Mensalão + Car Wash = It’s the Party System, Stupid.


It is safe to say that the problem with Brazil’s government is not its choice of coalition partners, but rather the lack of choice. Faced with a governing coalition in disintegration, Rousseff has given larger pieces of the state pie to several of Brazil’s many rent-seeking parties. One of them, the Partido Progresista (PP), has been accused of receiving R$358 million (US$100 million) in illegal party finance, bribes, and kickbacks in association with Petrobras and the Car Wash Scandal. Grim  details about the scandalous exploits of Brazil’s parties aside, the issue is how Brazilians should be looking beyond the current crisis to reform the atrocious electoral and party systems.

Brazil’s party system is an international pariah.

A clattering abomination. As the saying goes, ‘you don’t do politics in Brazil’s Congress, you do business’. The giant Mensalão Scandal proved this in 2005, and the Car Wash is proving it again, only a decade later. This time, virtually all parties are implicated – not just the coalition.

How ridiculous is Brazil’s Congressional party landscape?

Take Michael Gallagher’s country-by-country summary of party system size (effective number of parties) around the world over the last decades. Without getting into the mathematics of calculating effective number of parties, Brazil tops the globe with 14 effective parties at the electoral level (Eff Nv 2014).* In a distant second place is Indonesia, with nearly 9 effective parties – more than one-third fewer than Brazil. No country in Europe exceeds 8, and most are closer to 3-4.

In short, Brazil is not an outlier, it’s a freak.

But no one in Brazil is telling it like it is. In effect, many Brazilian political scientists have spread the myth of Brazilian exceptionalism – “Parliamentary Presidentialism”. Well, just like American myths of political exceptionalism, these myths are in need of a reality check and concomitant political reform.

A party system with over thirty parties represented in Congress poses serious problems for promoting credible public policy.

Perhaps most egregiously, it is easy for large private interests to capture representatives through political finance or coercive tactics (e.g. construction companies – Lava Jato). It is also easy for large economic interests – such as Globo – to divide an already divided party landscape and conquer. In procedural and policy terms, an extremely fragmented congress means that critical public interest reforms are difficult to pass. This explains why Brazil’s broadcasting law has remained relatively untouched since 1968. It also explains the failure of real pension reform and giant regulatory failures. As these two articles from the Associated Press and Reuter’s demonstrate, both the Brazilian media and Congress have failed to protect Brazilians from dangerous cars and exposure to pesticides that were banned twenty years ago in developed countries.

Political Recruitment Dilemma

With the current political system breaking down, now is the time to think about reform. Unfortunately, this job will be left mainly to citizens; legislators have few incentives to change the status quo. In effect, before real change can take place, Brazil needs to get over its political recruitment problem (“politics is for the corrupt, therefore only the corrupt go into politics”) and get better people to Congress.

*Algeria’s 2012 election did see a higher number of effective parties than Brazil, but I totally ignore this case, as the country has had the same President since 1999.

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