Following Protests, Brazil’s President Proposes Reforms

By Rachel Glickhouse

Sweeping political reform, increased investments in public transport, and expanded healthcare services are part of Dilma Rousseff’s five-point plan.

Updated June 27 - Following large-scale protests that brought over one million Brazilians to the streets, President Dilma Rousseff announced a five-point plan for reforms on June 24. The Brazilian leader called for greater citizen participation in the political process and to harness “the new political energy” created by the demonstrations. However, parts of the plan require action from Congress, and her most ambitious recommendation for political reform hit a stumbling block.

Political reform: The president proposed several political reforms, ranging from steps to fight impunity to a polemical proposal to make major constitutional changes. As part of this, Rousseff voiced support for legislation that would classify corruption as a type of crime with greater penalties. Known as a crime hediondo, crimes such as murder and rape fall into this category. Such a step would likely be popular, as anti-corruption protesters mentioned this in their demands. One June 26, the Senate passed such legislation, which now heads to the lower house for approval.

Dilma has also said the country’s information access law should be fully implemented in order to combat corruption.

In a controversial move, Rousseff suggested holding a referendum to set up a special constituent assembly to push through political reforms. Members elected to the assembly would have broad powers to amend the constitution and change electoral laws. However, legal experts said the proposal was not legally viable; the last constituent assembly took place 25 years ago to amend the constitution following the military dictatorship.

On June 25, Marcus Vinicius Coêlho, head of the Brazilian bar association, claimed that after meeting with him, Rousseff had given up on the constituent assembly idea (The president’s spokesperson claimed the president has yet to make a decision.). Coêlho offered two alternatives, saying it would be faster to make changes to existing electoral and political party laws in Congress instead of constitutional amendments. Or, Coêlho noted, a referendum on specific political reforms could be held in as little as 45 days—ahead of next year’s presidential election. This would allow the population to directly participate in areas such as campaign finance and government transparency.

Fiscal responsibility: Many protesters lamented Brazil’s high cost of living; inflation rose 6.67 percent over the past 12 months. Rousseff noted that better management of government spending would be essential to control inflation and maintain economic stability.

Health: Investments in the public health system would be sped up, Rousseff said, as well as hiring more doctors. She also defended plans to import foreign doctors, pointing out that it was an “emergency measure” to provide health care in the country’s remote and impoverished areas where doctors are scare. She promised slots would be offered first to Brazilians before turning to foreign professionals. The president also said the number of openings in Brazilian medical schools would expand.

Transportation: Given the protests initially began because of an increase in transportation fares, Rousseff spelled out a number of measures for this sector. First, she announced another $25 billion in urban transportation, particularly for subways, bus rapid transit systems, and bus corridors. The president also announced tax breaks for diesel used by public buses and electricity used by trains and subways. She said a National Council of Public Transport would be created, and promised more transparency in determining transportation fares.

Education: Rousseff explained she had previously sent a bill to Congress that would require 100 percent of oil royalties and 50 percent of the so-called “pre-salt” royalties to be used exclusively for education, including higher salaries for teachers. “I trust that members of Congress will approve this bill currently under consideration with constitutional urgency,” she added. On June 26, the Chamber of Deputies evaluated the bill and voted to reserve 75 percent of oil royalties to education and 25 percent to health. The legislation now continues to the Senate.