Is Brazil taking a “U-turn”?

In Brazil, some members of the legislature are actively lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would make certain rulings by the Supreme Court subject to congressional approval.

Brazil’s Supreme Court

Not surprisingly, the current proposal by the Commission on the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship was put forward by members of the Workers’ Party, the main political group affected by the infamous Mensalão trial that was a show of independence from politics by the Supreme Court. Those politicians that have so far been able act with impunity could very well be upset, wanting to continue to bend the law.

I cheered the news of the Mensalão case in Brazil last year. In the very high profile case the country’s Supreme Court convicted 25 people in connection with a congressional bribery scheme that ran during former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term in office. Four members of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) were among those sentenced. José Dirceu, Lula’s then Chief of Staff, was convicted of running the scheme.

To date the new proposal has not gained momentum and has been sidelined by the President of the Chamber of Deputies. However, the debate has restarted in the past few days and a new offensive to promote it is expected. The process indicates that the Amendment is going to go to the plenary for a vote soon. This is seen as a direct response from the Workers’ Party to the Supreme Court’s condemnation of party members in the Mensalão case.

The effects of allowing such a law will be that, in practice, the legislative will be curbing the autonomy of the judiciary. This contradicts the spirit of democracy and, for me, also constitutes a clear obstacle to the efforts that Brazil was making to effectively fight corruption.

In my ten years at Transparency International, one of the things I have learned and I am convinced of is that our efforts to prevent corruption cannot be fully fulfilled if impunity is overwhelmingly present.

How can an individual effectively be deterred from participating in a corrupt act if punishment does not take place? Why would citizens refrain from corruption if those at the top are seen to get away with it?

The Mensalão case took place at a time when Brazil had recently approved and started implementing an access to information law to promote transparency and allow for better citizen oversight of the government. Additionally, the Ficha Limpa (Clean Record Bill, in English), a law endorsed by a citizen initiative with 1.6 million signatures in 2010, aims at preventing convicted citizens to participate in elections and being elected for public office. The law has already shown positive results. In the last local elections with hundreds of aspiring candidates convicted for corruption were barred from participating in elections.

All these developments have been, in my view, a reason to celebrate that a leading country in the region was making a big effort to combine both prevention measures with effective punishment. Even if Brazil still faces a long road ahead and many more actions need to take place, they were sending an important signal.

If high profile corruption cases are not dealt with because politics is imposed above justice, all legislative measures, and all prevention mechanisms will be severely weakened. Brazil could be at risk of being one more of the leading countries fighting corruption “on paper”.

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