Theodore Kahn discusses how Brazil can take advantage of the current crisis to reform its politics
If one thing is certain after the decision of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies to move forward with impeachment against President Rousseff, it is that Brazil’s future is uncertain.
In the short term, no one knows whether a presumptive Temer administration would be able to govern the country any more effectively than his predecessor. Given the current vice-president’s own legal troubles, it is not even clear Temer could manage to stay in the job through 2018. Popular sentiment, a key barometer for the momentum of the current impeachment process, has already begun to turn against him and his party, the PMDB, which epitomizes everything Brazilians dislike about politics.
On a deeper level, there is a debate over what impeachment and the broader political upheaval will mean for Brazilian democracy. Is Brazil experiencing a painful but necessary institutional catharsis? Or is impeachment a politically-motivated blow to the very core of Brazil’s democracy. For some, the outpouring of political passion into the streets represents democracy at its purest; others see a disturbing trend of rejecting democracy altogether.
The only real answer at this stage is it’s too early to tell.
But looking to the country’s own past, as well as the recent experience of regional neighbors, can help make sense of these larger questions.
First, some historical perspective. Brazil has been here before. In 1992, battling a grave economic crisis and enveloped in a sordid corruption scandal, Fernando Collor de Mello became the first Brazilian president to be impeached, eventually resigning on the eve of Congress’s decision. Unlike Dilma, Collor was accused of personally profiting from his office by diverting campaign contributions to his own coffers.
But other aspects of the situation are similar. Both presidents had alienated key members of the political establishment, and their isolation helped turn what might have been tolerable political shenanigans into an impeachable offense. The backdrop of economic crisis in both cases heightened public anger and, in turn, political momentum behind impeachment.
And as is the case now, there was considerable discussion of how impeachment would affect the prospects for institutional reform in Brazil’s then-nascent democracy. Those hoping the political crisis would usher in much-needed changes to electoral rules or strengthen anti-corruption measures were disappointed. Despite an important administrative reform in 1998, little was done to alter the perverse incentives at the core of Brazil’s political system.
You can probably see where this is headed.
From crisis to opportunity
If Dilma’s impeachment is ultimately to become a moment of redemption and not regression, legislators will have to finally address several aspects of the political system that have long been acknowledged to encourage corruption and undermine governability.
Let’s start with the rules for electing members of Congress.
Under the current system, voters cast their ballots for either an individual or party, but these votes are then pooled together to determine the distribution of seats in each state. The result is that a candidate’s position within the party, rather than voters’ judgment, tends to determine who is elected. Parties are also allowed to form proportional coalitions that can pool votes and reassign them as they see fit, often leading to the election of candidates that received insufficient votes. The result is to break the line of accountability between voter and his or her presumptive representative. To make matters worse, parliamentary immunity means that many members use their seats as get-out-of-jail-free cards.
The rules also encourage the proliferation of political parties, of which there are a bafflingly large number. This party fragmentation has far-reaching consequences for governance: presidents’ must cobble together unwieldy coalitions of small, regionalist parties with little allegiance to anything other than their leaders’ political fortunes. The result is that presidents rely on a combination of pork, ministerial posts, political favors, and outright bribery to keep coalitions intact. This fundamental governance challenge has been at the core of Brazil’s major corruption scandals from Collorgate and the mensalão right up to the current debacle.
Changing the rules would alleviate, if not totally eliminate, many of these problems. In fact, proposals to reform voting rules to heighten voter accountability, eliminate proportional coalitions, and reduce party fragmentation have been batted around since the aftermath of Collorgate itself. They seemed to gain currency over the last several years as the country again descended into political crisis. Dilma herself proposed a similar package of reforms in response to the massive 2013 protests and again after barely winning reelection a year later.
Since then, of course, the political system has been paralyzed by the combination of Lavo Jato and impeachment, leaving Congress and the president scant incentive or attention to do much else.
Check yourself, Congress
The perverse situation Brazil now finds itself in is that the very institution that embodies the very worst of its politics—Congress—is now deciding the future of the country.
Looking behind impeachment, which appears increasingly likely, enacting the political and electoral reforms will require Congressional action—and in some cases a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority. In short, congressmen would have to vote to reform a system that, by definition, benefited them (after all, if they are in Congress, they were elected under the current rules).
This type of political change is hard to achieve, but not impossible.
Certainly, the combination of acute economic and political crisis that Brazil faces today can motivate otherwise complacent politicians to make reforms that would be nonstarters in other contexts.
If you can’t join them, beat them
But history shows that crises may be necessary but not sufficient. In order to sustain momentum behind difficult political reforms, the country needs to inject new blood in its political class, starting with Congress. The millions of Brazilians who have protested against corruption over the past several years now must channel this popular sentiment into organized and sustained political action that can change politics by participating in its institutions.
This has been the trajectory of the student movement in Chile, whose leaders went from the streets to Congress, where they helped finally put an end to binominal voting, an electoral rule inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship that ensured overrepresentation for the right.
Of course, the existing election and campaign rules pose a challenge, but the election of political outsiders is not impossible, as the victory of professional clown Tiririca (campaign slogan: “It can’t get any worse”) in 2010 shows.
All of this is to say that while most analysts focus on the tumultuous months ahead, the real verdict in Brazil’s political drama will be determined in the years ahead.
Can the country seize the opportunity to change its politics for good? Only time will tell.
Theodore Kahn is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and previously worked as a reporter in Argentina and Chile. Follow him on twitter: @TheoAKahn
More Brazil coverage here!