By John Fitzpatrick
The ongoing scandal involving the Workers Party (PT), which looks like overshadowing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s last year in office, reflects not only Brazil’s endemic corruption but also the weakness and immaturity of its political parties. Since the country returned to democracy just over 20 years ago, a large number of parties have been established and 27 are officially registered with the Supreme Electoral Council (TSE). Some arose from the ashes of parties which had existed before the military takeover in 1964, some from the two parties the military had allowed to exist during its rule, and some were completely new. In ideological terms, they range from the Greens and far left to the lunatic fringe PRONA, with most being somewhere in between. However, as we will see later in this article, ideology is not a powerful factor and it is difficult to know exactly what many parties stand for.
Powerful extra-parliamentary groups, such as the MST landless peasant movement, trade union federations, industrial associations, the Catholic Church, evangelical bodies, state-controlled companies and concerns, and the military also exert political influence. The large number of parties and pressure from vested interests make it difficult for a government to win a majority in either house of Congress and set a political agenda. At the same time, a President needs to have a strong party behind him. Former President Fernando Collor de Mello, who had no mass party backing, found this out to his cost in 1992 when he was impeached.
It is relatively easy to establish a political party in Brazil. All that is needed are 101 signatures on a petition supporting the party’s program and statutes which is sent to the TSE for provisional registration. The party then has a year to organize itself and choose municipal, state and national executives. Once a party is legitimized by the TSE and has won positions at municipal, state and national level, it can start exercising its influence and leverage its power.
The PMDB claims to be the largest party with just over two million while the PSDB says it has 1,114,000 and the PT 840,000.
At the same time, it can be expensive to run a party in a continental-sized country like Brazil. Members fees could never be sufficient to pay for the full-time staff and infrastructure needed to operate on a national scale. Some parties, like the PSDB and PFL, do not charge a membership fee while others, like the PT, require members to contribute a percentage of their pay. This means that parties are constantly trying to raise funds. These funds come from corporate contributors, individual well-wishers and other sources, many of which are dubious as we have seen of late.
Majority and Proportional Representation
The system is based on majority and proportional voting. Candidates for top executive posts, such as the presidency, state governorship or mayors of towns with over 200,000 voters only need a simple majority to win. The Senate also operates in this way, with each state and the federal district returning three elected senators. The Senate elections are staggered, with one election for two-thirds of the seats followed by another election for the remaining one-third two years later.
The elections to the House of Representatives and local state and city assemblies are based on proportional representation. Under this system, all votes are divided by the number of seats available and the quotient is used to divide the number of votes per party. This results in the number of seats to be allocated to the particular party which then appoints those candidates with the highest number of votes. Under this system it is the party and not the candidate (or the voter) which benefits. Like all proportional systems, it has distortions and can lead to some candidates winning seats with fewer votes than candidates from other parties.
A good example of this is quoted in the Almanaque Abril Brasil 2005″ handbook which explains how the PRONA party gained five extra seats in the House of Representatives because its leader, Eneas Ferreira Carneiro, won 1.5 million votes in São Paulo in 2002. A system like this is obviously unfair and can be abused by popular leaders who end up with a group of puppet followers who do what he says, even leaving the party on occasions.
The fact is that there are simply too many parties to allow an effective government to be set up and implement consistent policies based on the national interest. The result is that governments have to form alliances with disparate interests, sometimes opposed to each other, to get legislation passed. This situation is not unique to Brazil and, in theory, reflects the wishes of the voters who have chosen to elect the politicians and parties they prefer. However, the Brazilian political system does not accurately reflect voters wishes since many politicians have no qualms about deserting their parties. A comparison of the membership of the House of Representatives at the time of writing with that elected in 2002 shows that the PMDB has gained 10 members, the PFL has lost 22, the PP has gained 5, the PSDB has lost 20 and the PTB has lost 21 .
These defectors are not legally obliged to stand down and seek re-election, so they stay on after having betrayed the electors who voted for them. This is particularly disgraceful in a system where voting is compulsory. Even holier-than-thou leftists like Senator Heloisa Helena made no apology to voters when she was expelled from the PT in 2004 but stayed on without any affiliation. It is not uncommon to find people, such as the House of Representatives chairman, Severino Cavalcanti, who have been members of five or six different parties. Former (and perhaps future) presidential candidates, Anthony Garotinho and Ciro Gomes, have both switched parties several times. In some cases, politicians even rejoin the party they had previously left.
These moves are seldom made for ideological reasons but usually for personal gain and privilege. Attempts have been made to end this abuse, such as requiring politicians to be a member of a party for at least one year before they can stand for office. This was a step forward but hardly tackles the problem. In fact, it leads to jockeying and jostling a year ahead of elections as some politicians scramble around trying to find the party which will suit them best.
The party which has been most prominent over these two decades has been the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) . Two others – the PT and the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democratic Party)- have gradually built up strength at national level. However, Brazil is still far from being a two-party state (like the United States) or even a three-party state. This is hardly surprising in such a large country. The House of Representatives currently has members from around 15 parties while the Senate has 10 parties. Both houses of Congress also have some members who are currently members of no parties.
The House of Representatives has 513 members, making it a daunting task for any party to gain an overall majority, while the Senate has 81 members. If this were not enough, any government which wants to pass radical legislation must get the Constitution amended. This is a tortuous process involving the Senate, House of Representatives and state legislative bodies and requires a majority of three-fifths of the votes in each house of Congress. Any attempt to modify the Constitution leads to long drawn-out negotiations which effectively paralyze the legislative program. This is what happened in the second half of Cardoso’s mandate when he wanted to alter the Constitution in order to seek re-election.
