Brazil’s problem is more than just Jair Bolsonaro

. May 31, 2020
bolsonaro institutional problem President Jair Bolsonaro prepares to address the nation. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Over the course of less than a month, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro joined a rally in favor of a military coup to suspend the Congress and Supreme Court, broke with his most popular cabinet minister, and found himself the target of multiple investigations and calls for impeachment.

A former Army captain and an ardent admirer of the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), Mr. Bolsonaro has long championed authoritarian tactics. But once in power, he proved to be a poor administrator and an even worse negotiator. His incredibly popular Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned after Mr. Bolsonaro allegedly attempted to interfere with Federal Police investigations for the benefit of his own sons. Therefore, it could seem to the casual observer as if Jair Bolsonaro is now simply reaping what he sowed.

</p> <p>While he certainly is the author of much of his own misfortune, this political crisis is in reality the latest reiteration of a perpetual institutional crisis in Brazil. Since the country began its first legitimate democratic period in the wake of World War II, it has struggled with the fact that the electoral processes employed created differing constituencies and motivations for the legislative and executive branches. This institutional weakness first appeared in Brazil’s 1946 constitution, yet it continues to plague the country even under the current magna carta, ratified in 1988.</p> <p>The result is that the executive and the legislative branches are elected with almost entirely different mandates. This significantly complicates President-Congress relations and makes it extremely difficult to govern with any efficacy. This reoccurring conundrum has led many presidents down paths destructive to democratic integrity, including corruption, populist intimidation, and appeals to extralegal solutions. This unfortunate reality has led, time and time again, to the <a href="">degradation of Brazilian democracy</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Regardless of Bolsonaro’s fate, the issue will occur again unless institutional reform is undertaken.</p> <h2>A historical problem</h2> <p>Following the conclusion of World War II, the Brazilian military launched a coup against the Estado Novo dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. With the end of the dictatorship, a swift period of democratization began and Brazil adopted a new constitution in 1946. For the first time in Brazilian history, honest democratic institutions would be combined with regularly held elections. This democratic phase would last for only 18 years, until another military coup in 1964. It was in this period that this institutional crisis first appeared.</p> <p>Historian Thomas Skidmore noted the phenomenon in his <a href="">work</a> in 1967. He explained that rural states were significantly overrepresented in Congress but that this advantage was lost in presidential elections. He states that this imbalance was created by the fact that congressional representation was allocated to the states based on population, but the 1946 constitution restricted suffrage to literates. In 1960s Brazil, nearly 40 percent of the population could neither read nor write, and many of them were found in rural areas. As a result, rural voters — often under the influence of local landowners — held enormous power in comparison with urban voters in congressional elections, but not the presidential dispute, where a national popular vote and first-past-the-post system were in place.</p> <p>This divergence set the stage for a deleterious disconnect between the executive and legislative branch, which became extremely apparent in the brief administration of former President Jânio Quadros.</p> <p>Elected in 1960, Jânio Quadros was in fact similar to Jair Bolsonaro in some ways. He ran on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform and was not the product of any of the major political parties — though he accepted their support when it benefitted him. Once elected, he vacillated wildly between pursuing major reform and random personal projects. Having almost no solid congressional foundation, he clashed frequently with the legislative branch, as many of them resented his proposed anti-corruption reforms.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="512" height="384" src="" alt="corruption janio quadros" class="wp-image-41110" srcset=" 512w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 512px) 100vw, 512px" /><figcaption>Jânio Quadros with his inseparable broom: the promised to sweep corruption away from politics. Photo: National Archive</figcaption></figure></div> <p>Just eight months into his administration, Jânio Quadros mysteriously resigned, citing the insurmountable forces he faced in attempting to govern. Most historians agree that he was inspired by the example of Charles de Gaulle in France and believed that his resignation would scare Congress into giving him emergency powers. It did not, and they accepted his resignation immediately.</p> <p>It is possible that President Quadros believed that the thought of power shifting to his vice president, João Goulart, would prompt Congress and the military to demand that he stay in office. Mr. Goulart had <a href="">won office</a> as part of the opposition ticket, as Brazil allowed for split balloting at the time. He had a widespread fame as an ardent economic nationalist and some suspected him of communist leanings. His ascension did cause significant turmoil in the country but eventually he did take office as president.</p> <p>João Goulart also pushed a reform agenda, but instead of pursuing anti-corruption, he sought to fight inequality with a series of controversial measures — land reform being chief among them. Encountering even stiffer opposition from Congress, he opted for the route of populist appeal. Those around him constructed a popular base of trade unions and left-wing organizations. President Goulart then engaged in a strategy of governing through executive decree and defying Congress to push back, while traveling the country hosting massive rallies in favor of his reforms.