Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – At their national conventions last week, Brazil’s political parties nominated candidates for president; simultaneously, state-wide conventions were held, where the parties nominated candidates for governor and senator. In October, 27 states (including the Federal District) will elect a governor and two senators.
Why two senators? Because the Senate has 81 members, or three members per state, who are elected for eight-year terms. Four years ago, the election was for one senator only; this year the election is for the remaining two seats, because those elected four years ago will remain in office until 2022.
Or, more often than not, they won’t remain in office.
An early 2018 study indicates that, of the 81 senatorial seats filled in the 2010 and 2014 elections, no fewer than 41 have been occupied, for varying periods of time, by someone other than the person who was voted into office.
How is this possible?
The answer is the phenomenon involving “suplentes” or substitutes. Each senatorial candidate appoints two suplentes, whose sole function is to replace the senator when this worthy dies, is impeached, or resigns. If the first suplente is for any reason unavailable, the second suplente assumes the seat.
In effect, then, when you vote for a senatorial candidate, you are voting for three people — even if you have no idea who they are. Most senatorial candidates do not reveal willingly who their suplentes are, because suplentes are typically their relatives or big-bucks campaign contributors, i.e. people who can be trusted not to upset the apple cart.
The principal absurdity with this system is that the suplente positions can be, and usually are, merely temporary. Of the 41 senators cited in the study, fifteen resigned when appointed to federal cabinet positions. When they ceased to be part of the administration, they returned to their senatorial seat, and the suplente stepped aside.
The ultimate absurdity occurred when President Temer was under fire after charges of corruption. In order to ensure needed supportive votes in Congress, Temer “fired” fifteen cabinet ministers who were senators and federal deputies.
They returned to their congressional seats, voted as Temer wished, and were rewarded by being immediately re-appointed to the cabinet. Their suplentes, ousted for less than 48 hours, dutifully resumed their seats.
The system of suplentes is specifically designed to ensure those in power remain in power, and to avoid having elections if a senator resigns. This is an essential feature of parliamentary systems of government, where the cabinet is chosen by the prime minister from among his legislative cohort.
In a presidential system (which Brazil wrongly—claims to be) if you resign from the Senate, for any reason, you cannot return. You must be replaced by someone elected by voters, not by someone you chose to be your stand-in.
During last year’s congressional discussions on political reform, there were proposals to eliminate suplentes, which would have cured the abuse. This proposal never had a chance, as those in power would not vote to relinquish their power.
The Curmudgeon therefore presumes to suggest to prospective voters that they research their favorite senatorial candidates to discover who their suplentes are.