By John Fitzpatrick
One of the most disturbing aspects of the ongoing scandal involving allegations that the Workers Party (PT) paid bribes to members of other parties in return for their votes in Congress is that it could lead to the Constitution being changed to prevent incumbent presidents from seeking a second term of office. This would be a bad move since it could institutionalize the volatility which has marked so much of Brazil’s history and jeopardize the relative stability of the last decade. It would also be an error to rush into making such an important change just because the PT has made a hash of its first attempt at government.
The idea of reducing the presidential mandate to one term was being considered even before this scandal broke but it has now acquired greater impetus. Unfortunately, it could come about without any real debate or thought being given to the consequences. The idea is floating around like pollen seeds from a dandelion just waiting to be grasped depending on how the wind blows. It is unlikely to be implemented for the 2006 election but should President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva be impeached or decide not to stand again then it will be snatched down and used.
The 1988 Constitution established a single four-year mandate for the President. Fernando Henrique Cardoso assumed office in 1995, thanks to the success of the Plano Real which ended years of hyperinflation. His popularity – and ego – was so great that he soon started thinking of standing again. He won Congressional support to alter the Constitution in June 1997 by allowing state governors and mayors to seek a second term as well.i Although Cardoso was criticized for devoting so much time to this issue he was right to push this change through since it gave the country much-needed continuity.
Change Brought Confidence
Once the Constitutional amendment was passed, voters, businessmen, domestic and foreign investors, governments and international institutions knew that they could look forward to a continuation of the same policies if Cardoso was re-elected. This was extremely important at a time when Brazil was being hit by the effects of the Asian and Russian crises. The value of the change was soon confirmed.
The start of the second Cardoso administration in January 1999 was marked by the decision to let the Real float. This led to a sharp devaluation, since the Real had been overvalued for some time. Brazil recovered surprisingly quickly. There were various reasons, including a loan from the International Monetary Fund and fresh policies to combat inflation by the new Central Bank President, Arminio Fraga. However, one of the main reasons why Brazil did not experience the worst predictions of some commentators and economists was because of the continuity the second Cardoso mandate brought.
Had this crisis occurred with a new inexperienced President – Lula, for example – the effects would probably have been more severe and longer lasting. Instead, the country was governed by the same President and its finances handled by the same finance minister, Pedro Malan, for a further four years. There was also a smooth hand-over of power to an opposition party in 2003 for the first time since democracy was restored almost two decades earlier.
Some observers said the Cardoso government had grown stale by the end of its second mandate and the PSDB would have stood a better chance of winning the 2002 election had the re-election not taken place. This may be true but voters behaved sensibly. In response to the reasonable economic and political stability they had enjoyed under Cardoso’s social democratic administration, they chose the new-look moderate Lula rather than the old-style leftist who had failed in three previous election campaigns. Ironically, the eight years of the Cardoso government benefited the PT. By giving society change and stability at the same time, Cardoso showed the PT that its previous policies were out of date and no longer to the electorate’s taste. The PSDB has also benefited since many of its policies have continued and it stands a good chance of fielding the next successful presidential candidate.
Benefits of Fiscal Responsibility Law
Although Cardoso’s chosen successor, Jose Serra, lost to Lula in the following election, the Cardoso government’s economic policies continued. Brazil’s economic policy is still driven by the same determination to keep inflation at bay as it was 10 years ago. It should also be recalled that the Cardoso administration left behind a great achievement – the Fiscal Responsibility Law passed in May 2000 – which holds politicians, such as state governors and mayors, personally responsible for unbudgeted expenses. This law was only passed during the second mandate and it is doubtful that it would have been passed by a one-term presidency. It is also worth pointing out that, even with an eight-year term, Cardoso still failed to pass lots of reforms in areas such as tax, social security and labor regulations. A single four or five-year term is simply too short for a giant, developing country like Brazil with its vast social and economic problems.
Despite the obvious advantages which the re-election brought it has never been really accepted by many, if not most, politicians. Lula himself has even spoken of changing the system from 2010 (after his second mandate, of course, if he wins one) as has the chairman of the House of Representatives, Severino Cavalcanti, and various other senior politicians.
