Protests and Political Reform in Brazil

During this past month of June, Brazilians were divided between cheering on their national soccer team in a test tournament for the 2014 World Cup and following the great political manifestations that swept the country. While the national team became the tournament champion, manifestations organized by social media gathered hundreds of thousands of people protesting about an array of different issues, from public transportation to political corruption to the construction of stadiums for the World Cup. In some cases they protested “against all that is out there.”

Although the criticism was directed towards the politicians in office on all levels of the federation, it was up to Dilma Rousseff, true to the presidential Brazilian tradition, to provide a more organized response to the protest. On June 25, Rousseff came out in public, on national television, offering solutions for the areas of health, education and macroeconomic policy, in an attempt to address the protesters’ countless demands. During this statement, she also suggested that a political reform take place by means of a referendum. On July 2, the president sent Congress a reform proposal to initiate the debates that will produce the items subjected to public referendum. The document covers five points: campaign financing, the electoral system, the election of vice-senators, party coalitions in legislative elections, and the secret ballot in the Senate. The date of the referendum is yet to be defined, and although Dilma and the Workers’ Party (PT) want to have it in time so that  the next elections in 2014 occur under the new rules, most of the opposition parties and even key parties in the government’s coalition, such as PMDB, oppose this option.

The political reforms rapidly became the object of heated public debate, whose only consensus is about the need that something be done, but not exactly about what should be done. At first, the idea of consulting the people seemed to fit in perfectly with the concept of democracy: a regime in which the people are, or should be, the source of sovereignty. The problem is that referendums are not conducive to the formation of consensus. They are majoritarian procedures that cannot produce a middle ground produced in a process of negotiation. Furthermore, the referendum will inevitably simplify the issues for the majority of voters who, for lack of time or interest, are little inclined to dedicate their time to the study and reflection that these themes require.

Almost all of the political reform points proposed are complex and, therefore, difficult for the average voter to understand. Thus, the public debate about the reform will inevitably be simplified by marketing professionals working for political parties and interest groups, possibly generating a setback on important aspects in the current Brazilian system that guarantee broad public legitimation of government and political institutions. Among the main points are compulsory voting and proportional representation for Congress. Inflamed by the rejection of institutional politics currently taking place on the streets, and incapable of engaging in a broad and in-depth debate, voters will very likely opt for the majority system and, in the bargain, abolish compulsory voting. It would be a tremendous irony if, incited by the sentiment that politicians do not represent the people’s will, voters should opt for mechanisms that represent their longings and preferences that are even less effective.

A political reform, centered on the electoral system, may be one solution for facing the two problems that many times appear on two extremes of a continuum: governability and participation. It is indeed easier to form majorities when there are fewer parties. This increases governability, some experts say, but also entails reducing the diversity of representation. On the other hand, greater diversity in parliament means that more effort is spent in reaching negotiated agreements. However, the representatives elected in a proportional system are much more like the population that elects them, mirroring its ideological, ethnic, and cultural diversity.

The majoritarian voting method for choosing representatives for the lower houses of Parliament adopted in the United States and England tends to limit the number of effective political parties. The system facilitates the formation of majorities, but hampers a more diversified representation of society.  Thus, if the current crisis in Brazil is one of representation, this system would reduce the presence of different segments of Brazilian society in the legislative bodies. The majoritarian voting system has been advocated in Brazil by parties of the right and center-right of the political spectrum. So far they have been unsuccessful, but now they have a chance to win. Among other things, it is much simpler for the common voter to understand the system: whoever has the most votes wins the election. Furthermore, in Brazil, elections for offices within the Executive branch (mayor, governor, and president) and for the Federal Senate already adopt this system. In other words, voters are familiar with it.

The proportional system now in place for choosing representatives on all levels of the federation (municipal, state and federal) allows for the existence of a large number of parties. Even though this number may sometimes be excessive, such a system makes it easier to elect politicians attuned to issues such as minority rights, gender and race inequality, indigenous peoples, and the environment, and also representatives of the radical left. But the system is complex and difficult to understand. Since chairs are distributed to the coalitions momentarily formed during elections, and not to the parties, a candidate with many votes may not be elected, while another one with fewer votes may be elected if she finds herself in a well-voted coalition. Moreover, simply for being the system in force, proportional representation tends to be identified by the malcontents who currently reject politics and its institutions as one of the items in need of change.

Compulsory voting in Brazil is another theme to be reviewed should the apparent common sense flaunted by the media prevail. Actually, its value is more symbolic than real. People who are not willing to vote can justify their absence by either going to a voting booth in a different neighborhood or paying an insignificant fine by mail, or else nullify their vote in the electronic ballot boxes. Nonetheless, some conservative critics of the system argue that the so-called “inferior level” of representatives results from this obligation, for it forces ill-informed people to make poor decisions. This argument, loaded with social class prejudice, assumes that the less educated and those of lower income choose their representatives poorly. Such critics ignore the fact the compulsion motivates society to think about and debate the elections, making them a central part of the life of Brazilian society as a whole, and not just that of the rich and educated. Furthermore, this obligation protects the system from the low levels of legitimacy generated by low voter turnout, a systematic problem in countries where voting is optional.

Another opportunity that could be lost, due to the possible simplification and depoliticization of the debate, is the matter of campaign financing.  In the current system, private companies and individuals can donate limitless resources to candidates and parties and there is frequent use of illegal donations. Thus, reforming it can be an effective measure against corruption. It is necessary to break with the ties that bind the private financier to the politician, and to that end there are many alternatives that include partial or exclusive public financing. The challenge would be to discuss the possibility of transferring public resources to political campaigns in a tranquil and in-depth manner in a time of deep mistrust for all political institutions and politicians.

Brazil is living in its longest democratic period in its history. Alternation of power takes place smoothly and ballot results have been  accepted without upheavals since at least 1990. However, this has not deterred the greater part of the press and opposition parties from raising a systematic moralistic campaign against politics and its institutions since Lula’s victory in 2003. Partisan negotiations turn into horse-trading and politicians with a historical democratic credentials are stooped down to the level of opportunists who do not honor the offices for which they were elected. Political parties are represented as unnecessary and corrupt machines and politicians who make an anti-political discourse are turned into public heroes by the great media. In this setting of mistrust in politics, institutions such as the Judiciary and the Public Prosecution Office, whose members are not elected and are not subjected to checks and balances that guarantee their public accountability become the guardians of a democracy that regards the opinion of the poorest with suspicion. As a result, the political institutions that were built as result of the enormous sacrifice of several generations are now under the threat of being maimed, ironically enough, by the people themselves. The Left, those concerned with expanding equality and rights in Brazil, will have a difficult time in trying to avoid this outcome.

From the government’s point of view, the advantage of proposing a referendum is that of reducing the pressure from the streets. Dilma Rousseff takes the lead as she presents an agenda which, in a sense, synthesizes the demonstrations’ diffuse demands. The risk for Brazil’s democratic institutions, however, is enormous. They might need some reform, but they do not need to be demolished for their functioning to improve. Woud Dilma, PT, the radical Left or any other political agent be up for the task of preserving them?

Fábio Kerche, PhD in Political Science from the State University of São Paulo (USP) and researcher of Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa.

João Feres Junior, PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York and Political Science professor at State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP).