The Origins of Brazil’s Political Dysfunction

Brazil’s paralysis can be traced back to the end of the military dictatorship. But the roots go much deeper.

Presidents John F. Kennedy of the United States and João Goulart of Brazil meet in Washington DC, April 4, 1962
Presidents John F. Kennedy of the United States and João Goulart of Brazil meet in Washington DC, April 4, 1962 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Brazil’s political dysfunction reaches far beyond the attempt to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. Up to 60 percent of the 594 congressmen who will decide her fate are under some kind of investigation, whether on charges of bribery, electoral fraud or even homicide.

“The congressional pot is calling the presidential kettle black, except that the pot is much bigger and darker,” writes Uri Friedman in The Atlantic.

The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) that would take over running the government if the Senate agreed to continue the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff is the worst of it. It has more politicians under investigation than any other party.

That’s hardly surprising when the PMDB exists entirely to serve the interests of regional bosses and their constituencies. It has no ideology. It is better understood as a patronage network than a political party. It backed the Social Democrats when they were the most popular before switching to Rousseff’s Workers’ Party in 2002 when her predecessor and mentor, Lula da Silva, won the election.

The PMDB does not have a monopoly on political corruption. “But it is representative of many of the forces currently roiling Brazilian politics,” according to Friedman.

The PMDB flourishes because Brazilian politics is fragmented, necessitating a power broker. 28 parties presently hold seats in the Brazilian Congress, which means a president needs a broad coalition to govern the country. To build that coalition, his or her party must resort to patronage, pork-barrel politics and, in many cases, it seems, outright graft.

Under ideal circumstances, such as during the commodity boom of the last decade, Brazil’s political system fosters moderation and compromise. Lula’s Workers’ Party, while pretty far to the left, pursued middle-of-the-road trade and social policies that lifted more than thirty million people out of poverty and dramatically expanded the middle class.

When the tide inevitably turns, though, gridlock all too often ensues.

This has been evident since Rousseff was reelected in late 2014.

When growth disappeared, the government only jacked up taxes but did nothing to remove structural impediments, like excessive regulation and an overly complicated tax code, both of which discourage business activity and investment. The World Bank calls Brazil the worst place in the world to file one’s taxes. The country spends just 1.5 percent of its economic output on infrastructure against a global average of 3.8 percent.

Yet it spends as much as 13 percent on pensions. The average Brazilian can still retire at 54 with 70 percent of his or her pay. That’s what happens in a clientalist political system.

Historical origins

The immediate origins of Brazil’s multiparty paralysis lie in its return to democracy in the 1980s, argues Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, at his blog, The Restless Realist. Proportional representation was written into the constitution at the time in a way that it could not be amended.

This was a reaction (or overreaction) to the two-party system the generals had imposed on the country. Rather than dissolve Congress, they forced all parties to merge into two: the pro-junta National Renewal Alliance (ARENA) and the opposition PMDB.

“By forcing every candidate for office down to a local town alderman to affiliate with one or the other national party, the intention was to subordinate local interests to national ones,” writes Berman.

It worked too well.

It succeeded in polarizing Brazilian politics around national issues, but only by making support or opposition to military rule the key issue.

This undermined the system, because it meant the military could never trust the PMDB with power.

But the rationale for a two-party system was not altogether unsound. It was itself a reaction to the fragmentation that preceded it.

This, argues Berman, was ultimately due to Brazil’s geographical extent, which “had more to do with the geopolitical reach of the Portuguese crown during the colonial era than with any sort of internal coherence.”

The result has been an almost entirely feudal system, where power not only derives upward from the state level, but where national political bosses are themselves dependent on their state level equivalents.

The situation is now back to where it was before the dictatorship.

No quick fix

Finding a democratic way out will be difficult.

Stripping lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution would be a start. But that seems unlikely when more than half the legislature is counting on that very immunity to keep it out of jail.

Overturning proportional representation is as unlikely. Barring a constitutional upset, Brazil is stuck with multiple parties.

Transforming those parties from interest groups into more ideological factions, as is the case in European democracies, would take time, if it can be done at all. And the highly polarized politics of other Latin American countries makes one wonder if this would really be an improvement.

Friedman raises the possibility of reducing the size of Brazil’s electoral districts, which currently comprise entire states with millions of voters and dozens of elected representatives. It may help curb the proliferation of parties, but it would do little on itself to subvert the nepotist nature of Brazilian politics.

It is ultimately up to ordinary Brazilians to no longer vote for candidates who promise them favors in return.

“As long as both Brazilian parties and voters are willing to be bought, the players can be changed but the game will remain the same,” is how Berman puts it.

Whatever its faults, Brazil is a democracy. The only way its crooked system will change is if voters no longer put up with it.

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