Can Brazil’s Electoral System Learn from South Africa’s Mistakes?

At the beginning of every new administration, it seems the electoral reform tops the political agenda in Brazil. This time is no different. The most controversial proposal on the table of Congress is to replace the current open-list proportional representation system—in which voters define the order of the elected legislators—for a closed-list system—in which political parties pre-order the list of candidates and voters vote for a party label rather than individual candidates. The rationale of this reform, which has the Worker’s Party (PT) as the most important policy advocate, is to provide greater party control over the party members’ behavior in Congress. The question is whether Brazil would benefit from this reform. In this regard, the South Africa experience with a closed-list system could shed light on this potential electoral reform.

The greatest political scandal in the history of South Africa—and worldwide, given the large quantity of resources at play—was the “Arms Deal” affair that involved the Ministry of Defense’s purchase of jets, helicopters and submarines valued at 32 billion rands (approximately $6 billion) between 1996 and 2000. The firms involved, including the consortium British Aerospace-SAAB, Aerommachi and Thomson CSF, were large multinational weaponry companies, although other local suppliers also participated as sub-contractors.

The crisis began when the South African Congress received the report about the program of weapon acquisition, filed by the auditor general, in September of 2000. The report pointed out irregularities in the purchases, particularly with regard to the relations between the firms and the Department of Procurement of the Ministry of Defense; along with those between the latter and local suppliers, many of which were intimately linked to the African National Party (ANC)´s elite. The scheme had been commanded by then Vice President Jacob Zuma and by two of his advisors, the Shaik brothers. The report by the auditor general was used as a base for the powerful Special Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA). In October 2000, this committee recommended that a special investigation should be conducted to probe the evidence about the unmet legal procedures regarding contract allocation.

Presided since 1999 by a legislator and professor of public finance from the small opposition party, the Inkatha National Party, the committee worked on the heated exchange of opinions by the ANC, which controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in Congress. Congress’ boycott to the workings of SCOPA took on various forms. As expected, the majority of committee members behaved according to the orientation of the ANC party’s leader whose fundamental goal was to minimize the political costs of the case. Isolated members of the committee, such as Andrew Feinstein, undertook personal crusades to guarantee the independence of their work. Due to his impressive engagement to both the cause and the technical training, Feinstein, an economist from Cambridge University, became the symbol of this crusade for the moralization of politics, which reverberated spectacularly in the media. Amid a formidable scandal, Zuma was obliged to resign.

Another form of boycott was the intense veto for the investigations to be undertaken by an independent unit for corruption control, the Heath Investigative Committee. As an alternative, the majority in Congress created a special committee over which there could be more control. Accordingly, a working group was created made up of the auditor general, the public protector, and the director of national prosecutions. The auditor general released various versions of the report that were far from the original. The most compromising aspect in terms of the auditor general’s independence was the fact that before presenting those modified version, he had discussed the content of the report with the president and leaders of the ANC.

It is important to note that it was the level of visibility reached by the work of the independent committee that led to the elaboration of various versions of the general auditor’s report. The media played a central role in maintaining the issue in the country’s agenda. Independent news outlets that follow an active line of investigative journalism kept their focus on the issue and were constantly bombarded by the ANC, which accused them of attempting a “mediatic coup.” The working group, of which the auditor general was part, presented his conclusions in late 2001, exonerating the defendants of any irregularity. Public opinion viewed this as a cover up.

Accused of having interfered in the work of the National Prosecuting Authority, President Mbeki resigned. After that, the evolution of the facts was quite suggestive: Zuma becomes president of the ANC and president of the country while Shaik and other accomplices went to prison (although they were released following Zuma’s personal involvement in the case). But where was Andrew Feinstein?

The lessons from the “Arms Deal” affair are multifaceted but it reveals what can occur with the utilization of close-lists electoral systems, especially for those who defend the public interest even when that implies turning their backs against the party. Andrew Feinstein, who became popular among the country’s middle class, was excluded from the party list of the ANC´s candidates in the following parliamentary elections and resigned from his post. Mr. Feinstein now lives in London and works for an NGO. After agreeing to an interview at the Johannesburg airport, he told that all doors in South Africa were closed for him, despite the personal support that he had received from Mandela.

Most importantly for the current debate about political reform that has taken place in Brazil, Feinstein stated “the big institutional problem in South Africa is the utilization of a closed-list.” In the current open-list electoral system adopted in Brazil, Feinstein would probably be reelected with a spectacular vote, consistent with his prestige and popularity! From that moment onward, he said, that would be one of his slogans.

Contrary to the widespread assumption by advocates of reform in Brazil, the closed-list system is not a solution to the problem of political corruption in the country. It is instead a mechanism that reduces citizen capacity to punish or reward their representatives. Nonetheless, the closed-list can bring about positive results, such as the increase of female representation in Congress. The closed-list system could also reduce the costs of campaigns. Yet, many normative values are at stake. Perhaps we would be better off choosing the capacity of making politicians accountable as the most important one in Brazil´s current political environment.