Instead of swift movement on a series of reforms that have been
stuck in Congress for years in some cases, Brazilians are being treated to a blatantly
public, often bitter debate involving political leaders who, on paper, are government
allies. And there are already candidates stepping forward for presidential elections set
for November of 2002!
By Adhemar Altieri
Brazilians are generally not familiar with the term
"lame-duck", that nifty piece of political jargon Americans often use, that so
graphically describes a president going through the motions as a term of office winds
down. But things remaining what they are, Brazil’s political pundits may soon be searching
for the Portuguese-language equivalent of the limping political bird.
Most surprising is that the term is even worth mentioning in a
Brazilian context: President Fernando Henrique Cardoso should be anything but lame, having
been decisively re-elected for a second term just last November. But outside of a
surprising reaction to economic woes early in the yeara reaction attributed almost
entirely to a savvy performance by government negotiatorsthere’s been precious
little government action to speak of in Brazil. This at a time when decisive steps and
strong leadership are called for on a number of fronts, to ensure that a remarkable
turnaround since January’s economic blues doesn’t fritter away.
Instead of swift movement on a series of reforms that have been stuck
in Congress for years in some cases, Brazilians are being treated to a blatantly public,
often bitter debate involving political leaders who, on paper, are government allies. It’s
the type of political posturing that characterizes the final stages of an outgoing
government, complete with would-be candidates throwing their hats in the ring. Precocious
doesn’t quite describe it: these are candidates stepping forward for presidential
elections set for November of 2002!
Although the origin of much of the current end-of-term atmosphere is
the legislative branch, President Cardoso cannot be excused from all blame. Public
perception has been that the President is merely gawking while his allies do battle, at
times over tiny morsels of power that shouldn’t pack enough importance to paralyze all
other government activities, but end up doing just that.
Such was the case with the mid-June appointment of the head of Brazil’s
Federal Police, the local equivalent of the FBI. The appointment would normally be made by
the Justice Minister, but the process dragged on for three months because of infighting
over which partythe governing PSDB, or one of the coalition partners, PFL or
PMDBwould have final say. When the name was finally announced, the result was an
embarrassment for the government: Brazil’s new top cop was accused of torturing a priest
to extract a confession during Brazil’s military regime that ended in 1985. The government
had no choice but to drop him, and a new appointment was rushed through in just three
How does the appointment of a lower-rung public servant become a
politically-charged battle, with party leaders drawing successive lines in the sand and
threatening to pull their support from the government? In part, because of a perceived
lack of leadership and decisiveness from President Cardoso to deal with political allies
and their ambitions. And also because the political system in place in Brazil opens
numerous doors to just the type of bartering that turns even a lesser government position
into a potential political strongholda practice not entirely unknown to politics
elsewhere, but taken to often unacceptable heights in Brasília.
The basic elements of the Brazilian political formula make it all
possible. They come together in a mind-boggling tangle that most participants prefer to
simply navigate and often cash in on, than attempt to pull apart. The many personal
advantages that such a system makes accessible certainly don’t escape the average
Brazilian politician. All of which goes a long way in explaining why political reform,
considered a priority by government and opposition members alike, has gone nowhere since
1993, when the first attempt to review the system failed miserably.
To most Brazilian legislators, it comes down to not giving away what
amounts to a very convenient arrangement: they get to bog down negotiations until they
extract what they want from the government in exchange for a vote, and they seldom pay the
political price for the negative consequences of such delays. The President usually bears
the brunt of the criticism, mainly because of Brazil’s not-too-distant political past.
Brazilians still see the presidency as all-powerful, and tend to expect their President to
be far more incisive and even authoritarian than Fernando Henrique Cardoso has been
throughout his presidency.
Without reform, the Brazilian political scene will remain a minefield
of sorts for the presidency, and an obstacle to long-term stability and modernization.
Major aspects that need an urgent review include mandatory voting, the lack of electoral
districts, the lack of any serious limitation on politicians who hopscotch between parties
without regard for voters or political tendencies, the ease with which just about anyone
can start a new political party, and a serious imbalance in Congressional representation
that privileges remote, less-populated regions.
Each of these aspects has profoundly negative effects, but together,
they create a situation that University of São Paulo political scientist Bolivar
Lamounier has described as an "option for minority government". The existing
system in effect reduces all political dialogue to individual, not party or ideology-based
negotiations. It guarantees overall control for party and regional minorities as Lamounier
put it, while coherent majorities with the effective power to govern cannot be formed.
"It’s as if the political minority, whatever its nature or method of formation,
should be considered somehow ethically superior to the majority", wrote Lamounier in
a recent column in the business magazine Exame.
In the end, an early start to the 2002 presidential race may turn out
to be the most harmless consequence of avoiding reforms in Brazil. Far more damaging would
be the threat of economic collapse, a real possibility if budget deficits are not
controlled. And to get control, Brazil needs political, tax and social reforms on the
front burner soon, all of which must be successfully concluded or well under way by the
end of 1999 if trouble is to be avoided.
Whether or not President Cardoso sets some sort of record as the
earliest-ever lame-duck President will depend on his ability to shift attention to matters
at hand. For now, the apparent disregard for the incumbent that early campaigning by
political allies represents, is providing additional bad news for Cardoso. The latest
polls show his approval rating is at an all-time low, with only 23 percent of Brazilians
supporting his administration. That compares to 44 percent at the start of his first term
in office, in 1995.
Adhemar Altieri is a 21-year 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 (http://www.infobrazil.com), an English-language
weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and economy. You can reach
the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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