Political reform, but in what way?

brasilobserver - May 20 2015

(Leia em Português)

It should be noted how different the projects on the agenda are: Eduardo Cunha is looking for private financing and facultative votes, and the Coalition for Democratic Political Reform and Clean Elections logic is public funding and the empowerment of parties and ordinary citizens


By Francisco Fonseca*

Brazil’s current political system was structured during the last military government (1979-1985), commanded by General João Baptista Figueiredo and articulated by Golbery do Couto e Silva. The goal was to contemplate democratic demands (multi-party system) while maintaining the status quo, which led, on the one hand, to unpunished military atrocities and, on the other, to limited structural reforms: political, social and economic. The democratization came and the backbone of the political system has not changed, because:

a) The multi-party system was brought to its final consequences: today 28 legal parties participate in the political game, most of them considered “balcony parties”, interested in exchange of favours;

b) The funding of political parties and electoral campaigns was consolidated in mixed form (public party fund and legal private funding), but with a third decisive form, illegal: the so-called “caixa dois”, or slush fund. Government priorities pass through the composition of governments (power distribution to groups with very different interests) and the logic of “governability” with immense “bases of support”, making the slush fund an informal institution. Regardless of parties and governments, what can be seen, since the return to democracy, is a succession of scandals, which are rooted from the financing of parties/campaigns with legal and illegal private money;

c) The “governability at all costs” deepened to an extent that any coalition government pays a high political cost – notably the ideological parties, when they win elections to the Executive – to rule, losing identity (notorious case of the ruling Workers Party).

d) The most distinct distortions have occurred: coalitions in proportional elections, implying that the citizen vote for a candidate and elect another from and another party; the logic that the defeated parties also govern, on account of the need for parliamentary majority at any cost; the controversial disproportionate representation in the Chamber of Deputies; among others;

e) The institutional/legal mechanisms of supervision, although improved, were not able to undo the logic of public life privatization;

f) The depoliticizing role of the mainstream media has formed generations of citizens easily manipulated and incapable of minimally reflecting on the fundamental aspects of the political process.

Due to this set of problems, there have been many political reform proposals since the return to democracy. Thus, two major proposals have been consolidated since last year as clearly antagonistic projects – and that should get attention now that Congress evaluates a number of measures that could change the rules of Brazil’s political game.

From the conservative side, there is an Amendment to the Constitution Proposal, authored by former Federal Deputy Cândido Vaccarezza (Workers Party) and taken over by the current president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) that practically institutionalizes the private financing of political parties and electoral campaigns through a system of “choice”, that is, whether public, private or mixed; establishes the facultative vote; and prevents re-election to executive positions; among other measures, more or less conservative, but less relevant because the first two are sufficient to waive the entire struggle for reforms and institutionalize the worst things in the country’s politics.

The so-called “privatization of public life” – private funding (legal and illegal) as a true pillar, making the price of electoral campaigns stratospheric; prevents small ideological parties from having a chance to compete with the major parties that “play the game”; transforms the powers of the State and much of its actions in “business balconies”; encourages the existence of infinite political parties and attracts politicians without any commitment to democracy and without the slightest sense of “public service”; makes politics elitist, preventing structurally popular reforms; discourages political participation of ordinary citizens, paving the way for company lobbies and all forms of influence trafficking. All this supported, coordinated and amplified by the media apparatus, a kind of “organic intellectual” of the capital and middle classes that manages it.

The facultative vote is basically the overthrow of any vestige of popular democracy, which is a paradox. After all, in a country where people historically disbelieve State institutions and the political system, the optional vote – whose image is the idea that “rights are not obligatory” – strongly tend to exclude the poor from political life. The plutocracy closes the circle: the origin, via private capital, and the dynamics, through the vote of the middle classes and the rich.

On the opposite side, several organizations have been organized around the Coalition for Democratic Political Reform and Clean Elections, which brings together more than a hundred entities, including Brazil’s Order of Lawyers (OAB), the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), trade unions and numerous others, from most distinct natures, but with a single purpose: to reform the Brazilian political system in a truly democratic perspective.

The pillars of the proposal, which needs 1.5 million signatures to be presented to Congress, are based on the prohibition of private financing to parties and candidates; the list’s vote in two rounds for legislative positions: in the first round vote to a list of candidates submitted by the party and, in the second round, on a specific candidate; end of proportional coalitions; parity between men and women on party lists; and strengthening of direct democracy mechanisms with the participation of society in important decisions.

The project seeks to empower two actors: first, the political parties, by voting in preordained lists, in which parties become protagonists rather than candidates as individuals. Second, women are equally empowered with parity between men and women on the list offered to voters. The project considers it essential that women are protagonists in political/institutional life, since not only are the majority of the Brazilian population (51%, according to the last census), as its share – in the three state levels – is historically diminished. Despite the law of 30% of places reserved for women candidates to parliament by party, female participation remains small.

Regarding direct participation mechanisms, the idea is to equalize representative democracy (institutional) and direct democracy so that they complement each other. There is no incompatibility between the two, as management councils of public policies, local, regional and national conferences, various forms of participation, including digital, among others, are already part of Brazilian social dynamics, although without the formalization of a law that would be the case of the presidential decree that would institutionalize these mechanisms.

It should be noted how different these projects are. Although in both there are other issues, such as prohibition of re-election, the pillars of both projects are anchored in the form of financing, mandatory voting or not and formations of the electoral system. The victory of one or another will certainly impact generations. There is much at stake.


*Francisco Fonseca is master in Political Science and doctor in History, professor of political science at Getulio Vargas Foudation. This article was originally published in Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil.