On January 25, during the Third Social Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, representatives of urban social movements affiliated with the National Urban Reform Forum started a campaign to support a referendum for removing political reform power from Congress, passing authority over to a newly-created, democratically-elected and sovereign body.

The referendum represents the largest concession that President Dilma Rousseff announced after last year’s June and July protests. Although critics say that it could end up giving too much power to the incumbent PT party, it is supported by 76 social movements and labor unions because it addresses one of the most important problems in Brazil: the fact that a full transition to democracy was never made when the military dictatorship ended in 1985.

Unlike other former dictatorships in South America, the Brazilian government refused to disband the brutal military police. It also gave full amnesty to the military and its puppet government. This meant that most congressmen and senators from the two legal political parties of the dictatorship era, ARENA [the National Renewal Alliance Party] and MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], were able to stay in power and benefit from the advantage of incumbency in future elections. ARENA changed its name to PFL [Liberal Front Party] and then to DEM [Democratas], and MDB changed its name to PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement Party]. Every president between 1985 and 2002 governed in coalition with these two parties. President Lula broke with DEM but was only able to maintain a majority block in the house and senate with PMDB, led by the widely-hated former President José Sarney.

The social movements believe that, due to the inherent structural problem of a congress that is controlled by representatives of the former military dictatorship, it is incapable of reforming the political system. Instead, they support a bottom up process of change. During the next few months they will organize a series of national protests in favor of the referendum. On April 1, on the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported military coup of 1964, the social movements will create neighborhood and village committees across the country to discuss the issue.

For Evaniza Rodrigues from the National People’s Housing Union (União Nacional de Moradia Popular, or UNMP), “The referendum is important because it doesn’t just deal with electoral issues. It proposes reflection about society’s participation in the political process. Political participation should become part of the people’s daily lives. It should be part of all of the important political decisions in Brazil. The only way for the majority of our society who are excluded from formal spaces of political participation to have a voice is through deep organizational and representational changes.” She says that the UNMP is meeting later this week to create a national mobilization plan for the referendum.

Gegê, from the People’s Movements Central (Central de Movimentos Popular, or CMP) says, “There is no way that we can fail to take part in this important referendum. It is the key to ending corruption, guaranteeing rights for workers and especially to guarantee a life of dignity in the cities and in the countryside and guarantee our right to live as citizens.  We know that there are many congressmen who are against this referendum because it will put an end to private campaign funding and if the field is leveled they will never be reelected.”

Although referendums in Brazil are not legally binding, they wield strong political pressure. The most memorable referendum in recent history took place in 2002 when President Fernando Henrique Cardoso wanted Brazil to enter the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  The social movements, that unanimously opposed it, organized a referendum. 150,000 people volunteered to work the polling stations, over 10 million people turned out and 98.3 percent of them voted against entering the FTAA, effectively killing the proposal.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais. He has a blog, focused on news reported in the Brazilian alternative media, at http://progressivebrazil.tumblr.com/