Opinion, by Dr. Greg Michener (Ph.D. in political science, University of Texas at Austin) and Hugo Porto Fonseca (Master’s in Law, PUC-MG)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Democracy is a series of tradeoffs. Few are greater than the tradeoff between continuity in politics and government accountability. On the one hand, political continuity may help extend current social and economic prosperity. On the other hand, history demonstrates that when one party is elected again and again, power begins to corrupt and political accountability tends to erode. Brazilians ought to think carefully about this tradeoff before electing a president from the same party to a third consecutive term in office. At a minimum, they ought to pressure government to improve accountability by guaranteeing greater transparency.
Accountability requires checks and balances, and the most important democratic check on public sector abuses is the political alternation of parties—balancing government power by replacing one government with another. Where continuity rather than alternation occurs— i.e. when one party keeps winning the presidency— the partisan power of the president often starts to exert control in parts of government it does not belong, such as the judiciary, companies in which the state has ownership, and the legislature.
History shows that continuous one-party rule weakens the separation of powers, which are even further weakened when presidential power is combined with government-held majorities in Congress. Majority control of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate atrophies the ability of the legislature to balance presidential power and guard against abuses in the executive branch. In short, continuous one-party rule, especially when combined with legislative control, is a recipe for unchecked power and, consequently, deficits of accountability.
There are few advanced democracies that have experienced three consecutive presidents from the same party, all with reliable majorities in the legislature. In the U.S., Republicans Ronald Reagan and then George H. Bush held the presidency for three consecutive terms, but neither of them held majorities in both chambers of Congress during their presidencies.
Indeed, the last time one U.S. party held the presidency for three consecutive terms with uninterrupted legislative majorities was during the presidency of FDR— Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). During that period, FDR undertook radical reform, creating the New Deal and reordering the country’s socioeconomic balance of power. It was also a time when government accountability suffered greatly. Although FDR came to power promising to clean up government, he eventually tried to control the Supreme Court; and federal public works programs used to create employment were rife with corruption.
The PT might soon have their third presidency and the strongest legislative majority any president has had in the history of Brazil’s new democracy. It does not appear that the PT will use its political power to undertake a revolutionary transformation of Brazil, à la FDR. To begin with, the PT is checked by its electoral partner (the PMDB), a party whose interest in maintaining the status-quo is considerable. More importantly, the PT has so far put continuity ahead of change and, if elected, appears ready to so once again.
The big question is not the prospect of radical politics, it is government accountability. Although strong presidents are best able to enact strong accountability reforms, they are frequently the ones least likely to do so. The Lula presidency provides a leading example: despite repeated promises, Brazil remains one of the few countries in the region to have resisted the enactment of an access to public information law during the past decade. Thirteen countries in Latin America now possess these critical transparency reforms, and over 80 countries now possess laws that give citizens the right to access information held in the trust of public officials.
Current developments ought to make transparency an important concern; the preparations for the World Cup, the Olympics, and the development of giant public infrastructure works in Brazil provide enormous opportunities for corruption and deserve greater public scrutiny.
Political accountability is a big issue in Brazil. If Brazilians are to elect a third PT president, they should not only understand the democratic tradeoffs at play between continuity and accountability, they should also actively seek to make sure government follows through with minimal standards of accountability and transparency. Greater public interest and support for this law, which is currently awaiting passage in the Senate, will help get it off the books and into practice.