A brief history of Brazil’s “centrists” – and why they matter to the election

. Jul 31, 2018
Members of Brazil's "Big Center" Members of Brazil's "Big Center"

Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori once called Brazil “the most anti-partisan country of the world.” That is particularly true today, as dissatisfaction with Brazilian political parties reaches record-setting levels with the electorate blaming corrupt politicians for the recession. But this rejection hasn’t stopped presidential hopefuls from engaging in the active courtship of a group called the centrão, or the “Big Center,” even if this front of mid-sized parties represents the very concept of the establishment.

In a presidential race where candidates are bending over backward to present themselves as outsiders, why does the “Big Center” matter so much?

As is often the case in Brazil’s political system, ideological labels are misleading. Despite what the name of the group might indicate, the “Big Center” is by no means made of moderate, middle-of-the-road parties. Basically, the front is a loose coalition of conservative forces, dating back to the Constitutional Assembly of 1987-1988.

At that point in time, the &#8220;Big Center&#8221; was a coalition set up to prevent what they saw as a &#8220;left-wing wave&#8221; from creating a welfare state that would cripple the young democracy&#8217;s finances. </p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="426" src="" alt="big center brazil congress politics 2018 election" class="wp-image-6553" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1400w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Always in power</h2> <p>However, Brazilian conservatives are usually not hardcore ideologues, but pragmatists who are willing to negotiate with any president in exchange for pork barrelling benefits. In the Constitutional Assembly, they were key allies of the then-President José Sarney, a conservative, giving him a fifth year in office and helping him to prevail against the more progressive branch of his Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MDB). </p> <p>Many politicians from the &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; however, also offered their support to Mr. Sarney&#8217;s reformist successors, such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. </p> <p>The &#8220;Big Center&#8221; did not set the tone of Mr. Cardoso&#8217;s nor Lula&#8217;s administrations. Actually, it often worked a roadblock to more audacious reforms. The Brazilian political system has many veto points, powerful vested interests that want to keep their privileges. Nonetheless, that group of parties was indispensable to ensure the congressional support those presidents needed.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="321" src="" alt="big center brazil congress politics 2018 election" class="wp-image-6551" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The &#8220;Big Center&#8221; in the 2018 presidential race</h2> <p>Brazil currently has 28 political parties represented in Congress. While their names change a lot, as they&#8217;re frequently &#8220;rebranding,&#8221; their leaders and their way of doing business remain the same. </p> <p>Nowadays, the &#8220;Big Center&#8221; includes the following parties: the Democrats <a href="">party</a>, the Progressives party, the Brazilian Republican Party, and the Solidarity party. Their most important asset in the 2018 presidential campaign is bringing more free television and radio airtime for candidates. In Brazil, the law dictates that media with public concessions must broadcast ads from political parties during the campaign season, and the time is divided up according to each party&#8217;s number of seats in the House.&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="358" src="" alt="big center brazil 2018 election coalitions" class="wp-image-6574" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Traditionally, these television and radio ads have been <em>the</em> key source of information for millions of voters. There is some debate as to whether social media is changing this pattern, but we must remember that one-third of Brazilians still do not have access to the internet, especially in the North and the Northeast. This gap matters a lot in a national election.</p> <p class="has-text-align-left">The &#8220;Big Center&#8221; was courted by nearly all of the leading candidates – far-right Jair Bolsonaro and center-left Ciro Gomes, for instance, fought tooth and nail to settle a deal with them – but Geraldo Alckmin, of the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, eventually won their support in what was a major victory for his troubled campaign. </p> <p>Mr. Alckmin&#8217;s rivals tried to undermine the possible effects of support from &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; calling the parties that form the group &#8220;an example of everything that is wrong with Brazilian politics.&#8221; While that&#8217;s not a bad description, the truth is they all would have liked to have the &#8220;Big Center&#8221; in their corner. This is one of the big dilemmas that anyone who wants to change the political system must face.

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Mauricio Santoro

Santoro holds a Ph.D. in Political Science. He is currently Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of International Relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro

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