I was quite impressed when I heard that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff concluded her first year in government a few days ago with an approval rating higher than that of her predecessor, the charismatic Lula da Silva.
Her popularity is currently close to 75 percent. Her government’s approval is at 56 percent, which is even better than the 51 percent Lula had when he finished his first twelve months in office. I believe this is a result of her image of being intolerant towards corruption and providing sound economic management in times of global crisis.
The economy aside, it is interesting to look at the public perception of Rousseff’s strong stance against corruption. Rather than being negatively affected by the fact that she was surrounded by corrupt public servants holding some of the highest positions in her cabinet, the public seems to reward her for separating herself from them as soon as allegations come to light. In the space of only six months, six ministers lost their jobs amid various corruption scandals.
However, her push for anti-corruption does not end with those highly visible actions. President Rousseff signed into law a freedom of information bill that enshrines people's right in the country’s constitution. Through this measure citizens can know how their government works and spends tax money.
Rousseff is also co-leading the Open Government Partnership together with US President Obama, pressuring Brazil to be the forerunner in transparency commitments. These include increasing the availability of government information, encouraging public participation, implementing the highest standards of professional integrity throughout the administration, and opening access to new technologies for accountability.
Thus, Rousseff combines an attitude of zero tolerance towards corrupt officials with structural reforms and longer term policies. This approach has the potential to be a winning formula as it translates into a more open, inclusive and modern government, and at the same time gives politicians popularity and respect. Politicians that fight corruption only on one level tend to show poor results and let their citizens down.
Most of the elections that took place in Latin America a decade ago featured a strong anti-corruption discourse during the campaigns. Vicente Fox in Mexico, Alejandro Toledo in Peru, Enrique Bolaños in Nicaragua and even Lula in his first election in Brazil, to name just a few, committed themselves to fighting corruption before taking office. As a result, voters’ expectations were high, especially as many of these countries were suffering from highly corrupt environments.
Regardless of whether the political promises made during the campaigns were sincere or not, what these politicians ended up doing was a losing formula: they raised public expectations but barely delivered. One of their mistakes was that they did not diversify their strategy.
President Fox in Mexico promoted structural reforms, but did not take enough action against corrupt officials. In Nicaragua, Bolaños bravely went after his former boss, President Arnoldo Alemán. That made him popular for a few months, but he still failed to move with the same speed and determination on the longer term reforms. Similarly, Toledo in Peru did not capitalize after Former President Alberto Fujimori’s fall, and instead of a major anti-corruption push, his policies and plans were structurally weak.
After a couple of years without tangible results, voters feel disenchanted and politicians decide to move away from the anti-corruption agenda as it seems to provide a lot of work, gets them a lot of enemies within the political structure and, in political terms, they get little return for their ‘investment’.
President Rousseff seems to have learned from these experiences. She avoided grandiose promises during her electoral campaign. Now, in office, she is punishing the corrupt as well as promoting key structural reforms and longer term policies.
Of course, there are still major challenges ahead and what we have seen in the past months is just a start, but so far she is setting an encouraging example for other politicians in the region.
2012 is a year in which several elections will take place in Latin America, including in Mexico, the other big economy in the region besides Brazil. Contending politicians there should have a look at what President Rousseff is doing and get inspiration from her formula. Fighting corruption provides political incentives and is welcomed by the population.
So, politicians, don’t be shy, go for it!
Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter @ASalasTI The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.