Opinion, by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Fear not, gentle reader — the BBB in the headline is NOT about Brazilian broadcasting’s bowdlerized debauchery.  Rather, it stands for Bancada do Boi, da Bala e da Biblia. The term, coined in 2015, describes powerful cross-party voting blocs in Brazil’s Congress.

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

Bancada” literally means “bench”, upon which members of parliament (“benchers”) sit. US terminology varies (farm bloc, Black Caucus, gun lobby). The Curmudgeon will stick with Bloc, the alliterative Plan B.

Boi, Bala e Bíblia” are literally “beef, bullets and bible”. “Beef” includes (soy)beans, because the bloc represents agribusiness. “Bullets” includes those tough on crime and supporting military intervention. “Bible” includes evangelical Christians favoring “traditional family values”.

Bancada BBB comprises the three largest cross-party voting blocs in Brazil’s Congress, particularly after the 2018 elections. President Bolsonaro is looking to these blocs and several others, rather than to traditional political parties, as the principal means to pass legislation he favors.

This approach is a radical departure from past practice, and reinforces his campaign promise not to use pork-barrel patronage to purchase legislative majorities. His predecessors in office created dozens of useless but lucrative cabinet ministries and handed out powerful administrative positions in government-owned companies: the inevitable result was systemic corruption.

At an institutional level, however, putting aside questions of corruption, the use of voting blocs poses a serious threat to the entire structure of Brazilian politics. In almost all democracies, political parties are essential to governing the country. In theory, they represent voters and create consensus.

Brazil’s democracy has two features that make parties more crucial than in many other countries. The first is the “party list” system for choosing legislators. The second is “coalition presidentialism”.

In Brazil, when you vote for legislators, you are really voting for the party they belong to, not the individual candidate. There are no separate election districts in Brazil – legislators do not represent voters in specific geographic areas. There is no Federal or State Deputy from Barra da Tijuca or Municipal Assemblywoman from Copacabana.

In this institutional structure, where the political party bosses control who can be a candidate, the prime loyalty of legislators is to the party bosses, not to voters in a specific constituency.

When a vote in Congress is pending, the bosses typically demand loyalty to the party position. Multi-party blocs based on single issues (beef, bullet, bible) subvert this system, because the party bosses lose control.

Brazil’s second distinctive feature — coalition presidentialism — is an egregious example of trying to graft a feature of parliamentary systems of government onto a presidential system. Very few countries have tried this, because most set limits on the number of political parties in their legislatures.

Moreover, it has not worked well in Brazil or any other country, because it inevitably leads to corruption and a lack of governability—no President can hope to control 25 or 30 political parties without bribes, backhanders and baksheesh.

For decades, Bolsonaro was a Congressional backbencher (“baixo clero”) with no real party ties or influence. His plan, consistent with this background, is to rely on the Bancada BBB and other blocs, rather than on a coalition of political parties, to enact his legislative programs.

That is a risky proposition for him and for Brazil’s legislative institutions.

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