Opinion by Samantha Barthelemy

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One week after Brazil’s presidential elections, history is somewhat still waiting to be made. On October 31st, 55.7 million Brazilians didn’t just elect their first female president, a laudable and historic feat. They voted for condoning the corruption entrenched in the Workers’ Party (PT) government.

Samantha Barthelemy, Carioca in New York specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications.

It is easy to understand how Dilma Rousseff won – she now has outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to thank for his role as her campaigner-in-chief – but it remains difficult to grasp why Brazil did not vote against the eight-year-long fraudulent rule of the PT.

Ranked 69 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index, corruption is endemic in Brazil. Even though no political party can claim a monopoly over the practice, the Workers’ Party and its allies have been connected to all major scandals in recent years.

Amongst the most notorious is the 2005 Mensalão (“big monthly payment”), involving allegations that the PT paid a number of congressmen monthly allowances of around R$30,000 (roughly US$17,900) to secure votes for legislation. In June 2006, Rousseff, then Minister of Energy and Mines, was appointed Chief of Staff when her predecessor, José Dirceu, once da Silva’s likely successor, was forced to resign for his orchestration of the Congress vote-buying scheme.

Brazil’s Supreme Court indicted 40 people in 2007, on charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering arisen from the Mensalão. Brazil’s attorney-general said Dirceu, the “scheme’s architect”, ran a “sophisticated criminal organization” to buy votes. Although, according to The Economist, nearly half of Congress was turned out, a dozen individuals involved in the scheme remained in the legislature. Dirceu, who was stripped of his political rights for eight years, has been playing a central role in Rousseff’s team.

In early September 2010, members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party were implicated in the illegal access of the tax records of José Serra’s daughter, the defeated presidential candidate, and of PSDB members, including the party’s vice-president, Eduardo Jorge Caldas Pereira.

Erenice Guerra, da Silva’s former Chief of Staff who took over when Rousseff stepped down to campaign for president, resigned in mid-September amidst allegations of taking bribes to procure government contracts for businesses. This tarnished Rousseff’s image who, albeit not directly linked to the accusations, had a long-standing personal relationship with Guerra, often referred to as “Dilma’s right hand woman”.

Rousseff’s ratings wavered slightly in the polls which, analysts say, pushed her once certain first round victory on October 3rd to the runoff on October 31st.

Whether the newly elected president is involved in corruption is hard to tell. What we can do with certainty is hope that Rousseff, who has never held elected office, will surprise us by making a clear commitment to clean her government and distance herself from dubious characters, namely José Dirceu. She has to.

Fears of Brazil’s legacy of corruption are amplified by the discovery of deep-sea oil reserves (known as pré-sal), which have a habit of providing a lucrative means of rewarding party and president loyalty.

It will take a very determined and skilled president to push the much-needed political reforms through a system run on whims of special interests. It is too early to know whether Rousseff will have the strength and desire required to do so, or whether her powers will be constrained from within. Unlike the outgoing president, Rousseff did not rise through the PT. Her unexpected candidacy was imposed on the Workers’ Party by da Silva, once his most likely successors were directly implicated in corruption scandals.

We can also be certain that, if Rousseff decides to take on this challenge, she will have a tough time. As Dirceu told a group of PT members in September, whereas da Silva is “twice as big as [the Workers’] Party”, he expects the party to be even more powerful under Dilma Rousseff. Will she be up to the task?

A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com


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