Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – To the surprise of no one who has observed the actions of the Brazilian Federal Chamber of Deputies over the past year, the much-anticipated and much-needed “electoral reform” has now been scuttled.
The Chamber resoundingly voted against a proposed constitutional amendment (PEC) that would have created, for the 2018 elections, a discredited electoral system called the “distritão” that treats each state as a congressional district, and ensures (as the current system does not) that the candidates with the most votes are seated, no matter which party they belong to.
The PEC also provided that in 2022, Brazil’s parliament would be elected under a “mixed” system similar to that used in Germany, where members are elected based on smaller geographical districts and political party affiliation, thus making them far more accountable to voters. This is anathema to most politicians, so the PEC died.
The PEC further provided for a new campaign fund to be distributed to parties and politicians, using taxpayer dollars; that died aborning as soon as the public realized that there is already an extremely munificent fund in existence, siphoned off to all registered political parties even if they have no elected representatives.
There is, on the other hand, a separate PEC that provides some hope for the reformists, because it prohibits the use of “coalitions” of parties for elections; these coalitions have resulted in around 10% of seated parliament members not having received as many votes as other candidates in their districts — clearly undemocratic.
Yesterday, however, the Chamber voted that coalitions would continue to be valid in 2018, and only disappear in 2022, to be replaced by amorphous “federations”, which are really coalition wolves wearing sheep’s clothing. In other words, business as usual; nothing will change; the wolves always win.
The same separate PEC includes the one last best hope for an actual improvement — a “barrier” or “performance” clause that would restrict access to government funding and “free” political TV advertising time. Parties that do not meet the minimum threshold of votes will not be funded, which is fatal in a country where corporations cannot make political contributions.
Late Wednesday night, however, Congress couldn’t bring itself to vote on the proposal, and put it off till next Tuesday, September 26th. The delay is because the proposed barrier is 1.5 percent of the total popular vote, and there are at least a dozen parties in Congress that have never gotten that many votes.
No one in either the Chamber or the Senate is truly interested in seeing the minuscule “parties for hire” fall by the wayside. They are useful in forming election coalitions, bringing in votes, and because they are small, they don’t make large demands on the spoils system now used to reward parties that cooperate with the administration.
The Curmudgeon fully expects that, come next Wednesday, Brazil will be treated to the spectacle of a Congress whose members have agreed that the electoral system needs significant change, but who refuse to do so, because that might mean losing their legislative seats.
Disappointed and frustrated, some voters are starting to have fond remembrances of the military dictatorship, where political parties were unimportant. Having lived in Brazil during that time, the Curmudgeon knows that would be a disaster.