By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - In a country that has taken big strides toward greater transparency in government in recent years, the Brazilian Congress is out of step.
The lower chamber of Congress voted overwhelmingly on Monday for Henrique Alves to become its speaker, even though he is under investigation for graft. The selection of Alves came after the Senate chose a new leader who is also accused of corruption.
Ordinary Brazilians see the choices as a step backward in an unprecedented clean-up in Brazilian politics in the past two years that saw six ministers fired because of corruption allegations and a judiciary crackdown on political graft.
Alves is a veteran of 42 years in Congress who survived corruption allegations a decade ago when his ex-wife said in a bitter divorce that he had stashed $15 million in offshore accounts. Prosecutors are still investigating her allegations.
On Friday the Senate chose Renan Calheiros as its president. He was forced to resign from the post in 2007 due to a scandal involving payments by a lobbyist to maintain his former mistress.
"The extracurricular activities of these two characters are well known," said political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia. "Their election is bad for Congress' worsening reputation."
Both men represent states in the poorer northeast of Brazil where traditional crony politics still prevail. They belong to the largest political party, the PMDB, the most important ally in President Dilma Rousseff's coalition government.
Rousseff established a reputation for not tolerating corruption by firing six ministers in her first year in office in 2011, which made her very popular among middle-class Brazilians despite a stagnating economy in the once-booming Latin American nation.
She distanced herself from corruption scandals that have implicated officials in the government of her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
But it is the judiciary that has made the biggest splash in recent efforts to clean up Brazilian politics. In a landmark case, the Supreme Court convicted leaders of the ruling Workers' Party for buying votes in Congress to support Lula's government a decade ago.
It was Brazil's biggest political corruption case and the Supreme Court did not hesitate in convicting Lula's close political associates, including his former chief of staff Jose Dirceu.
POLITICS AS USUAL
Among those convicted in the so-called "mensalao" - or big monthly payment - case were four members of Congress. But when the Supreme Court ruled that they should be stripped of their political rights, the reply from Congress was a flat refusal.
Its reluctance to expel corrupt politicians has enhanced the views of many Brazilians that officials elected to Congress are enriching themselves at the expense of the nation.
Opinion polls show that Brazilians believe their political parties are among the most corrupt institutions, along with the police, with the military and the churches seen as the cleanest.
"At this time when political activity is so vilified, I want to express my sincere appreciation for the indispensable work of the Congress," Rousseff said in a message of encouragement to legislators at the start of the new session of Congress.
The election of scandal-tinged leaders, however, will further undermine the legislature's reputation and reduce its influence, said opposition congressman Chico Alencar of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSoL), who was a long-shot candidate to head the lower house.
"Congress has lost ground because these two men belong to the PMDB, a party whose only interest is staying in power," Alencar said. "This is a victory for clientelist politics. What's worse is that they could be indicted for corruption."
Changing Brazilian politics will be an uphill battle, skeptical Brazilians say.
"It's hard to get rid of corrupt politicians. The people vote for them because they want handouts of bricks or houses or jobs," said taxi driver Everaldo Barbosa. "That's the Brazilian political system. The populace likes it that way."
(Additional reporting by Jeferson Ribeiro; Editing by Bill Trott)