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LatinNews Daily Report - 26 June 2013

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Brazil’s Rousseff backtracks on constituent assembly

Development: On 25 June Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante announced that following consultations with senior members of the judiciary and political leaders the government would promote a national plebiscite on political reform, dropping the idea of a constituent assembly, as proposed by President Dilma Rousseff just 24 hours earlier.

Significance: The strongly negative reaction of the judiciary and senior political leaders including the vice-president, Michel Temer, to President Rousseff’s bold proposal obliged a quick re-think.

A defensive Mercadente yesterday said that the president had only been speaking in a ‘generic’ sense when she mooted a constituent assembly and explained that yesterday’s discussions with the likes of the head of the Brazilian bar association, Marcus Vinicius Furtado, and the supreme court president, Joaquim Barbosa, had resulted in “a convergence” towards the idea of a national plebiscite on political reform, whereby the Brazilian public would be asked to vote on certain proposals, which congress would thereafter legislate for. Mercadante said there was “no time” for an assembly and intimated that the government would push for a plebiscite as soon as September so that congress will have sufficient time to legislate on all the proposals, which may include some constitutional amendments, before the October 2014 general election.

Rousseff now will meet the senate and congress leaders to discuss the nature of the proposals to be put to the public, and will also ask the president of the supreme electoral court, Cármen Lúcia, to advise on the necessary preparations, he added.

Key points:

  • It is totally unprecedented to see such activity in Brasília and the estimated 1.0m or more protestors that turned out all over the country last week can congratulate themselves on having (finally) lit a match under the country’s political class. Yesterday, the senate president Renan Calheiros said that parliament could even forego its upcoming recess so as to respond to the public discontent. The congress was a hive of activity yesterday, with deputies moving at lightening speed to debate measures and pending draft bills to boost spending on health, education and transport.  Among these is a bill sent down by Rousseff to destine all future oil royalties to education (and potentially also health, according to yesterday’s congressional votes), while new measures suggested yesterday included free public transport passes for students, who by and large headed the latest protests.
  • Defending the need for a popular consultation on political reform so that citizens can exercise their constitutional right to request that the congress legislate on their behalf, the ever-more-outspoken Barbosa yesterday noted that a slew of political reform proposals had come and gone in congress for years, all failing because of a lack of political will to see them through.
  • Rousseff has not commented on what looked like a political defeat for her yesterday; Mercandente, one of the founders of the left-wing ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), was the face of the crisis. Critics in the conservative mainstream media accused the president to trying to seek political capital from the protests by separating herself from the political class – and in particular the unpopular congress – with her direct appeal to the people.
  • Her swift change of heart at least showed that the checks and balances mutually exercised by the state institutions (the presidency, congress and the judiciary) are working in Brazil. Although some opposition commentators had dubbed Rousseff’s constituent assembly proposal ‘a Bolivarian coup’, in properly Bolivarian countries – like Venezuela –  all the institutions are subservient to the presidency and so no such reaction would have been possible. When Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) wanted something done, including legally dubious constitutional or political-electoral reforms, the congress and the supreme court hopped to it without ado, and without question. (And when the public rejected a package of constitutional reforms in late 2007, Chávez later used his decree powers to get them through congress anyway, in clear defiance of the popular will).