March 4, 2009 / 9:12 PM / 10 years ago

Brazil fires governors in election fraud crackdown

BRASILIA, March 4 (Reuters) - A Brazilian court on Wednesday stripped a state governor of his job for buying votes, its second such ruling in two weeks, as the world’s fourth-largest democracy cracks down on election fraud.

Another five Brazilian governors face similar charges and could be forced out of office.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal in Brasilia stripped Jackson Lago, governor of the northeastern state of Maranhao, of his mandate. In 2006, police arrested a Lago campaigner who they said was riding his motorcycle door to door and carrying 17,000 reais ($7,100) in cash to buy votes. Lago voters testified that they received money from the campaign worker.

Lago denies wrongdoing and said he would appeal the decision.

Last month, the court found Cassio Cunha Lima, governor of the northeastern state of Paraiba, guilty of the same charges and ordered him to step down.

The court’s rulings are seen as a long-overdue enforcement of the law in a country where electoral fraud is still common, especially in distant rural states dominated by powerful families.

“There is no doubt that decisions like these are moralizing and are a warning to those who want to use public money and positions to re-elect themselves or a successor,” Alexandre Garcia, a columnist for TV Globo, said.

Analysts say the court became more proactive after a high-profile campaign financing scandal involving members of the ruling Workers’ Party pushed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to the brink of impeachment in 2005.

“They are applying the law more aggressively,” said Claudio Abramo, executive director of Transparencia Brasil, an anti-corruption advocacy group.

ENDEMIC CORRUPTION

But recent graft revelations suggest that broad political corruption, particularly in Congress, remains a stubborn problem in Latin America’s biggest country and economy.

Former union leader Lula promised an assault on poverty and endemic corruption when he came to power in 2003. While poverty has fallen sharply, progress against corruption has been slow at best.

Critics say Congress lacks transparency and controls, and that many legislators are there to enrich themselves. A proposal by Lula to regulate campaign financing has languished in Congress for years.

“It’s a factory of corruption. They have no interest in cleaning up,” Abramo said. “Legislators give support to the government in exchange for money and the promise not to be investigated.”

This week, the director-general of the Senate admitted he failed to declare a house worth 5 million reais on his tax return.

Last month, the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, stepped down over allegations he embezzled office expenses to help build a 36-room castle. He denies wrongdoing.

In response to a proposal that office expenses worth 15,000 reais per month be documented with receipts, several legislators have proposed including the expenses in their salary.

When Senator Jarbas Vasconcellos denounced what he said was widespread corruption in his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement party on Tuesday, the party promptly forced him to step down as chairman of the justice committee.

Polls frequently show less than 1 percent of Brazilians trust Congress and many believe the country would work better without it.

($ = 2.38 reais)

Additional reporting by Fernando Exmand, Carmen Munari and Fabio Murakawa; editing by Stuart Grudgings

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