- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

LONDRINA, Brazil — When Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday to vote in local elections, candidates accused of money laundering and other crimes could be absent from the ballot for the first time.

Electoral courts in Rio de Janeiro and here in Parana state have disqualified candidates facing criminal charges.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before,” said Marcos Faver, Rio’s chief electoral judge. “I think other states will follow our lead in the future. My hope is that we create an electoral process where the candidates have some moral responsibility and aren’t currently under investigation for drug trafficking or homicide.”

More than 300 candidates for mayoral and city council posts — about 20 percent of those running for office — were removed from the ballot in Rio.

Some had 16 charges against them.

Mr. Faver was interpreting an electability law in Brazil’s constitution that says public officials should exhibit high moral conduct and have a record showing some administrative competence. Many Brazilians would consider the clause laughable, because public opinion holds that political corruption is rampant.

The only problem with Rio’s ballot blacklist is that the candidates still can be elected because federal courts, which have the last word, have a backlog of at least 1,640 election cases.

Rio’s candidates have appealed.

Although Brazil’s political contenders are innocent until proved guilty, criminal cases can take from three to 12 years before a final judgment, giving felonious candidates plenty of time to serve in public office.

Not everyone agrees that the ban on scoundrels will become a national trend.

“You can’t kick someone off the ballot just because someone says they’ve broken the law,” said Walder Goes, a well-known political analyst in Brasilia, the nation’s capital.

Brazilian lawyers are trying anyway.

Back on the ballot

In Londrina, a city of about 470,000 a 45-minute flight west of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, judges voted unanimously to remove popular mayoral candidate Antonio Casemiro Belinati from the ballot on a technicality, saying he joined a political party at a time when it was not permitted because of his impeachment in June 2000.

Mr. Belinati appealed to the federal election court and won Thursday by one vote. He is a classic example of how charismatic politicians can win over voters despite impeachment, two arrests and 36 charges accusing him of financial crimes totaling the equivalent of $64 million. He enjoys a 15-point lead over his closest rival, a member of the Workers Party, to which Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva belongs.

“He will probably win in the first round because the Workers Party has a big level of rejection here,” said Walter Orsi, 49, a businessman who helped oust Mr. Belinati from office, earning him and his colleagues an award from Transparency International, a Germany-based group that monitors financial fraud.

If candidates fail to garner at least 51 percent of the vote on Sunday, a runoff election will be held between the top two contenders on Oct. 31.

“Guys like Belinati should not be allowed to run for office. It’s a national shame,” Mr. Orsi said.

Mr. Belinati was unavailable for comment.

‘He gets the job done’

Mr. Belinati has been elected mayor of this agriculturally rich city three times and was impeached when about 80 percent of the population supported him. That support, his backers say, came about because Mr. Belinati managed to do what no other governor had done: rescue the working class and the poor during hard times by creating large public-works projects. A new, modern neighborhood called Cinco Conjuntos (“Five Together”) was built on his watch, providing decent living conditions for more than 150,000 people.

Many politicians have been accused of taking money from city coffers during public projects such as housing and transportation, contributing to a popular Brazilian expression: “He steals, but he gets the job done.”

Nilza Teixeira, 25, says she will vote for Mr. Belinati. She is single and unemployed and can’t read or write anything except her name.

“All of my family and friends will vote for him, regardless. He’s done a lot for us,” she said, holding an election sign for Mr. Belinati.

“I don’t believe he robbed. Everyone robs, but he helps the poor.”

A third of Brazilians are considered poor by government estimates, earning per year what local politicians earn monthly.

A man carrying a pineapple crossed a two-lane road to predict that Mr. Belinati will win again. Fruit vendor Jair Molbino, 50, was not interested in the corruption charges, either.

“He gives us jobs,” Mr. Molbino said.

Hundreds of people crowded the streets beside him, walking slowly past wooden stands selling food, clothing and other goods. Stereo speakers roped to the roofs of old cars blare political slogans and promises. Every minute, there is a new car and a new song.

Mr. Belinati doesn’t have to advertise here, though.

“He’s a great guy,” Mr. Molbino declared.

Tolerating corruption

The polling firm Vox Populi says 46 percent of Brazilian voters look mainly for honesty in a candidate, but their biggest concern is how the city is run. They think a fraud suspect might do the job just fine.

In a 2000 poll by Census Institute, 35 percent said it is all right if a politician robs, as long as he provides public services. Examples abound:

• In the northeastern state of Ceara, Manoel Duca da Silveira Neto, on trial on homicide charges since 1998, was elected twice and is running for mayor of a small city.

• Rogerio Costa, 34, is being investigated on accusations of running a fraudulent debit-card operation in Maranhao, a northeastern state. He has served time in prison and is a top contender for mayor of a small town called Bom Lugar, the Brazilian newsweekly Veja reported this month.

“It’s too early to tell if Brazilians have given up on corrupt candidates. I’m not totally convinced they have,” said Claudio Weber Abramo, executive director of Transparency Brazil, the national branch of Transparency International.

“When people like Belinati win elections, it shows a complete failure of local opinion leaders and that there is no political conscience among the voters,” Mr. Abramo said.

Of the 377,000 candidates running for office on Sunday, 24 percent never went to high school and 5 percent didn’t finish elementary school, the federal government said.

That doesn’t mean that low-income Brazilians are destined to elect politicians who have had run-ins with the law. In Sao Paulo, Paulo Maluf was in first place during May in a race to unseat Marta Suplicy, the Sao Paulo mayor from Mr. Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party.

Mr. Maluf was Sao Paulo’s mayor from 1993 to 1996 and was accused of laundering $345 million from large public works projects into Swiss bank accounts — far more than the $25 million he declared on his tax returns. He was detained in Paris on money-laundering charges, but released last year. Today, Mr. Maluf’s chances of winning are considered nil, although his posters — saying “Maluf Gets the Job Done” — are everywhere in Sao Paulo.

“Brazilians are getting sick of these characters,” said Ricardo Franca, 33, a gym owner who lives in Cinco Conjuntos. “I’ve changed a lot of people’s minds, trying to explain to them that if I robbed their jewels and gave them to someone else, would they like it?”

Latin Barometer, a research firm based in Santiago, Chile, says 41 percent of Brazilians agree that “democracy is preferable to any other type of government,” down from 50 percent prior to 1996. Most of those interviewed said the Brazilian government benefits only a few.

“If the behavior of politicians doesn’t change, opinions concerning the best way to manage the state will further erode public confidence in democratic politics,” Mr. Abramo said.

President eyes Sao Paulo race

Workers Party officials are flying to Brazilian cities where their candidates are up for re-election on Sunday.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who heads the party, is most concerned about the election in Sao Paulo, a megalopolis of 33 million people where his former presidential rival, Jose Serra of the Social Democrats, is expected to beat incumbent Mayor Marta Suplicy.

Mr. Serra has promised that, if elected Sao Paulo’s mayor, he will not run for president in 2006, although few believe him. He lost against Mr. Lula da Silva by wide margins in 2002.

Pro-Lula da Silva candidates are expected to win in 51 races, compared with 39 races expected for the opposition.

“A Serra win is not a big problem for Lula,” said Ricardo Guedes, director at the Census Institute, a polling firm, using the president’s nickname. “It’ll have almost no effect on national policy or the economy — a lot of rhetoric, but nothing serious.”

Agence France-Presse

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (center), with wife Marisa (left), is backing Sao Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy (right) in her re-election bid.

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