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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Upgrading Brasil's Political Class

BelloUpgrading Brazil’s political class

A scandal-ridden congress must reform itself

“DECENCY now!” That slogan, on a banner at a demonstration in São Paulo on March 26th, sums up what Brazilians want from their politicians. They have come to expect the opposite. Rodrigo Janot, the chief prosecutor, has asked the supreme court to open 83 investigations into politicians whom he suspects of taking part in a scheme to extract billions of dollars in bribes from construction firms, which in turn benefited from inflated public contracts. Eight ministers in the cabinet of President Michel Temer, the Speakers of both houses of congress and grandees from all the main parties are reportedly on the list. (All deny wrongdoing.) That adds to the dozens of officials already caught up in the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigations into the scandal, which is centred on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company.
Revelations of misdeeds by politicians have turned Brazilians’ attention to the question of how to elect better ones. Today’s system encourages political diversity at the expense of quality. Any new party that secures 486,000 signatures (from a pool of 143m voters) has a right to money from the state and to free television time. There is no nationwide vote threshold for electing a party to congress. Lower-house deputies, like senators, represent whole states rather than districts, which makes campaigns expensive, encourages corruption and weakens bonds between voters and their representatives.

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The drafters of Brazil’s constitution set up the hyper-proportional system in 1988 to ensure that all voices in the continent-sized country would be heard. It has led to cacophony. One study of legislatures in 137 countries elected from 1919 to 2015 found that the lower house of Brazil’s current congress is the most fragmented anywhere over that period. Most of its 28 parties have no ideology or detailed programme. Nearly half of Brazilian voters forget which candidate they picked barely a month after casting their ballots.
Presidents dare not lose track. They must master unruly coalitions. Governments buy politicians’ votes with favours. The Petrobras bribery scheme was in part a way to reward congressmen for staying loyal to the government of President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached on an unrelated charge last year.
This model is now “exhausted”, says the top judge on the electoral tribunal. In fact, its flaws were apparent from the beginning. Every congress since 1988 has set up a commission to look into electoral reform. They have not made much progress. In 1995 congress set a threshold for parties to enter the legislature of 5% of the national vote. The supreme court struck that down, saying it violated the constitution’s goal of proportional representation.
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Most electoral innovations have come from the judiciary. In 2007 the electoral tribunal ruled that congressmen who switch parties must give up their seats. In 2015 the supreme court banned donations to parties by corporations. The Lava Jato inquiries are themselves a sort of political reform, “without anaesthesia”, as one minister in Mr Temer’s government puts it. Dozens of lawmakers could be charged before the election due in late 2018.
The courts cannot do it all; politicians will have to reform themselves. They are starting to do so. One step forward was a vote by the senate in November to approve a constitutional amendment that would establish a national vote threshold and prohibit electoral coalitions. These are short-lived arrangements in which big parties yield seats to smaller ones in exchange for their rights to television time. If the lower house approves the amendment by October this year, the next elections could be held under the new rules. The next congress—less fragmented and more honest—could then make further changes, including splitting up state-sized constituencies into districts.
But some fear that politicians will use reform to shield themselves from greater accountability. One contentious proposal is to give voters a choice among party lists rather than individual candidates. In 2015 the lower house defeated a plan to introduce such “closed lists” by a vote of 402 to 21. Backbenchers feared it would let party chiefs promote their cronies. The idea has come back. Proponents say that closed lists would bolster parties and save them money, compensating for the ban on corporate donations. That would be a plus.
But to some voters, this looks like a plot to avoid the pain inflicted by Lava Jato. Politicians in Mr Janot’s sights could be re-elected if they hide behind party logos. “No to closed lists!” was among the slogans seen at the protests in March. It is good news that the arcane issue of political reform has moved on to the streets. That means it may actually happen.