RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's nationwide municipal elections Sunday may have been most notable for who won't be taking office.
A newly effective "Clean Record" good-governance law bars people convicted of a wide range of crimes from serving in political office. This was the first full nationwide election held under the measure since it was upheld by Brazil's Supreme Court.
Observers say the bill is a watershed in Brazilian politics, long dominated by strongmen who milk the system for personal gain and that of their cronies, and who often resort to shady tactics to hold onto power.
"It's a radical change of culture, vision and moral compass," said Jorge Sanchez, president of the anti-corruption watchdog group Amarribo Brasil. "It's the beginning of a long, slow process, but one that I'm confident will change the political landscape here in five to 10 years so that it's upstanding people and not the tainted ones who will start to naturally gravitate toward politics."
Under the measure, those convicted of charges such as fraud, drug trafficking, money-laundering, sexual assault and murder are barred from running for public office for eight years. Previously, those with criminal records were only ineligible if their cases could no longer be appealed to a higher court, a glacial process in Brazil's overstrained justice system, where appeals can run on for decades.
"We've seen cases in years back where people with known links to organized crime, drug traffickers and other criminal groups get into politics as a way of shielding themselves from prosecution, and that of course is very detrimental to the whole system," said Ricardo Ismael, a political science researcher at Rio's PUC Catholic University.
The law was the fruit of a rare show of grassroots organizing. Supporters flooded lawmakers with some 4 million emails as well as a 1.3 million-signature petition. The mobilization was so effective that even those legislators who spoke against the measure ended up voting for it, and it passed the Senate unanimously in 2010.
Voters lining up in Rio's beachside neighborhood of Ipanema to choose their mayor welcomed the law, but some held back their judgment of its effectiveness, saying they'd have to see it work before believing it was really going to change the culture.
"It's about time," said Vinicius da Mata Oliveira, a retiree. "My whole life I've been seeing people run for office that I wouldn't trust to take care of my dog. The country is changing for the better; this is an essential part of that change."
Waiting next to him, Fernando de Aguiar Fonseca said he'd need to see dirty candidates not being allowed to take office before he'd really believe the law was here to stay.
"Some laws here don't 'stick'," he said. "I want to see them thrown out. I want to see these guys whose families have power, who have friends and connections and important patrons in politics, not be allowed to take office. Then I'll say, yes, things are changing."
Already, kinks have emerged.
Out of the roughly 480,000 candidates running for mayor or city council in 5,565 cities and towns across Brazil, 2,969 are being examined by Brazil's top electoral court in connection with the Clean Record law. The volume of red-flagged candidacies is so high that the court has processed only 764 of them to date — and it has not released a list of the candidates it has barred from taking office even if they win their races.
A spokeswoman for the court said that the list will be released in the coming days and that the court hopes to get through all the cases by December, before the newly elected officials take office. If the court disqualifies a winning candidate, the second-place finisher would take office instead.
The two biggest races Sunday were for mayors of Rio de Janeiro and of Sao Paulo, South America's biggest metropolis.
In Rio, Mayor Eduardo Paes won in the first round, with 65 percent of the vote. In Sao Paulo, two-time presidential candidate and former governor Jose Serra will face former education minister Fernando Haddad in a run-off Oct. 28.
The Clean Record law is part of a broader crackdown on corruption that has swept Brazil. The Supreme Court is deliberating on a cash-for-votes case with defendants that include dozens of legislators as well as the former chief of staff for hugely popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Current President Dilma Rousseff is seen as being tough on corruption. She's forced out seven of her ministers who have faced allegations.
Associated Press writers Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo and Juliana Barbassa in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
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