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The cure for the ailment

Does the country really need an electoral system reform?

“Political reform is the mother of all reforms”, stated the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros. Starting from the recent Mixed Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPMI) into the Post Office, the consideration for changes in the national political system is present in the speech of accused and accusers, including the polemic deputy Roberto Jefferson, who, in his testimony, invoked the idea as a panacea for corruption. “Institutions don’t create corrupt people. We need some changes, but nothing radical, under the threat that, in the opposite direction to that expected, we could cut the channels of important access of the population to the political system”, says Argelina Figueiredo, coordinator of the project entitled, Political Institutions, standards of Executive-Legislative interaction and governmental capacity (which had FAPESP’s support), in partnership with Fernando Limongi. “The performance of the Brazilian political system is not so negative and doesn’t justify proposals of political reform, certainly not with this urgency and/or depth with which the issue is being treated in the face of public opinion. Reforms aren’t antidotes for crises and its effect upon the composition of the political class is doubtful and uncertain”, she says.

The discussion concerning political reform is multi-faceted, but has four recurring points around which a consensus of opinion does not exist: party fidelity, with the objective of decreasing inter-party migration; the adoption of a closed list, or that is, the parties would prepare an ordered list of their candidates before the elections, consequently the elector would only have to vote for the party symbol, which would supposedly terminate electoral ‘individualism’; the impediment clause, which forecasts the canceling of the registration of a party that does not manage to elect at least one representative to the National Congress, or which had not obtained at least 50,000 votes; a system of public campaign funding, which would put an end to the so-called under the counter money. “We need to take care with naive hyper-institutionalism that believes that all can be modified through public institutions, purely by the existence of rules”, analyzes  Limongi. For the authors, the cure could well come out worse than the ailment: “In the name of ‘governableness’ and of governmental efficiency it’s not necessary to change the system of government and to restrict parliamentary rights even more and certainty not to establish barriers of entrance into the political system, impeding that social demands can be channeled by the Legislature”, say the researchers. “There’s no reason to diminish the number of parties and to give greater advantages to party leaders. The reforms would restrict the role of Congress in the definition of the government agenda and its autonomous influence in the formulation of public policies”, they observe.

The criticisms of the current situation are well known: Brazilian democracy is still in a consolidation process and sees itself always threatened by a ‘governability crisis’ because of the multi-party system and by proportional representation. For the reformists, the growing incorporation of the masses into the political process would result in an excess of demands that, when unattended to, would lead to radicalism that would undermine the base of democracy. It would be necessary to sacrifice the many possible choices in the name of the creation of the majority, of the convergence of desire of the elector towards the middle ground. “The yardstick used to distinguish the vitality of institutions is given by the degree of restriction imposed on the preferences of the electors. According to this reasoning, the institutions that propagate or reflect these preferences are weak. The strong are those that act upon the electors, impeding that they lead to polarization and radicalization”, analyzes Limongi. Few parties and strong parties: diminishing the electors’ options and restricting their desires, then democracy would come out strengthened. The researchers disagree. “It’s not true that the Brazilian government finds itself immobilized through excessive demands of society that express themselves without filters in the political system”, they guarantee. The authors also disagree with the criticisms of a supposed weakness within the presidential system, which, in a multi-party regime, would always end up generating minority governments that would see themselves obliged to bargain with individual members of the Legislative, making concessions in detriment to the general well being and of the government agenda.

“These equivocal criticisms come from the principle that a presidential system of coalition, contrary to parliamentary system, is impossible”, says Limongi. “But the evidence doesn’t sustain the statement that the support obtained by the Executive has fundamentally been the result of individual bargaining with parliamentarians. The parties behave in a disciplined manner, contrary to what is said, and with collective players. We verified that the presidents of the period post 1988 had commanded party coalitions that were responsible for the approval of the government’s legislative agenda”, the authors explain. In their opinion, the Brazilian political system does not operate in a form that is very different from the parliamentary system, since the presidents form the government in the same manner as those of prime ministers: distributing ministries to parties and forming a coalition that secures the necessary votes in the Legislative. “We have a strong president and a decisive closed system that impedes congressional individualism”, observes Argelina. Exceptions make the rule.

