For Brazil’s Rousseff, Uprooting Corruption No Easy Task

For Brazil’s Rousseff, Uprooting Corruption No Easy Task

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s Cabinet has undergone enormous change during her first year in office, with seven ministers sacked, all but one under a cloud of corruption, and at least two more teetering under corruption allegations. Many in the commentariat have been quick to laud these firings as proof of Rousseff’s diligence in fighting sleaze, and her personal approval rating is now higher than that of her two immediate predecessors at the same stage in their first terms. A complete Cabinet overhaul is rumored for the new year, when Rousseff may reorganize the coalition she inherited from her predecessor, the charismatic Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. While expectations are high, the reshuffle seems unlikely to address the underlying roots of the problem, which go far beyond the president and her willingness to clean house.

Brazil’s political system has long operated according to a dangerous compromise, whereby the president is given the tools to govern in exchange for handing out ministries and political appointments to allied parties. The proliferation of parties, ministerial-level positions and political appointments -- currently standing at 29, 39 and more than 23,000, respectively -- has allowed presidents since the mid-1990s to cobble together coalitions that regularly approach three-quarters of Congress. This permitted presidents to govern and implement the difficult constitutional reforms that were needed to drag Brazil into the new century with fiscal balance and economic stability. In exchange, though, the parties that make up the governing coalition are given a relatively free hand in running their ministerial fiefdoms.

Many of Rousseff’s allies, including Lula himself, claim that most corruption serves electoral purposes, aimed primarily at financing the costly campaigns needed to compete in Brazil's expensive elections. But whatever one's take on the dubious ethics of this claim, it overlooks the many instances of serious wrongdoing that involve procurement kickbacks, abuse of office and mysteriously ballooning personal wealth. The alleged sins of the ministers let go in 2011, for example, include hiring domestic help at public expense, drawing two public salaries simultaneously, obtaining kickbacks from NGOs hired to provide training programs, effecting fraudulent budget transfers, forging documents used in public bidding, intimidating low-level civil servants and cultivating inappropriate ties to local businessmen and their private jets.

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