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Political Science

Renewal Brazilian Style

In recent decades, rural leaders have lost clout, pastors have gained ground, and the lower classes have won more seats in the Chamber of Deputies

ZÉ VICENTEBrazilian politicians are usually represented by certain stereotypes: the “colonel” on the right, typically a large landowner originally from Brazil’s Northeast, symbol of rural power; the labor union member on the left, from the Southeast, a people’s leader of humble origin who organizes strikes and protests. Or, they may be represented by types like the successful urban businessperson, the civil servant, or the humanist intellectual from academe. An analysis by the Observatory of Political and Social Elites of Brazil ( from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) about the geographic origins and occupational profile, age bracket, and ideological leanings of all deputies elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies between 1945 and 2010 indicates that in addition to these figures traditionally associated with politics, individuals with other characteristics began to occupy a significant portion, though not yet a majority, of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies after the end of the military regime.

Starting with the 2002 election, with the increase in size of the delegations from the left, politicians in Brazil became more people-oriented. Some studies show that legislators from higher strata of society were being replaced, in part, by individuals from the lower middle class. Manual laborers, civil servants, and independent professionals, a good number of them associated with positions on the center or left, secured more seats in the federal legislature. “On the right, the figure of the evangelical pastor from the Southeast and the so-called “communicators” (media personalities) have, to some extent, replaced the old landowners from the Northeast. There was also an increase in the representation of the urban business community,” says political scientist Adriano Codato, coordinator of the observatory, a project financed by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and principal author of the study of the profiles of federal deputies during the past six decades. The project also detected an increase in the age of politicians who secured seats in the Chamber during the 2014 elections and an increase in the number of legislators from the right in the Southeast and from the left in the Northeast, to some extent inverting the political/ideological geography that used to dominate in Brazil.

Codato and two other political scientists from the observatory, Luiz Domingos Costa and Emerson Cervi, analyzed the backgrounds of 7,261 federal deputies elected in 18 contests. The 65 years of elections to the federal legislative branch were divided into three periods, dubbed by the researchers as: populist democracy (1945-1962), military dictatorship (1966-1978) and liberal democracy (1982-2010). Data were gathered from 1,675 legislators from the first period, 1,520 from the second, and 4,066 from the third. The authoritarian regime in Brazil had continued to hold elections for the Chamber of Deputies although it allowed only two parties to exist: the pro-government right-wing Aliança Renovadora Nacional – Arena (National Renewal Alliance) party and the opposition Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement), whose members were from the center and left.

In their study, UFPR researchers used data made available by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) and the Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s School of Social Sciences (CPDOC). They also had access to a database of federal deputies compiled by political scientist André Marenco from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). Individual legislators were classified according to age at time of election, occupation prior to going into politics, and the state they represented. Politicians were also linked to an ideological field (right, center, or left) depending on the characteristics of their party. During the current democratic regime, a deputy elected by the Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT (Workers’ Party) is, for example, counted as a member of the left-wing bloc, while one from the Democrátas – DEM (Democrats) is considered a member of the right-wing bloc.

The occupations and professions of the deputies were grouped into eight categories: manual laborer, civil servant, pastor or priest, lawyer, rural leader, urban businessman, independent professional (doctor, engineer, journalist, etc.) and communicator. “A unique feature of the Brazilian political elite is that changes in their occupational backgrounds occur extremely slowly, and non-linearly over time,” observes Domingos Costa. “For example, a decline may be observed in the number of businesspeople elected in one contest, but the numbers for that group may remain unchanged in the next one. The most representative case of this zigzag is observed with civil servants.” During the period prior to the dictatorship, civil servants accounted for 18% of deputies. That fell to 9% during the authoritarian regime but has bounced back to 13% in the period since redemocratization.

Decline of the Lawyers
Elections since redemocratization featured a decline in the dominance of lawyers among elected deputies. They had formed a silent majority in the Chamber of Deputies within both the right-wing and center-left blocs. Between 1945 and the end of the dictatorship, no other professional category elected so many deputies as the group made up of people holding a bachelor’s degree in law. Not everyone will remember this, but Deputy Ulysses Guimarães, former president of the MDB and later of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) had studied law at the Largo São Francisco School of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP). During elections held under the authoritarian regime, more than 47% of the legislators were attorneys. In the contests held from 1982-2010, the number of deputies holding law degrees fell to slightly above 21% of the total and were overtaken by independent professionals, a category that encompasses several occupations.

In recent decades, substantial changes in Brazilian society—widespread urbanization, the increase in the number of followers of Pentecostal religions, economic stability and the strengthening of the parties on the left, especially the PT—have brought about gradual transformations in the composition of the Chamber of Deputies. It appears that changes in the profile of the elected deputies are likely to proceed at an accelerated pace inasmuch as, historically, only a little more than half have succeeded in getting elected to a second consecutive term. Their names may change frequently, but the profile of those elected changes very slowly. “It’s remarkable that although we have a Chamber of Deputies with such a high electoral turnover and a system that includes so many parties, there is still such stability from the socioeconomic standpoint,” says Codato. “This seems to indicate, above all, that social structures such as access to the higher education market and to the most prestigious occupations are still sufficiently unequal as to prevent a more thorough airing out of the representatives’ social clothes closets,” states Domingos Costa. Even so, certain trends manifest themselves more or less clearly.

