You can reach
the author at 

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