Spot the Difference – if You Can
Despite this relatively large number of parties, few have any genuine ideological convictions. Radical leftists are about the only people with consistent policies even though these policies are outdated and irrelevant. Personalities are generally stronger than principles and personal, regional and vested interests take first place. The right-left split, which generally defines the main political difference in most countries, is not really applicable here. Most parties could be described as left-wing in the sense that they support greater efforts by the state to reduce social inequality. However, this leftist inclination is often accompanied by a nationalistic bias which can easily link it to more right-wing parties. Several parties describe themselves as Socialist but are more aligned to small business and farming interests than those of organized labor.
This was exactly the ideology which created fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and the Iberian versions in the 1930. Much of this ideology was transported to Brazil and incorporated into the “New State” of the dictator Getulio Vargas who ruled the country on and off from 1930 to 1954. Brazil is still under the shadow of Vargas and many aspects of his corporate state remain today, such as mandatory trade union and industrial federations, business associations, labor laws and labor courts. Two parties – the PDT (Workers Democratic Party) and the PTB(Brazilian Workers Party) – claim to be the inheritors of the Vargas tradition.
There are no extreme right-wing parties in the European or American sense since the racism associated with these parties does not make sense in a country like Brazil where about half the country is of mixed race or black . The PRONA, a fringe party with evangelical links, is probably the most right-wing in this extremist sense. It has a few members in the House of Representatives but they rarely speak since the party has no policies to speak of except a desire for Brazil to have nuclear weapons. There are also some apologists for the military still around in the media and in Congress. We saw an example of this in mid-June when Jose Dirceu, was heckled in Congress by a PP (Progressive Party) member who called him a “terrorist” because of his membership of a student resistance movement in his younger days.
Lula himself is also nationalistic and anti-American. Several prominent members of the PT spent time in exile but this does not seem to have made them particularly open-minded. The party’s international links tends to be with autocratic or semi-autocratic regimes in places like Cuba and Venezuela rather than with reformed socialists in the UK or social democrats in Germany. The Communist Party is also nationalistic. One of its leaders, former minister Aldo Rebelo, tried to establish a law in 2001 enforcing the use of the Portuguese language in daily life, conveniently forgetting that it had been brought here by interlopers.
The PSDB is probably the most outward looking in international terms. Cardoso spent a number of years in exile in France and can speak several languages. São Paulo mayor, Jose Serra, who lost to Lula in the last presidential election, is another former exile who is quite cosmopolitan and multilingual. However, the PSDB is as nationalistic as the others and, while not blatantly anti-American, wary of the United States.
Spot the Conservative – if You Can
The party which is generally regarded as the most conservative in economic terms is the PFL (Liberal Front Party) but this is basically window dressing. The PFL has put forward no policies which could be compared with those of the Republicans in the US or the UK Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. The party moans about high taxes and calls for less government interference but is decidedly short on ideas. In fact, only a few years ago one of its leading members, Senator Antonio Carlos Magalhes, even called for a tax to be imposed to end social inequality. Even the most idealistic Socialist knows that poverty cannot be taxed out of existence. In any case, it would be suicide for any party to proclaim Thatcherite policies in a developing country like Brazil.
The PFL forms the largest opposition group, along with the PSDB, in the House of Representatives and Senate although there is no formal link between them. The PFL’s decision to oppose the Lula government came as a surprise since it has always been greedy for power and had been a partner in every governments since the return to democracy. It even provided Cardoso with a vice president for eight years in the form of Marco Maciel. The PFL, like the PL (Liberal Party) of current vice president, Jose Alencar, and the PP of former São Paulo mayor, Paulo Maluf, are spin-offs from the ARENA party which supported the military regime. The PL was founded by PFL dissidents and has a strong link with the evangelical movement.
PMDB – Split Personality
The most influential party in terms of representation in Congress, state governorships and mayoralties of state capital is the PMDB. However, it is almost impossible to know what the PMDB actually stands for. It arose from the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) political alliance opposed to the military regime but was left on its own when a group of dissidents departed and formed the PSDB. This left a mixed bag of interests and the PMDB is constantly split between its pro-government and anti-government wing. At the time of writing, it is divided once again over whether to stay within the government. A faction led by former president Jose Sarney wants to remain in power and gain more ministries while another faction led by the national president, Michel Temer, wants to leave. This is just one example of the problems Lula and any Brazilian president faces in trying to run this giant country.
Having a wide range of political views represented in Congress should be healthy for democracy. However, the fact is that Brazil is still finding its way as a democracy. If voters could choose from two or three mainstream parties with clear cut ideas then the government would be in a better position to tackle the country’s problems in a coherent way. We are unlikely to see this happen in the near future.
John Fitzpatrick 2005
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicaes. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Previous articles by John Fitzpatrick on www.gringoes.com:
Brazil Through Foreign Eyes
Helping the Helpless in Brazil
Pinheiros – São Paulo’s Best District
Growing Old (Dis)gracefully in Brazil
Canudos, Still With Us 100 Years Later
The Rise of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil and Portugal – The Samba and the Fado
Brazil – Just A State Of Mind
Brazil: For Lula, is Ignorance Bliss?
Brazil: Pay Day – or Pay Dirt?