Can Brazil Trim the Fat From Its Bloated Political System
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres
Can Brazil Trim the Fat From Its Bloated Political System
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

  • Congress is tackling a series of proposals designed to gradually change Brazil's unstable political system.
  • Measures that will reduce the number of political parties and create a public fund to finance electoral campaigns will likely take effect next year.
  • Reforms to change Brazil's presidential system to a parliamentary system, however, won't come up for discussion until next year and, if approved, will take effect in 2022.

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The number of political parties in Brazil's legislature has long been one of the government's biggest problems. Unstable, unreliable coalitions and corruption scandals have become regular features of the country's political system, thanks in large part to the more than 30 parties registered in Brazil today. Calls for a change in the system have grown louder in recent years, particularly in the wake of the latest corruption probe — the largest to date — and the government is starting to work toward reform. But progress will be slow and incremental.

An Unstable System

Unlike many other democracies, Brazil has few laws in place to limit the creation of political parties and doesn't require groups to win a minimum percentage of the vote to reach the legislature. The number of parties registered in the country has surged in recent years to reach 35, 26 of which are currently represented in the National Congress. For Brazil's executive branch, the state of affairs is becoming increasingly untenable. 

On taking office, every new president immediately faces the task of forming a ruling coalition from among the legislative branch's myriad parties, each with its own motivations and objectives. It's a daunting undertaking, and one that often requires the executive branch to curry favor with political parties that have diverging views by offering them ministerial offices and posts in state-owned companies in exchange for their cooperation. The resulting coalitions are fragile and fickle. Their constituent parties, moreover, regularly use their posts for their own financial and political gain. And since it's not unusual for members of Congress to switch parties after they are elected, getting a clear read on the government's composition, and that of the ruling coalition, can be next to impossible.

Yet securing congressional support is essential for Brazilian presidents, not only to advance their agendas, but also to avoid impeachment. Every president who has served the country since 1985 has faced impeachment during his or her tenure; the process removed Fernando Collor de Mello from office in 1992 and ousted Dilma Rousseff just last year. Rousseff's case in particular offers a clear example of how tenuous Brazil's ruling coalitions can be. Going into her second term, the president had nine parties supporting her, and her coalition held a majority in Congress. After a recession hit, however, leaving Rousseff unable to adequately satisfy her allies' demands, the number of parties supporting her dropped to three.

Making Progress

Today, signs of change are slowly emerging in Brazil. President Michel Temer is working to get the legislature to pass an array of reforms, including a pair of proposals aimed at streamlining the country's political system. If passed by Oct. 7, both measures will take effect in 2018. The first reform would impose an electoral threshold that parties must reach to be represented in Congress — a critical step toward a more stable government. A similar proposal failed in the legislature more than a decade ago, but had it been enacted, only seven parties would be in the National Congress today.

The second measure is more controversial, although, like the electoral threshold legislation, it has the support of major parties such as the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. The bill proposes creating a $1.2 billion public fund to finance campaigns for next year's election, along with a $300 million government fund for political parties, in hopes of cutting down on corruption. But in light of the Brazilian government's growing fiscal deficit, debate in the legislature's lower house so far has focused on the amount of money that would be allocated to the fund. The upper house, meanwhile, has two counterproposals in the works. One bill would reinstate corporate financing for electoral campaigns, which the Supreme Federal Court outlawed in 2015, and the other would create a public fund half the size of the one envisioned in the lower house's legislation. 

A Parliamentary Future?

If enacted, the reforms currently under discussion in the lower house would help tackle some of the recurring issues in Brazil's government. But it's doubtful that they would be enough to solve the problems entirely. To do that, the country may have to consider dispensing with its purely presidential form of government in favor of a parliamentary system.

On Aug. 21, Temer indicated that a parliamentary government may be in Brazil's future. (The country's current system isn't too far off as it is, given the legislature's influence; the sitting president, after all, must negotiate with Congress constantly lest he or she fall prey to impeachment.) Temer suggested implementing a semi-presidential system, in which the public would elect a president to serve as head of state, while Congress would vote on a prime minister. Many of Brazil's biggest political parties support the idea, as does the Supreme Federal Court. 

Making the transition, however, will take years. Even adopting a proposal to switch to a parliamentary system will take at least until 2022. And in the meantime, Brazil will need to take smaller steps to alleviate its political troubles, such as implementing the reforms currently under debate. The most pressing concern is reducing the overwhelming number of political parties in Congress. Unless it does so, Brazil's political system — whether presidential or parliamentary — will continue to suffer at the hands of fragile coalitions based on nothing more than a quid pro quo arrangement.