Why New Attempts to Reform Brazil’s Electoral System Will Fail

The British refused to approve the reform of their electoral regime a few weeks ago, and this was no surprise. Most likely, the Brazilian electoral reform will face the same outcome. Conventional wisdom says that electoral reforms are unlikely to succeed given that they have to be proposed and approved by legislators elected under current rules. Electoral reforms usually take place in the wake of an external shock. However, this does not apply to the current situation in Brazil.

Generally, an external shock to a country or its political system may not be a sufficient condition, but it is the necessary condition to produce a real electoral regime change. In the British case, the shock came out of the need to form the first coalition government in the United Kingdom since World War II. In order to join the Conservative coalition, the Liberal Democrats required a mechanism to reduce the seat-to-vote distortion, which has historically penalized the party that has received more than one-fourth of the votes but has rarely held more than 5 percent of the seats.

In most cases, electoral reforms follow one specific direction— toward the implementation of proportional representation (PR) or mixed-member systems. This was exactly what happened in Brazil, which emulated British single member model during the most part of the period the country was a monarchy (1822-1891). Later, when Brazil became a Republic, the country adopted the PR in 1932 as an attempt to constrain the power of the executive.

A few authoritarian governments, however, followed an inverse path. For example, France adopted a PR system in the 1970s for about a decade, but it abandoned it shortly afterward. The creation of a mixed-member system in 1949 by the Germans was a reaction to the external shock represented by the rise of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. The PR system introduced during the Weimar Republic was deemed responsible for the rise of the extremist power in Germany. Since then, the mixed system has become the “ideal” model, which has been followed by several countries such as Italy, New Zealand, Venezuela, etc.

In 2002, the number of consolidated democracies around the world that use some sort of mixed or pure PR electoral system equaled the number of countries that maintained a majoritarian or first-past-the-post electoral systems like the United Kingdom and the United States. Today, 30 countries use a mixed-member system, 49 countries use a majoritarian system, and 72 countries use a proportional representation system. Practically all-new democracies have adopted the PR or mixed systems.

The external shock in Italy that led to the adoption of the mixed system in 1993 was the Tangentopoli (“bribesville”) scandal, which led to the Mani Pulite (“clean hands”) campaign by the Italy’s Judiciary. The affair caused the country to initiate a referendum on political reform and the electoral consequences were quite significant. As a result of moving to a mixed system, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) was wiped out from the electoral politics; they did not even meeting the minimum threshold for representation. The voting share of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), which together with PSI had been governing Italy since the World War II, took a huge tumble from 40 percent to 5 percent of votes.

In New Zealand, where a referendum introduced a mixed system 1992, the shock was actually the victory of the “wrong winner”. That is, the party that got the second place in the general election obtained a majority in parliament, forming the government.

In Venezuela, the shock that brought the adoption of a mixed system in 1993 was the “Caracazo”— a massive popular protest in which 250 people died— and the scandal that culminated in the impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Peres.

In Brazil, what would be an external shock capable of spurring comprehensive reform in the country’s electoral system toward a mixed-member model? The Mensalão scandal? The election of a political outsider like the illiterate clown Tiririca in the state of Sao Paulo?

The landslide reelection of President Lula in 2006, in the wake of the Mensalão scandal, can be understood as electoral forgiveness of the president’s bad behavior. It might also suggest that the Brazilian Mani Pulite did not follow the Italians’ path of the Italians. Most importantly, despite the Worker’s Party mobilization for the introduction of the closed party list system and the PMDB´s proposal to introduce the single non-transferable vote for legislative elections, (the so-called “distritão”) there is no window of opportunity for such changes. These reforms would require an external shock. This is, indeed, the main paradox of political reforms. Since the president is the agenda setter in Brazil, reforms would have a better chance to be carried out with its initiative and leadership. However, PT governments especially at the federal level have a common characteristic of not promoting institutional reforms. Since 2000 – the year of the last meaningful institutional reform promoted in Brazil, the Fiscal Responsibility Law – no proposals for reforms have been presented (the reform of the judiciary in 2004 had been presented much earlier). The strategy is to minimize political costs, manage the coalition through horse-trading in Brazil’s Congress and surf on positive economic waves generated from the external environment. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has been in office for more than 100 days already and she has not proposed any major reform yet. The honeymoon is over. The strategy is to avoid decisions with highly concentrated costs even if diffuse benefits are abundant.

In fact, political reform was a major campaign issue in Brazil. However, the costs of non-reform can easily be shifted to the Congress. A key question is whether there are other windows of opportunity that will open in the near future or is Brazil foregoing unique opportunities to enact much needed structural reforms, such as reforms to social security system, labor codes, tax policy?

The slogan of the Italian 1993 political reform was “no to the Lottizzazione” (the massive politically motivated distribution of top positions in the public bureaucracy) and the end of the public campaign financing system. This slogan does not seem to resonate in Brazil’s proposed agenda of electoral reform. Political appointment is rampant in the Brazilian administrative machine while the country’s Congress is considering implementing public financing of electoral campaign. However, the ongoing proposals are more likely not to be approved, with the exception of the “anti-Tiririca measure”, which will mean the end of the coalitions in proportional elections for Brazil’s Congress.