That seems to be the case with two professional categories—the pastors, especially evangelical pastors, and the communicators—who, despite not ranking very high in terms of number of legislators, are sending more and more representatives to the Chamber of Deputies. Politicians with those two occupational backgrounds are, according to the Observatory, generally associated with the right-wing ideological camp and may be frequent subjects of coverage in the media. Assembly of God pastor Marco Feliciano, of the Partido Social Cristão – PSC (Social Christian Party) in São Paulo, and TV host Celso Russomano, of the Partido Republicano Brasileiro – PRB (Brazilian Republican Party), both elected in October 2014, are two examples of members from those occupations who have seats in Congress in Brasília.

The number of representatives from these two professions has practically doubled since 1964. Pastors/priests, who represented 0.7% of the deputies elected during the military regime, accounted for almost 2% of the legislators who won seats during the current democratic regime. Hosts of radio and television programs are experiencing a similar ascent, but one that has been going on for more years and in a more visible way. Prior to the dictatorship, they accounted for 1.6% of successful candidates for election, rose to 3.4% during the authoritarian regime, and reached 5.3% of deputies during the period since redemocratization.

According to the data gathered by Observatory researchers, federal deputies as a group are getting older. In the 2010 election, 34% of legislators elected were age 51 to 60 and 20% were older than 60. These were the highest indices ever recorded in those two age brackets since 1945. In that same year, deputies aged between 31 and 40, who historically had represented about 40% of the members of the Chamber, made up only 28% of the total, the lowest index since the 1945 contest.

In ideological terms, the most significant changes involve representatives from Brazil’s Northeast and Southeast. During the dictatorship, 80% of northeastern deputies were members of the pro-government Arena party. In 1990, well into the democratic period, federal legislators from parties on the right still accounted for 60% of representatives elected from that region. In the 2000s, that figure fell to approximately 40%. Representatives from the left, who accounted for barely 20% of federal deputies from the Northeast have now begun to supply about 35% of those elected from states in that region (with the center accounting for another 25%).

In Southeast Brazil, the reverse has occurred, but at a less accentuated intensity than in northeastern states. This region was the only one that in two different years (1974 and 1978) during the military dictatorship, elected more federal deputies from the MDB, an umbrella party that was home to the center-left opposition than from Arena. Furthermore, São Paulo is the birthplace of the PT, the principal party associated with the left. In the 2014 elections, however, parties on the right furnished about 40% of the deputies from the Southeast versus approximately 30% from the left and 30% from the center.

ZÉ VICENTEProfessionalization or “Popularization”
Observatory researchers say that changes in the socio-occupational profiles of the federal deputies do not permit them to say whether the Chamber of Deputies has become more or less conservative. The relationship between a legislator’s occupation prior to entering politics and his or her behavior in the Chamber is a tenuous and circumstantial one, say Domingos Costa and Codato. This does not mean that the occupational background of the different blocs has no implications for the kind of politics practiced in Brasília. It has, but other variables also play a role, such as trends in public opinion, proposals submitted by the Executive Branch, and platforms adopted by the status-quo parties and those of the opposition.

Codato argues that what is occurring is not so much a “popularization” of the profile of the federal deputy, but a professionalization of the political class as a whole. “These days, it’s hard for people to get elected as a federal deputy if they don’t have a fairly lengthy career in politics,” the political scientist says. According to Codato, there are very few individuals, regardless of occupation and economic class, who have the kind of financial assets and popularity rating that would enable them to leapfrog over rungs on the political career ladder, i.e, city council member, mayor, and state legislative deputy—before attempting to win a seat in Brasília. São Paulo Deputy (and professional clown) Tiririca from the Partido da República – PR (Party of the Republic), elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, is an exception, not the rule.

Political scientist Leôncio Martins Rodrigues, author of three books on the socio-professional profile of the federal deputies, the most recent of which (Pobres e ricos na luta pelo poder – novas elites na política brasileira [The Poor and the Rich in the Battle for Power–New Elites in Brazilian Politics]) was published by Topbooks in 2014, says that the increasingly grass-roots orientation of the political class is actually occurring in the federal Chamber. “Rural businesspersons are the ones who have lost the most clout,” says the former professor from USP and the University of Campinas (Unicamp). Officially retired, he’s actually still doing research. “In mass electoral systems, the economic power of the wealthiest is counterbalanced by large organizations.” Running a campaign for the office of federal deputy is an expensive undertaking these days. Having a labor union or some other entity or sponsor is one of the ways that candidates from the lower and middle classes can obtain support.

Despite the changes in the profiles of federal congressmen, some associations still persist. Millionaire deputies tend to come from the right and “poor ones” from the left. Martins Rodrigues obtained the access disclosure statements submitted by the 513 deputies elected in 2010 and analyzed those from the 50 wealthiest and the 50 who had reported the least amount of assets. Among the more prosperous, 62% were from parties on the right, 30% from center, and 8% from the left. Two-thirds of the “poorest” were from the left, and the other third was split between members of groups from the right (a larger number) and those from the center. Martins Rodrigues notes that going into politics still affords individuals of the humblest origins an opportunity to rise in social status. “And you don’t even have to be dishonest,” he says. “All you need is a federal deputy’s salary.”