As is the case in many countries of the world, it was not uncommon for candidates running for political office in Brazil to have a criminal record. The Economist magazine has reported that, at one point, nearly twenty five percent of sitting members of Congress in the country faced criminal charges in the Supreme Court or were under investigation. Most of the crimes involved either violating campaign-finance laws or stealing public money through corruption. The existing law allowed politicians to be tried by the Court, but many cases lapsed before they were heard. Even when the candidates were convicted, the law allowed them to emerge right back, to stand in the next election.
Instinctively, a popular people’s movement emerged to put an end to this parliamentary immunity. The movement culminated with the creation of a new Ficha Limpa (Clean Record) law that will disqualify politicians who are convicted of violations of electoral statutes or crimes involving the use of public funds from running for office for at least eight years.
The popular people’s initiative started with a coalition of civil society organizations, called the Movement for Fighting Electoral Corruption. This group organized and promoted on-the-ground signature campaigns, which was later joined by Avaaz.com providing extensive online advocacy. The logistics involved in this effort were staggering, not only in manually collecting the signatures along with voters’ identity certificates but also in mobilizing and training volunteers through street and online campaigns. In the end, the movement was successful in collecting 1.6 million signatures manually with an additional three million online supporters of the bill.
In June, 2010, two years after the start of popular people’s initiative, the President of Brazil signed the bill into law and the revolutionary, Ficha Limpa (Clean Record) Law was born. The Brazilian Superior Electoral Court has ruled that the law will apply not just to those convicted in the future, but also to those who have existing criminal records as well as those who resigned under a cloud of suspicion during the current congress. Since the bill has passed, over 330 candidates running for office are facing disqualification, according to The Center of Brazilian Studies .
What is more remarkable is that just the day after the Ficha Limpa Law went into effect, protests against officials suspected of criminal activity were launched in 13 cities in the southern state of Parana. The Brazilian online magazine, Infosurhoy  reports that the protests were against corruption and the scandals involving allegations of legislators’ paying fictitious employees and embezzling public money in the Parana Legislation Assembly.
It is hoped that the popular people’s movement will have a significant impact on the mindset of voters throughout the country even if enforcement of the law is lax. Previously-accepted norms have been challenged and likely changed, raising the standards to which Brazilian politicians are held. As the Brazilian political analyst, Nelson Rosario de Souza puts it, “it’s a complex thing for the population to analyze all the characteristics of a candidate. But if the politician undergoes Ficha Limpa screening, voter’s analysis will be easier.”
Photo Credit: KRC (flickr user)