“Collor was in the minority and believed that he could confront Congress with popular support. Lula, in his first year of his government, also opted for a minority government, reaching the point of un-authorizing deputy José Dirceu to negotiate an effective coalition with the PMDB (The Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement). Lula had thought that he could manage support only as a function of his agenda, without ceding space within the government”, the author evaluates. And in this, she completed, he turned to a parliamentary policy, even because, from the beginning, he was counting upon the support of opposition parties. Consequently, he was obliged to back out of that situation. “President Lula’s coalition is different from that made by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In FHC’s terms the union made between the PSDB (The Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy and the PFL ( The Liberal Front Party) worked well, because the government knew how to control the parties, which came together around the agenda of monetary stability and of insertion into the international markets.” However, the relationship of Lula’s PT (Workers’ Party with the PL (Liberal Party), an organization much weaker that the PFL (implanted for some time in the government machine), is delicate. “Contrary to the PSDB, the PT has within its ranks very different ideological groups, which create difficulties in the control of the party by the president. The result of these factors was the need to group together many partners in a heterogeneous coalition that complicates the political life of the government”, says Argelina. For her, independent from the system of government, a coalition works better when the number of partners and the divisions between them are fewer.

According to research results, this could well be different, since, the authors say,  “our parties are collective players and the party benches, contrary to the myth that is put about, are disciplined”. From 1989 until 1999, during the 675 parliamentary votes that took place in the Chamber of Deputies, it was observed that, following the indication given by the party leader, nine out of every ten deputies voted with their party. Thus, more and more, the government sees itself obliged to talk to the party instead of the individual deputy. “The Brazilian political system doesn’t generate the motivational conditions and not even institutional conditions for the politicians to base their political careers exclusively on personal and party links with the electors and with the Executive”, the authors reveals. This is yet another factor that, explain the research professors, is going to be on the side of the need for a ‘closed list’, as is preconceived by the reformists. “If the parties act in a disciplined manner in Congress, the open list is a false problem. As well as this, the closed list would eliminate the participation of the elector in inter party competition, diminishing the chance of intervention. The current system is better, since it works in two stages: an election within the party and afterwards the choice of the candidate by the elector”, observes Limongi.

Another good example of why the pessimistic vision concerning the national political system is overstated is the new budgetary process, which has managed to diminish the chances of corruption. “Individual amendments aren’t privileged by the Legislative. The internal rules of the Congress guarantee collective amendments the appropriation of the majority share of the allotted resources. Everything happens without the intervention of the Executive. This places under suspicion the notion that the budgetary process is basically orientated to attend to local interests or to the particular clientele of the parliamentarians”, the researchers evaluate.

For them, the sum of these and other factors is proof that the ‘personal vote’ is being gradually neutralized, be it through the concentration of powers in the hands of the Executive, or through an increase in the power of party leaders. But an excess of certain medicines can bring about other illnesses. “Some political reform proposals suggest increasing even further the power of the party leaders. Today the power of these leaders in Congress is so great that the deputies are obliged to totally obey them so that they can perform. It is these directors who define the participation of the deputies in working groups, secretariats etc. and, in this manner, they control the performance of their party bench colleagues”, notes Argelina. If on the one hand, she observed, this guarantees a coherent political party performance, then on the other it stimulates the poor practice of exchanging parties, the ‘change and change again’ situation. “The party exchanges, though it may appear paradoxically, are not proof of individualism of our political class. Rather the contrary. The stimulus for the migration during the recent period came from the party political leaders. It is the party political leaders who have incentives to attract deputies to their party”, says Limongi. Therefore, it would be necessary “to tie their hands, to remove from them the temptation of attracting figureheads to their party. Other incentives are needed so that the deputy remains in the party to which he/she was elected, more than artificial fidelity by force of law”, reinforces Argelina.

Effectively, there is no logic in forcing a deputy to remain in his/her party as a way of preventing migration between parties for parliamentarians who are searching for particular interests. In the end, someone who supposedly would sell himself or herself to the PL would continue to open up negotiations in the case where he/she would again flee to the PFL, for example. The problem, as the authors note, truly appears to lie with the party leaders. Today, they point out, the leaders and the president of the Chamber establish the agenda of the work and have procedural rights that allow them to hold strict control over the legislative process and over the behavior of the floor of Chamber. On the other hand, the Executive have in their favor the power to emit Provisional Measures (PMs). The Provisional Measure is capable of modifying the structure of parliamentary choice and makes the president the nation’s principal legislator. Even though the PMs need to be approved by the majority of the parliamentarians, the Executive can manage a high level of success in the approval of its projects, not only determining the agenda of the legislative work but also influencing its results. “The standard of legislative production observed in Brazil doesn’t find itself very distant from the performance of parliamentarian regimes, be it from the point of view of initiative, or in the relationship of the degree of success of the propositions of the chief Executive’, says the researchers. Thus, what is there to reform?

