When daily life revolves around worrying where the next meal is going to come from and paying the rent, holding corrupt politicians accountable is far down the list of priorities.
But priorities are changing in Brazil, partly due to its rising middle class, which is putting increasing pressure on the government to be more accountable and transparent, says anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“Brazil’s emerging middle class has new demands. When you are poor it is about a basic existence, a roof over one’s head. The demands of the middle class are different from the poor population. People are now caring about their children having a decent education and basic services like transport,” Alejandro Salas, Transparency International's Americas director, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Berlin.
The most recent example of Brazilians making such demands was the wave of popular discontent that swept major cities in June.
In an outburst of anger against politicians of all parties, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against graft, mismanagement of public funds, the high cost of living and poor public services.
The way Brazilians view corruption is changing, says Salas. That’s partly to do with an emerging middle class that grew by 40 million from 2004 to 2010, under the previous government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The middle class now see graft as something that has a direct impact on their lives, a trend that can bring about positive change because it means people are more likely to hold their politicians accountable.
“When people think about corruption it is usually anger directed at top level politicians and the president, and people don’t connect it to their daily lives. But now they are,” Salas said. “More people are now making the link between waste of resources, poor infrastructure, corruption and lack of accountability and how this affects their quality of life. People are making the connection and popular protests are a reflection of that.”
Following the nationwide protests, President Dilma Rousseff promised improvements in transport, health and education services, while pushing for reforms to make politicians more accountable and the way public funds are spent more transparent.
Three months after the wave of protests, there are tentative signs that politicians are starting to listen.
Earlier this month, the lower house approved a ban on the use of secret voting by politicians in both houses of Congress. The measure, which now has to be approved by the Senate, had been a key demand of the protesters.
“I think the ban on secret voting will get through. There’s a lot of pressure on the country to show advance on corruption,” Salas said. “Banning secret voting has a positive effect in democratic practices, accountability and corruption. If a voter knows how his representative is voting, that helps accountability and to keep track of how a politician is behaving.”
Over the past two years, Brazil has taken some steps in addressing graft, such as its reform of money laundering laws and access to information laws.
“Brazil is one of the latecomers in passing the access to information law. Chile and Mexico were ahead of Brazil. The law in Brazil was passed a year and a half ago and it is now working on building institutions to implement the law,” Salas said.
Political financing – how political parties are funded and how much and from whom they receive contributions during local and presidential elections – remains a key issue in Brazil, Salas says. Reforming laws on political financing would help clean up politics in Latin America’s largest economy, he added.
“At the moment, politicians have to report on expenditure during an election campaign only after elections have taken place, and compliance is low. There needs to be a law to make it clearer where campaign money is coming from and get politicians to report before and during election campaigns. This debate is not really happening yet,” he said.
Still, there are signs that the fight against corruption is making strides amid ever increasing public pressure.
“Things are moving in the right direction. It’s going to be much harder for congress not to be responsive to the demands of Brazil’s new middle class," Salas said.