Aiming for a clean record in Brazil

The passage of the Ficha Limpa (‘Clean Record’) bill is a milestone in Brazilian’s fight against corruption. Yet, its importance goes beyond the direct benefits which it will bring – hopefully, in the short term – to the Brazilian political system. The process of mobilising civil society that led to the drafting of the bill, its subsequent passage and its entry into force serves as a reference point for relations between the state and society in the global fight against corruption.

A signature to end corruption. Banner by Renato Hirata

On one hand, the organisations that spearheaded the development of the bill and collection of over one million signatures played a crucial role in shaping and vocalising public interest. By creating and expanding the space for debate, these organisations have channelled collective anger arising from political corruption into structural change. Equally important, though less visible, is the role these organisations have played in creating citizenship, by increasing the conditions required to transform outraged individuals into agents of social change, that is to say, citizens.

On the other hand, state institutions, by embracing this popularly-driven bill and responding with its drafting and passage, confirmed the maturation process of Brazil’s democracy. The ability to use grass-roots initiatives to initiate laws, which was established by the 1988 Constitution, has demonstrated itself to be an efficient mechanism. Society’s political participation is increasingly asserting itself as an enduring characteristic of the Brazilian democratic model. For its part, the responsible behaviour of the country’s political class (parties, parliamentarians and the presidency) has allowed for the possibility that such a model could promote the public interest even while simultaneously confronting the private interests of legislators – assuming that civil society also is able to execute its role to encourage the proper working of a country’s representative institutions. On a continent marked by a history of governments insensitive to the public interest and social actors traditionally driven by extreme polarisation vis-à-vis the state, the joint victory of society and state institutions in Brazil becomes even more extraordinary and exemplary.

However, a recent survey by the Sensus Institute showed that only 8% of Brazilians believe that corruption is decreasing in the country. Hence for Brazilian citizens, sceptical about the possibility of change, perhaps the most immediate importance of the new law is to bring them hope that their society is becoming more just.

Still the new bill must overcome the challenge of its effective implementation before we can celebrate it as an instrument to combat political corruption. Judging by the results of another grass-roots legislative victory on vote buying (Law 9840), there is reason to expect concrete results from the new bill. Apart from these challenges, the changes needed to defeat corruption in the political system are much more profound and comprehensive. However, once more there is reason to have hope. Brazilian society is already committed to a discussion about broader political reform and, aware of its role, will push for their representative institutions to embrace this debate and move forward with the necessary transformations.

Transparency International reasserts its support to Brazil in its fight against corruption -and congratulates the Brazilian people for their significant achievement with the Ficha Limpa bill.

This blog post was originally published by Folha de Sao Paulo on 13 June 2010 (only for registered users. Read the portuguese version here).

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