One of the points under discussion in favor of change is campaign funding. “There’s a new myth in the market: it is said that the Brazilian campaigns are the most expensive in the world. I don’t believe that we know the real cost of campaigns in all of the countries in the world. Data concerning Brazil comes from estimates, when they’re not pure guess work”, ponders Limongi. In this manner, nothing guarantees that the proposal of public campaign funding would be an efficient measure against a greater evil and the current ‘under the counter’ funding. “Public or private, it’ll not be with this type of alteration that will finish with this practice. To adopt a system of money ‘above the counter’, does not guarantee the end of money ‘below the counter’. “What’s really needed is to give incentive to the financiers to make legal donations by way of fiscal incentives. Also, a forecast of the spending of the political parties could be made and greater fiscal measures could be exercised over them. But taking into consideration the roof of realistic financing, not idealistic”, says Argelina. Which, perhaps, would have avoided the current clashes in the Congress, in which deputies and senators are accusing each other of underestimating via the Upper Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the true expenses of their campaigns. “The twenty years of authoritarian rule, in which society was forbidden from expressing itself, have contributed to the widening of corruption”, the researcher believes.

Even at that, the professor does not believe in the so-called ‘mensalão’ (monthly stipend- the accusation that Executive is pay a monthly sum to allies for their support). “It would be an irrational procedure and without guarantees for the government. The system isn’t moved by corruption and patronage. If there is something, it doesn’t happen between the government and individual deputies, but via political parties. What may have happened was the distribution of money to some parties that, for their part, divided it out among their members.” The most reasonable situation, in the professor’s opinion, is that there was an immense amount of ‘under the counter’ money based on illegal company donations, from the overpriced government contracts or even by way of bonuses of ads placement, the money from publicity campaigns given back by the publicity agencies as a form of attracting adverts. “It’s just as well that this practice should be judged at this moment in time, which can lead to a change in control of party financing and of Executive biddings.”

In the specific case of the accusations made against the PT, Argelina also says that it would not be possible to evaluate the impact of the revelation of the supposedly ‘under the counter’ party money. “But many members of the PT party are satisfied with this process, since it can help to consolidate the party. It grows considerably and rapidly and it would be idealistic to imagine that it wasn’t affected by some type of corruption.” The positive exposures of the PT wounds cannot, therefore, be compared, says the researcher, with the media ‘success’ of Roberto Jefferson. “The only goal of his accusations is to attempt to put in place the idea that all politicians are corrupt, just like him. This disheartens the population, which is taken over by cynicism and skepticism concerning politics and the political system. Deputy Jefferson isn’t playing any important role for our democracy. He’s merely a corrupt politician who didn’t receive what he wanted and felt himself insecure with his corrupt scheme in the Post Office”, she alerts. Another important notice from the researcher is for public opinion to exercise the right of control over the ongoing CPMI.

“It’s not true that all CPIs end up in a ‘pizza party’. Many were fundamental and effective, the only thing was that they didn’t catch the headlines. In the current case, huge play acting is taking place, and, if pressure from society doesn’t exist, the parliamentarians won’t get to the true facts, but will lose themselves in media exhibitions for their electors.” However, recalls the author, the system survived the Collor affair and is going to survive the current crisis with the same force. “We should be commemorating the success of our democracy, and not lamenting it”, says Limongi. “There’re no political systems that solve crises. It’s not by reforming the system that the conflicts and misunderstandings will be resolved. They occur and are normal.”

The Project
Political institutions, standards of Executive-Legislative interaction and governmental capacity (00/14799-0); Modality: Thematic Project; Coordinators: Fernando Limongi – Cebrap and Argelina Figueiredo – Unicamp; Investment: R$ 228,739.26 (FAPESP)