Rousseff cancels constituent assembly plan to usher in social changes

Reforms instead likely to be presented in direct vote before next year’s general election

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (r) smiles next to her Chief of Staff Gleisi Hoffmann during a meeting with union representatives in Planato Palace on Wednesday.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (r) smiles next to her Chief of Staff Gleisi Hoffmann during a meeting with union representatives in Planato Palace on Wednesday.EVARISTO SA (AFP)

Brazil’s opposition parties and judiciary on Tuesday came out against President Dilma Rousseff’s decision to introduce social reforms by calling a constituent assembly as an answer to the massive protests that have overtaken the nation over the past 20 days.

After holding a round of meetings with the nation’s top legal experts and congressional leaders, Rousseff backtracked on the assembly idea but a government official announced that a referendum will be held with questions on reforms to be put to voters.

After days of keeping a low profile while heated protests engulfed Brazil, Rousseff on Monday surprised the entire nation by announcing plans to put together a constituent assembly to change the 1988 Constitution. But her proposal cast serious doubts among the opposition and judiciary. Even the organizers of the Free Pass Movement, the grassroots group that has organized the demonstrations, were left indifferent.

Marcus Vinicius Coelho, president of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), advised Rousseff during a meeting on Tuesday that all that was needed were modifications to the Electoral Law and the Law of Political Parties — proposals that could be presented in a referendum. Coelho told reporters the president accepted his ideas but Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo, who called them “interesting,” said that they were just a few of many the government would study.

No one can call a constituent assembly with an already prescribed agenda"

Afterwards Education Minister Aloizo Mercadante announced that the government had decided to call a referendum, without going through a constituent assembly, so that eventual reforms could be enacted before parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2014.

“There is no time to organize a constituent assembly and the Chamber of Deputies has come out against it, so the only possible thing is a referendum,” the minister said in statements reported by Spain’s Efe news agency. In the coming days Rousseff’s government will meet with the leaders of the opposition to draft the specific questions that will be put to voters.

Earlier Luis Roberto Barroso, a newly appointed justice on the Supreme Court who in 2011 came out publicly against a constituent assembly, slammed Rousseff’s initial proposal. “No one can call a constituent assembly with an already prescribed agenda. A constituent assembly doesn’t have any type of set agenda,” he said.

There was also fierce opposition from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), one of Rousseff’s major political allies in Congress. Many lawmakers also said that the idea for the assembly to bring about political and social reforms was unnecessary.

Rousseff’s offer came after hundreds of thousands of Brazilians had taken to the streets in different cities on a nightly basis to demand better services and more representative government. On June 17, some 250,000 people took part in a massive nationwide protest, the biggest mobilization of citizens seen in 20 years. The protests grew after demonstrations against public transportation hikes were held on June 6.

In response to the protests, the Chamber of Deputies on Tuesday voted against a proposal that would have limited the powers of prosecutors, a change demonstrators had been opposed to.

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