The Slow Implosion of Brazilian Politics

The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is occurring in one of the most politically fragmented countries on earth.

A mask depicting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, left behind after a protest in Sao Paulo (Nacho Doce / Reuters)

Something is rotten in the world’s fourth-largest democracy. And it raises a fundamental question for any democratic country: How do you design a political system to maximize good government and marginalize bad?

Yes, the recent vote in Brazil’s lower house of Congress to impeach President Dilma Rousseff was an exercise in democracy, strictly speaking. (The upper house votes next.) The lawmakers who joyously bobbed up and down as the decisive ballots were cast, as if at a soccer match, echoed the vast majority of Brazilians, who want to boot Rousseff from office for steering the economy into recession, appearing to abide if not abet corruption, and allegedly hiding a government budget deficit ahead of her 2014 reelection campaign. Those lawmakers claim the last charge amounts to a “crime of responsibility,” the gravest of political offenses, under the Constitution.

And yet, as The New York Times reports, 60 percent of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress who will ultimately vote on Rousseff’s impeachment are themselves facing or under investigation for “serious charges like bribery, electoral fraud, illegal deforestation, kidnapping and homicide, according to Transparency Brazil, a corruption-monitoring group.” (Sitting lawmakers generally enjoy immunity from prosecution in regular courts; they can only be tried in the plodding, overwhelmed Supreme Federal Court.) The congressional pot is calling the presidential kettle black, except that the pot is much bigger and darker.

As one Brazilian journalist told the Times, Rousseff is being judged by “a gang of thieves.”

Standing most prominently in judgment is the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, home to more members of Congress under investigation than any other political party, according to Transparency Brazil. Vice President Michel Temer, who will replace Rousseff if she is impeached, could himself be impeached over the same budgetary maneuvers haunting Rousseff. Temer is a member of the PMDB. So is House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who is leading the impeachment campaign against Rousseff and is second in line for her seat; he’s accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes as part of an epic corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company Petrobras. Third in line for the presidency is Renan Calheiros, the Senate president, who is also under investigation for taking bribes in the Petrobras scandal. Calheiros belongs to—surprise!—the PMDB.

The PMDB hardly has a monopoly on political corruption in Brazil. But it is representative of many of the forces currently roiling Brazilian politics—forces that will prevail even if Rousseff’s impeachment elevates the Temer-Cunha-Calheiros triumvirate.

Brazil’s largest political party, the PMDB got its start as the official opposition party under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s. Since Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1985, the PMDB has become, at best, a big-tent, centrist party that welcomes figures from across the political spectrum. At worst, it’s a party that stands for nothing—other than the unvarnished, often unscrupulous pursuit of political power and leverage. Or maybe that’s not the worst thing you could say about the party. The PMDB has become “the sump into which every rivulet of political corruption [has] drained” and “a byword for plunder of public resources,” the historian Perry Anderson wrote recently in the London Review of Books. After Dilma comes the sump.

In Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power, Michael Reid, the Latin America columnist at The Economist, notes that the PMDB hasn’t even fielded its own presidential candidate since suffering a crushing electoral defeat in 1994, preferring instead to stockpile influence in Congress and in state and local governments. This allows it to act as a perennial kingmaker, which is how the PMDB ended up in a coalition government with Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party. The PMDB is the biggest of several “catch-all parties” in Brazil, Reid writes, which aim not to advance big policy ideas or ideologically coherent agendas, but “to command a slice of the state and practise the politics of patronage in the form of government jobs and control over public contracts, and to extract federal money for public works in their districts.”

Reid cites Marcos Nobre, a Brazilian political philosopher, who argues that this approach, pemedebismo, “is the dominant political culture in Brazil, and that its core is a ‘system of vetoes,’ and ‘the permanent postponement of definitive solutions.’” Pemedebismo can foster moderation and compromise in Brasília. But it can also paralyze the government, blocking reforms of public spending and the political system as a whole.

And that’s a shame, because the current crisis presents an opportunity to implement much-needed political reform. The PMDB flourishes because Brazilian politics is fragmented, necessitating a power broker. Twenty-eight parties presently hold seats in the Brazilian Congress, which means a president needs a broad coalition to govern the country. To build that coalition, his or her party must resort to patronage, pork-barrel politics, and, in many cases, it seems, outright graft. Reid points out that by one measure—which tallies the number of “effective parties” in a country, as opposed to the official total, based on their relative size in the legislature—Brazil has the most fragmented political system in the world. It is several times more fragmented than other democracies with presidential systems. (In the United States, for example, there are two effective parties: the Republicans and Democrats.) And the number of effective parties in Brazil has been steadily increasing, surpassing 13 after the 2014 election, by one calculation.

Brazil’s political institutions only exacerbate this fragmentation, Reid writes. Several years ago, for example, the supreme court struck down a new law mandating that a party could only acquire seats in Congress if it received at least 5 percent of the national vote in an election. No such threshold exists at the moment.

Each time the Brazilian government has faced a choice about tweaking its electoral system, the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan observe in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, it has settled on the decision that “most encourages party proliferation.” These decisions, they write, “give extensive and very tangible incentives for ‘rent-seeking’ behavior by political entrepreneurs who create parties to use as tradeable assets or as a way of avoiding party discipline.”

These decisions have long nurtured corruption and political dysfunction in Brazil, and recently they’ve battered Brazilians’ trust in their political leaders—a crisis of faith precipitated by the country’s economic struggles, which in turn stem in part from low oil prices and weakened demand for commodities from countries like China. Consider how public assessments of Brazilian politicians’ job performance have changed over time, according to Gallup. Approval has fallen from 68 percent in 2010 (just before Rousseff became president) to a paltry 15 percent today.

The same trends are evident in how Brazilians view the stability of the country’s political situation:

These numbers recast the celebrations in Brazil’s lower house after the impeachment vote on Sunday. The ecstasy looks less like a demonstration of democracy and more like a tone-deaf display of solidarity with a public that rejects the political class wholesale.

But will Rousseff’s impeachment do anything to remake that political class? Brazil designed its political system in the late 1980s, in the shadow of military dictatorship. That system has not kept pace with democratic demands in the years since.

“The irony of Brazil’s political system,” writes Gregory Michener, a professor of politics based in Rio de Janeiro, “is that its fragmented party system—so seemingly appropriate for countering historical legacies of patrimonialism and monopoly power—has provoked forms of neopatrimonialism, whereby state resources are used to buy the support of other politicians.” Michener recommends reducing the size of Brazil’s electoral districts—which currently comprise entire states, with millions of people and dozens of elected representatives—in an effort to curb the proliferation of parties. It’s one promising reform among many. But listen closely to the speeches lawmakers gave in the lower house on Sunday, and you’ll hear little talk about such reforms.