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Rogues Gallery – Brazil’s PMDB Comes “Clean” at Last

senate_brazilWhen I first started to cover the Brazilian political scene in the mid-90s I had trouble trying to understand what most parties stood for. With the exception of the leftist Workers Party (PT) and the social democratic PSDB it was difficult to pinpoint any ideological base on which the other parties stood, particularly the PMDB which has often held the highest number of seats in Congress.

It took me some time to realize that the PMDB was not a political party as such but a group linked by regional, business and personal ties which was only interested in gaining power to enrich itself and look after its own.

Foreign readers might think this a harsh judgment but anyone who lives in Brazil knows it is a fact and two of the PMDB’s top members, Senators Jarbas Vasconcelos and Pedro Simon, have recently confirmed it.

Vasconcelos gave an interview to Veja magazine on February 19 in which he said most of the PMDB were only interested in corruption. He described the party, of which he has been a member since it was founded as the MDB in 1966, as: “a confederation of regional leaders, each with his own interest, more than 90% of whom practice favoritism with their eyes fixed mainly on (public) positions.”

He singled out three top members for particular criticism: ex-President José Sarney who has just been elected chairman of the Senate and has been accused of using his influence to enrich his family; Renan Calheiros who resigned as Senate chairman in 2007 amid allegations of corruption; and Jabar Barbalho who also resigned from the same post in 2002 accused of plundering 2 billion reais (US$ 816.33 million) from public funds and was even briefly arrested.

Despite the allegations and investigations, all three are still influential figures in the PMDB which is one of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s main allies. The party has no less than six ministries and runs such powerful areas as health, communications, agriculture, energy, defense and national integration. It controls eight state and around 1,200 municipal governments.

Veja estimates it has public funds totaling 365 billion reais (US$ 148.98 billion) at its disposal, equivalent to 13% of Brazil’s GDP. How much of this is siphoned off illegally is anybody’s guess but many of the party’s members who began their political lives in humble circumstances have become millionaires.

They have used their positions to enrich themselves, families and allies and have placed their supporters in leading positions in state-owned companies and agencies.

The mines and energy minister, Edison Lobão, was recently faced with a strike by electricity workers who were outraged at his blatant attempt to appoint PMDB placemen to run their pension fund by firing the current directors. It must be one of the few times in history that workers have gone on strike over their future pensions but they knew that Lobão was only interested in getting his hands on the funds assets worth 6.3 billion reais (US$ 2,57 billion) and plundering them.

The illegal use of public employees’ pension funds of was one of the channels for siphoning off money to political parties in the “bribes for vote” scandal, known as the mensalão, which overshadowed Lula’s first term in office and wrecked any idea that the PT was more ethical than other parties it always claimed were corrupt. Fortunately, for the workers Lula stepped in this time and countermanded Lobão’s order.

The PMDB national leadership held an emergency meeting to discuss the Vasconcelos allegations and issued a brief anodyne note in which it said it would not be paying any further attention to them as Vasconcelos had not provided any concrete fact to support his claim.* It did not call him to explain what he had said nor did it threaten any kind of punishment for bringing the party into disrepute. A few annoyed Congressmen said he should leave the PMDB.

Vasconcelos, the former governor of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, was backed by Pedro Simon from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Simon said the PMDB would have to call a meeting of its ethics committee before expelling Vasconcelos, a move which he said would “destroy” the PMDB.

Oddly enough, few other prominent politicians spoke out, either to support Vasconcelos or to exploit the PMDB’s embarrassing position. Most opposition parties kept quiet (except for the left-wing PSOL) as did the PT and the government. The reason was that Lula needs the PMDB since its support shores up his government although the PMDB ensures that he pays dearly in return.

The PSDB, which is the favorite to put up the main opposition candidate in next year’s presidential election in the form of São Paulo governor, José Serra, also kept quiet. This is because it may find it also needs the PMDB’s support since if the PMDB sees that Lula’s preferred candidate, Dilma Rousseff, looks like losing to Serra it will switch its position.

The party has never been really interested in fielding a presidential candidate and prefers to use its influence behind the scenes. Sarney, for example, only became president in 1985 when the president-elect, Tancredo Neves, died before assuming office. Sarney was vice president and took office by default.

The PMDB occasionally threatens to field its own candidate but everyone knows this is a hollow threat. It has no strong candidate whose record would survive any background check for skeletons nor does it have the unity to agree on a single candidate.

Despite all this criticism, both Vasconcelos and Simon are still members of the party and the PMDB still manages to win more votes than the other parties. This goes to show that, just as you can take a horse to water you can’t make it drink so you can’t force people to vote for the “good” guys and shun the “bad” guys.

*Here is the original Portuguese version complete with the emphasis in bold type which presumably the party leadership feel strengthen its case: “Em face da entrevista do senador Jarbas Vasconcelos, a Comissão Executiva Nacional do PMDB declara que não dará maior atenção a ela em razão da generalidade das alegações. Não aponta nenhum fato concreto que fundamente suas declarações. Ademais, lança a pecha de corrupção a todo sistema partidário quando diz “a corrupção está impregnada em todos os partidos“. Trata-se de um desabafo ao qual a Executiva Nacional do Partido não dará maior relevo.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009

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