It’s the Party System. What To Do about It.


The irony of Brazil’s political system 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. What can be done to fix Brazilian politics? As I wrote last post, it’s the party system, stupid.

Moderate party systems work best, we know. Political scientists have found this out by examining tradeoffs in representativeness, accountability, and responsiveness. Too few parties is bad for representation; too many washes representation out.  Too few can promote collusive pacts and low levels of accountability; too many, and leaders resort to illegality to pay for the support of ‘allies’. Too few parties can cause polarization, gridlock and unresponsive governments; too many leads to extreme difficulty in coordinating support for key policies.

As the Mensalão and the Petrolão show, Brazil is now a country where legislative vote-buying occurs without a shadow of a doubt. With perhaps one or two exceptions, all administrations have been accused of this crime since the return to democracy. Two have now been indicted. Just to shed perspective on a crowded cast of political crimes – legislative vote-buying is particularly egregious because it misappropriates what amounts to thousands or million of votes – corrupting the democratic process at its core.

The focus on money for campaigns and for support has damaged the integrity of parties ethically, and, as a result, ideologically.

The principal parties are admitting so much. Today, the Folha de São reports that the three principal parties in the Brazilian Congress – the PT, PMDB, and the PSDB – will all engage in self-critiques in an upcoming issue of National Interest Magazine. The PT has lost its ideological and ethical moorings; the PMDB has become opportunistic and deracinated from its legacy of democratic struggle; and the PSDB has become disconnected from the masses and has failed to act as the voice of opposition. In essence, these three parties have privileged short-term opportunism over programmatic and ethical concerns.

What can be done? Barriers to new party formation have not proved especially effective…or democratic. The best solution is a simple proposal by Octavio Amorim Neto, Bruno Freitas Cortez, and Samuel de Abreu Pessoa: limit the size of Brazil’s electoral districts. It’s practically impossible to have 30-plus parties elected to parliament when districts are limited to 12 seats. Right now,  the states serve as districts and some of them include 50+ representatives. Here,  party diversity blossoms – to the detriment of democracy and accountability. More on this later, or read the proposal (linked) above.

P.s. there is no good justification for why states should serve as electoral districts.

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