São Paulo, Wednesday 26 June
This has been the most extraordinary two weeks – people power has galvanised the politicians into action! Suddenly the Brazilian street has become a major player in setting the agenda. All too often, once they are elected, Brazilian representatives turn their backs on the electorate, and spend their time defending interest groups and lobbies. Some of them rarely turn up in Congress.
But on Monday night, after a week of massive demonstrations, they packed the two Houses of Congress, queued up at the microphones to pay homage to what they called “the voice”, or “the clamour” or “ the heat” of the streets, and worked late into the night voting through laws that had been waiting approval for months, sometimes years. They are running scared after seeing the placards saying “No party represents me”. And general elections are only a year and a bit away!
So the notorious `PEC 37` (shorthand for a constitutional amendment to reduce the investigative powers of the public prosecutors), which was all set to be passed but whose defeat became one of the targets of the protesters, was, instead, overwhelmingly rejected in the House of Deputies. It was after midnight when they voted to spend 75% of future oil royalties on education, 25% on health. It sounds good, but as federal deputy Ivan Valente, from the left-wing PSOL party, pointed out, it is money that will take years to appear, and what they should have voted for is to commit 10% of GNP to education.
In the Senate, president Renan Calheiros, blithely overlooking his own checquered record on corruption, paid fulsome tribute to the clamour of the streets, proposed law after law of populist measures for healthcare, education and transport and, without batting an eyelid, made a stirring speech demanding stiffer punishment for corruption. He also suggested cancelling the month long recess in July. Could it possibly be that the senators also have their eyes on next year’s elections?
Meanwhile President Dilma’s proposal for a plebiscite leading to a special constituent assembly to decide on political reform has been shot down from all sides. Jurists have told her it is unconstitutional, and politicians, alarmed at the loss of their own power, have told her it is unworkable. But most of all, it would be too slow a process – and everyone in Brazil is suddenly in a hurry.
Instead it seems that Dilma has been convinced by her own vice-president, Michel Temer, who is after all a specialist in constitutional law, that the plebiscite should ask the population to define the principal points they want changed in Brazil’s present political system. Questions like: should there be a district vote, or proportional representation? Should corporate funding be abolished? Should campaigns be state-funded? Should independent candidates be allowed to stand?
Politicians have been saying for years that political reform is a priority – but they have never done anything to make it happen. For those inside it, the system is too cosy to change. Now people power has pushed it right up the agenda. The plebiscite will probably take place in August, giving Congress time to approve the law implementing the decisions by 3rd October, a year before the 2014 elections. That means the changes will be valid for those elections.
Tuesday in São Paulo saw more protests, but this time they took place in the periphery, the sprawling, deprived outer circle of overcrowded, self-built slums that surrounds the prosperous residential districts of the city centre. Instead of huge crowds surging down wide avenues, past glass and steel office towers, smaller groups of people bravely picked their way down potholed streets past rubbish-strewn streams. The weather conspired against them with drenching rain. Besides the placards of the middle- class protesters, they added their won – “No to Police Violence” and “No to Evictions”. The governor (elections, anyone?) received a group of them, and announced an increase in the “social rent”, the sum paid to those left homeless by fire or evictions, from R$300 (£90) to R$400 (£120) a month.
In Brasilia today the grassy slope in front of Congress was covered with 594 footballs, placed by an NGO and meant to symbolise “we are passing the ball to you, Congress” (there are 594 deputies and senators). But now that people have discovered people power, who says they are ready to give it up?