Brazil Leader Suffers Setback on Overhaul

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil -- One of President Dilma Rousseff's signature efforts to temper the huge protests shaking Brazil suffered a setback on Thursday, as leaders of her governing coalition agreed to pursue a plebiscite on political overhauls but fell far shy of meeting her call to hold one right away.

The president, whose approval ratings have fallen sharply since the protests began last month, has pushed for Brazilian voters to weigh in on changes to the tangled Brazilian political system this year, in time for them to go into effect by elections next year. But it falls to Congress to call such a vote.

Vice President Michel Temer emerged Thursday from a meeting with leaders of the governing coalition in Congress's lower house and told reporters that "the majority" had agreed to a plebiscite to be held next year and to go into effect by 2016 at the earliest. "It is always good to listen to the people," he said.

The decision was widely seen as a loss for Ms. Rousseff. "It is certainly a defeat for the president," said Frederico de Almeida, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. "It is not what she had hoped for. It also shows the difficulty the political class in general is having in responding to the protests."

While the president and other politicians have publicly sympathized with the protesters, passing major changes remains daunting and demonstrations continue to simmer across the country. Still, some changes have come at a surprising pace, including harsher penalties for government corruption and rollbacks of transit fares. Legislation to put 75 percent of oil royalties toward education and 25 percent toward health care -- two areas that have been a focus of the protests -- is moving quickly through Congress.

But political change has proved sticky for Ms. Rousseff. She first called for a constituent assembly, but withdrew the proposal under criticism from politicians and legal experts. Then she proposed a plebiscite to be held in time for changes to take effect by next year's election, meaning the vote would have to be held, and subsequent congressional legislation enacted, by early October. That became more complicated when the country's highest election authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, determined that it would need 70 days to hold the vote, leaving little time for Congress to act.

The opposition has been against the plebiscite from the beginning, but for her own ruling coalition not to embrace her timetable underscored the president's struggles to control her ranks.

In an interview, Brazil's justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, who attended the meeting, said there was still a possibility of holding the vote in time and objected to characterizing the outcome as a setback. "The fact that political reform has been placed on the agenda for debate is a great victory," he said.

Efforts at political change go back to the 1990s, but the process had moved slowly -- when it moved at all -- until the protests. Ms. Rousseff has proposed that the plebiscite include votes on public financing for elections, a possible restructuring of Brazil's opaque representative system, and the end of "secret" votes by legislators on some congressional decisions.

David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasília, said the debate over the plebiscite showed that "the politicians don't want to do a political reform, they want to keep the same system that helped them get elected. Unless there is much stronger and acute pressure from the street, they're not going to do anything."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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