Proposals to Root-Out Political Corruption in Brazil


As I have opined in previous posts, a) the party and electoral system is the key to understanding political corruption in Brazil; and, b) the media has been loathe to provide salience to any concrete proposals for reform, especially among civil society advocates. Simply put, Brazil’s fragmented party system, giant districts, and open-list competition produces hearty profits for the media. Why rock the boat if you can have the captain walk the plank? If the media will not give salience to reform proposals, let me indulge you with one that should have long ago grabbed everyone’s attention.

Coalizao reformaThe Movement Against Electoral Corruption – and over 110 different organizations that comprise the  Coalition for Political Reform – have been collecting signatures for their legislative petition since the initiative got started three years ago. The sparcity of media coverage on the Coalition is particularly alarming because the initiative is headed by the same organization that successfully imposed the famous ‘Clean Slate Law’ (Ficha Limpa) upon Congress. The Ficha Limpa forced representatives to support a law prohibiting the candidacy of individuals found guilty of crimes. The story of the Clean Slate law is epic; I only wish the documentary were in English. At one point in the campaign, a politician told the movement’s leaders that “cows will fly before this law passes”. Cows effectively flew over the Brazilian Congress in 2010.

The Current Proposal Advanced by the Coalition for Political Reform Proposal 

1. Eliminate corporate political financing. (partially accomplished)
2. Establish a vote for representatives in two rounds.  In the first round, people vote for parties. In the second round they vote for representatives. Candidates are chosen in legally sanctioned party primaries, and final party lists must abide by gender parity. Lists are to be no more than double the number of seats up for election in a given district (the states).

Pros of the Proposal

The most positive aspect of the reform is that it requires no constitutional amendment, which eliminates the political wrangling of a 3/5 vote, twice, through both houses of Congress. Another positive aspect is that it eliminates the coattail effect and blind-party-vote that currently allows more than 90% of representatives to come to congress without being directly elected. As explained by Sean Burges in a recent COHA article, electors in Brazil currently vote for either party or candidate. Typically, people vote for parties, and thus candidates at the top of party lists are elected to Congress proportional to vote tallies. Leaving aside the undemocratic nature of most party lists, another perversion of the current system is that the surplus votes of high vote-getting candidates (like Tiririca the clown) are pooled in favor of party lists, bringing ever more party hacks to Congress. In total, only 35 deputies were directly elected to Congress in the last federal contest! Laughably little representation.

Cons of the Proposal

The principal con of the proposal is that, while it may do something to improve the quality of representation, it will do little to reduce the number of parties. As I wrote, “It’s the Party System, Stupid”, and I stand by the idea that shrinking the size of electoral districts is the best way forward. Accountability depends on electors being able to identify who represents them and what these individuals stand for, which is best accomplished when there are fewer representatives per district. Right now, the states each serve as distinct districts, with the 8 largest states having more than 20 representatives each, and São Paulo being home to 70 representatives. With so many seats up for grab, every João, Zé, and Paulo has been able to start their own Party of Hope and stake a place in Congress. This fragmentation leads to extreme difficulty in putting majority coalitions together and, in turn, foments various forms of political anomie, including rent-seeking and corruption by parties holding coalition portfolios in government, and those simply selling their votes in parliament.


There are other things that need reforming too. Take malapportionment in Congress – a serious distortion on public policy. Make this calculation: the least populous states are guaranteed a minimum of 8 seats in the Lower House. The most populous state is limited to 70 representatives. That means that the 9 least populated states, which have a combined population of 19.8 million people and 72 seats in Congress, have more representation than the state of São Paulo,  which has well over double their population (44.4 million) and fewer representatives (70). What is the point of a Federal Senate if you are going to distort the Lower House in line with federalist principles? Guess why the ‘rural’ lobby has more sway in Congress – and over public policy – than anyone else.

More reforms next post.

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