Opinion by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, last week made a sweeping proposal to reform the French political system. Among the proposed measures are the elimination of a special tribunal, or “privileged forum”, that tries politicians.
That tribunal, composed of members of Parliament and France’s Supreme Court, has never sent a ranking political figure to jail.
In Brazil, just as in France, there is a “privileged forum” for politicians holding federal elective or executive office—they can only be tried by the Supreme Court (STF).
So if you committed graft as the mayor of a town, and then successfully ran for legislative office, or wangled an appointment as a member of the presidential cabinet, you continue to escape the lower court system and, in ninety percent of the cases, avoid punishment by reason of delay.
The good news is that a pending STF case would deny this escape route to politicians for crimes committed before their most recent election. This would ensure speedy trials and reduce the STF’s immense backlog of criminal cases. Needless to say, the executive and legislative branches are fighting hard to defeat this case and retain their privilege.
Perhaps the most important Macron proposal would be to prohibit politicians from simultaneously holding local and federal governmental posts. Currently, a French politician can be the mayor of a town and also a member of the federal parliament. Under Macron’s proposal, elected politicians would have to choose one or the other level of government.
The (unfortunately) similar situation in Brazil is that of “substitute” members of Congress, called “suplentes”. When members of the Chamber of Deputies assume a position in the executive branch (e.g. Minister of Whatever) their place in Congress is taken by a “suplente” who gains the “privileged forum”. But if Ministers lose this executive position, they return to the legislature and the “suplente” goes back to being an ordinary citizen, without privilege.
Last week saw doomed President Temer egregiously abuse the “privileged forum” and “suplente” structures, as he desperately sought to keep two of his henchmen out of jail. In one case, he re-edited a Medida Provisória creating an unnecessary Ministry to which he had appointed Moreira Franco, a long-time confidant being investigated at the STF. This re-appointment avoids the case file being sent to Judge Moro in Paraná and Moreira Franco being sent to jail.
In an even more blatant case, Temer proposed switching the Ministers of “Justice” and “Transparency”, because the former Justice Minister was being investigated at STF. The Minister, however, preferred to return to his position as a federal Deputy, because he could keep his “privileged forum”. It also meant, however, that his “suplente” in Congress had to step down and become a private citizen, losing his privilege.
The congressional “suplente” for the Minister was none other than one of Temer’s unofficial “advisors”: Deputy Rocha Loures, the guy who, in a police sting operation, was video recorded receiving a bag containing R$500,000 in cash to be given to Temer. Bag man (and former Deputy) Rocha Loures is now in jail, and is expected to plea bargain—one of Temer’s worst nightmares.
Were the Brazilian Constitution amended to eliminate both “suplentes” and the “privileged forum” for government officials, it would go a long way towards eliminating the institutional structure that encourages corruption and graft.
The Curmudgeon does not know whether Macron will achieve his goal in France, but he doubts that the corrupt Brazilian Congress will ever willingly give up its privileges; that will depend upon the STF decision.