Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Corruption and Constitution in Brazil

For discussion of Dilma Rousseff's response to the protests, see Colin Snider, Boz, the Rio Times, and lots of others I am missing. I want to pose a skeptical question about the correlation between constitutional reform and reduction of corruption. There are lots of details still to be worked out, of course, but in my Latin American politics class I joke about "constitution-itis," whereby Latin American presidents too often feel that rewriting the constitution will cure more ills than it possibly can.

It is not inevitable that corruption will remain as pervasive as it is, but constitution writing is a very tricky thing. Alfred Montero* has written about the three "logics" of the Brazilian state:

1. It is both an arena for political actors to fight over authority and resources and a provider of resources to a broader arena of social and economic life.

2. The tendency for patronage politics to create ongoing political networks among individuals.

3. Patrimonialism.

Changing these logics is complicated, because they touch on electoral rules, federalism, executive-legislative relations, the courts, budgeting, and a host of other issues that go beyond what we typically think as being connected to corruption.

Rousseff's idea is to make sure the constitutional rules go from "paper to practice." But if this just means putting in some anti-corruption laws without changing the fundamental nature of the political system, then don't expect much change.

But there is hope. For Brazil, research suggests that electoral accountability can change corrupt behavior, audits can have an effect, as can party system competitiveness (on the flip side, though, Brazil has tons of parties but lots of corruption). In a sense, perhaps something much less grand than constitutional reform would be more effective.

More cynically, we could also argue that this is all smoke and mirrors anyway, a way for Rousseff to show--as so many presidents around the world feel the need to do--that she is doing "something" to deflate the protests.

*Alfred Montero, Brazilian Politics (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2005): 28-29.


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