Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIBEIRÃO PRETO, BRAZIL – Three years ago, the Curmudgeon published a comment describing Brazil’s biggest problem: the 1988 Constitution created an essentially parliamentary system with institutional features that hinder governance under a presidential system.

That continues to be the case, as President Bolsonaro is now, to his chagrin, discovering.

For starters, there are dozens of registered political parties, none of which stands for anything other than getting elected and feeding at the public trough. A barely comprehensible “party coefficient” electoral system ensures most legislators do not represent anyone except themselves.

There are “suplentes” or substitute placeholders for legislators who take executive positions, and who can step back into parliament whenever they want, regaining their seats.

There are “medidas provisórias” – presidential decrees with the force of law – common to many failed parliamentary republics of the early 20th century in Europe: both Hitler and Mussolini came to power using the functional equivalents of “medidas provisórias”.

There is even the concept of a “vote of no confidence”, in which the chief executive may be ousted whenever a majority of parliament no longer has confidence in the administration. Disguised as impeachment, this is what befell both former Presidents Collor de Mello and Dilma Rousseff.

All these features have fused into a hybrid system called “coalition presidentialism”, one which has arguably made Brazil ungovernable by fair means, but governable by foul. The “mensalão” and “petrolão” scandals are directly attributable to former President Lula’s manipulation of this system to buy Congressional votes.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised voters he would not succumb to the pressures of coalition presidentialism, with its corrupt practice of appointing members of parliament to executive ministerial positions that control departmental budgets.

Bolsonaro also promised voters he would not indulge in the practice of mutual back-scratching with corrupt political parties in order to obtain passage of his proposed legislative reforms – labor, taxes, pensions, privatizations.

So far, at least, he has kept these promises – and has therefore directly challenged the current ruling system so beloved by most members of the parliament.

Bolsonaro proposed replacing this system with one which did not rely upon political parties, but upon special interest blocs – agribusiness, evangelicals, law and order – and “public opinion”, whatever that means.

Unsurprisingly, the blocs cannot agree even within themselves upon the need for, or the scope of, the legislative reforms Bolsonaro wishes to implant. Moreover, there is open division within his closest advisers, as his guru’s sycophants create conflict with military cabinet ministers.

Venal political parties, seizing the moment, demand lucrative ministerial plums before considering the much-needed reforms they all claim they want to support.

There is talk of resignation, with a contrary groundswell supporting a more populist form of government, one where Bolsonaro may more easily impose “the will of the people”, whatever that means, upon the nation.

There is even talk of impeachment, for Bolsonaro seems even less able to obtain the confidence of parliament than were his predecessors Collor and Dilma.

Overthrowing coalition presidentialism may mean turning to a more direct parliamentary system, where the President of the Chamber of Deputies becomes the prime minister.

Alternatively, it may mean turning to a messianic presidential system, bypassing parliament entirely.

Neither alternative would be conducive to democracy and the rule of law.


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