Cardoso himself stoked the debate by suggesting in an interview with Exame magazine in July that Lula should announce that he would not stand again in 2006. Although Cardoso could not call for the system he himself had introduced to be scrapped he must have known that this would be the likely outcome.
The most common alternative proposal is for the four-year mandate to be extended to five years with no possibility of re-election. Thankfully, no-one has suggested the cumbersome Mexican example of a single one-off six-year presidential term. Discussion of this issue is restricted almost entirely to politicians and commentators in the media. The politicians desire for change stems from their lust for power rather than any other reason. There is no rational reason for restricting the presidential term to one mandate. This idea stems from the past and was seen as a way of preventing strongmen hanging onto power as had happened in many Latin American countries. Brazil, for example, was dominated by the figure of Getulio Vargas from 1930 to 1954. This fear is no longer valid. Are these politicians saying that Brazilian democracy is so immature that it cannot cope with having a president in power for eight years? If the United States can have eight years of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush or France have 14 years under Franois Mitterrand why cant Brazil have eight years of Lula?
Pork Barrel Politics
The one-term system may not have been good for the country but it was good for the politicians. By barring incumbents from standing, potential candidates could stand for top positions by either stepping into the shoes of their party colleague or comrade, or without having the bother of taking on an experienced incumbent. This needless artificial break meant that a new administration appeared every four years, bringing the associated disruption and turnover of staff. As soon as they attained power many of the winners installed their own teams often consisting of party hacks, business cronies and even relatives.
Congress would be better off considering ending this kind of abuse rather than ending the two-term system. The current scandal has shown the scope of the patronage and deal-making which goes on when a new administration takes over. Jobs and sinecures are parceled out across the board. The PT is estimated to have made about 19,000 special appointments, mainly to PT members or sympathizers, who, in turn, appoint their own staff. Since leading politicians have a retinue of aides and others to whom they owe favors, they hate the idea of having to wait eight years before getting a chance to enjoy the taste of power.
Some politicians have found a way round this and nominated puppets or relatives to replace them. A good example was the nomination by former São Paulo mayor, Paulo Maluf, of his finance chief, Celso Pitta, in the 1996 election. Pitta was barely known to the electorate but, with the backing of the charismatic Maluf, he beat the PSDB’s Jose Serra. He proved a disastrous choice and ended up quarreling with his erstwhile master. The losers were the citizens of São Paulo.
There is still more than a year to go before the next presidential election. If the ongoing scandal does not lead to Lula’s fall before the end of his mandate a change in the system is not inevitable. However, the chances are that a change will be considered and approved.
Living in the Fast Lane
Part of this call for change is cultural rather than political. Brazilians thrive on change. They so used to living on the brink that the idea of stability and order seems almost anathema to them, despite the Order and Progress” motto on their national flag. Standing still and taking stock is boring. Brazilians have acquired a taste for dangerous living. To confirm this you only have to watch how many drivers, some accompanied by their children, speed through red lights and endanger their own and other people’s lives for no good reason. In his book “The Brazilians”, Joseph Page refers to this national streak which crosses all social boundaries. Whether it was Fernando Collor riding a motor bike at twice the speed limit without a helmet while he was president or a boy from a favela balancing on top of a bus or train, the same recklessness is there.
This attitude displays irresponsibility and laziness. People prefer to be reactive and cope with the disorder their own lack of foresight has created. This refusal – or inability – to think or plan ahead is one of the most frustrating aspects of life in Brazil for any American or European visitor or resident. There is no doubt that Brazilians can handle crises but since many of these crises are self-created that means little.
iSome PT members of the various Congressional committees – CPIs – investigating the current scandal want to expand the investigations to this campaign to see if payments were made to win support.
John Fitzpatrick 2005
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 Comunicaes. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Previous articles by John Fitzpatrick on www.gringoes.com:
Brazil: If Lula is to Survive He Needs to Change His Tactics
Brazil: Many Parties – Few Ideas
Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
Helping the Helpless in Brazil
Pinheiros – São Paulo’s Best District
Growing Old (Dis)gracefully in Brazil
Canudos, Still With Us 100 Years Later
The Rise of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil and Portugal – The Samba and the Fado
Brazil – Just A State Of Mind
Brazil: For Lula, is Ignorance Bliss?
Brazil: Pay Day – or Pay Dirt?