</p> <p>When Congress proved unwilling to relent, João Goulart’s brother-in-law and others began plotting a military coup. Simultaneously, military leadership and several right-wing politicians were plotting a coup of their own, which they subsequently enacted in 1964, starting the country’s two-decade long repressive military dictatorship. Of course, the <a href="">dictatorship</a> did not suffer from this institutional malady. Once in power, the military enforced a two party system: their own party, and an ersatz opposition party of their own making. The dictatorship entirely suspended popular elections for the presidency. Through repression and constitutional manipulation, the military ensured they maintained power over the executive and the legislature at all times.</p> <h2>The problem today</h2> <p>The institutional issue resurfaced when Brazil returned to democracy after 1985, despite an updating of institutions. The <a href="">new constitution of 1988</a> enfranchised Brazil’s illiterate population for the first time. However, it also brought with it two other new institutional changes.</p> <p>First, it dramatically opened up the political arena allowing for a proliferation of political parties. This included the introduction of an open list proportional representation electoral system. Second, the constitution sought to maintain a degree of parity among states and avoid populous urban centers from dominating the rural states. Therefore, the constitution provided that states could have no less than eight and no more than 70 representatives.</p> <p>This enforcement of parity means that rural states remain overrepresented in a country with more than 84 percent of its population living in urban areas. For example, in São Paulo — Brazil’s most populous state — there are approximately 655,986 people for each one of the state’s 70 representatives. In the northern state of Roraima, each one of its eight representatives corresponds to approximately 75,720 people.</p> <p>The staggering number of parties — <a href="">30 elected to the latest legislature</a> — also means that the presidential and congressional electorates remain divided. Brazil now has a two-round system for electing the president that requires the eventual winner to secure a majority of votes. In this case, a handful of candidates compete for the presidency and a populist or charismatic appeal is a virtual necessity to reach the second round, as partisan affinity tends to be very weak in Brazil.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-parliament" data-src="visualisation/2635783" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>Meanwhile, congressional elections are a confusing competition between establishment parties and tiny niche outfits with congressional candidates making personalistic and patronage-based appeals to their constituents on local terms. The notorious lack of partisan loyalty by representatives in Brazil and the constantly shifting alliances means that affiliation to a particular color, banner, or name means little to voters. As a result, congressional contests are almost wholly disconnected from the presidential election. Motivations for the subsequently elected branches of government are equally divergent.</p> <p>The personal nature of Brazil’s presidential campaigns in this new era of democracy usually means that voters have high expectations for change when their candidate wins, without always appreciating fully the difficulties caused by the congressional makeup.</p> <p>No Brazilian president exemplifies this better than Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. By winning the 2002 election, Lula became Brazil’s first working-class president. His party, the Workers’ Party, is a rarity in Brazil as a true grassroots party that grew out of Brazil’s trade unions and their resistance to the military dictatorship. Hope abounded for the changes that could be wrought by this transfer of power.</p> <p>For many, the Lula administration delivered on its promises and was able to be quite effective after building a robust congressional coalition. This coalition, like the administration before it, relied on the trading of administration positions and government jobs in exchange for congressional support. The dark side of these alliances came to light in 2005, in a scandal known as the Mensalão. A congressional investigation into corruption revealed a massive vote-buying scheme run by the Workers’ Party whereby the government achieved its congressional coalition by way of monthly payoffs to congressmen in other parties.&nbsp;</p> <p>The investigation eventually led to <a href="">charges against 40 suspects</a> and took down high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party and Lula’s administration. The Workers’ Party’s ideological and historical distance from the other parties in Brazil likely made vote-buying a greater necessity, but the truth of the matter is that the Workers’ Party had essentially systematized a process that had become routine in Brazilian politics to allow for effective governance.</p> <p>After Lula left office, he was replaced by his hand appointed successor, Dilma Rousseff. Riding Lula’s coattails, Ms. Rousseff’s government achieved significant popularity in her first term. Building on this support, Ms. Rousseff and the Workers’ Party attempted to govern with a lesser degree of power sharing, hoping the administration could sidestep the trap and achieve effective governance without excessive trade-offs or appealing to anti-democratic methods.</p> <p>It was not to be, and when Brazil was rocked by the Operation Car Wash corruption scandal and the 2014 economic downturn, Ms. Rousseff’s popularity plummeted. Parties in her congressional coalition deserted her in droves and she was <a href="">impeached</a> for a budgeting technicality and removed from office in 2016.</p> <p>Ms. Rousseff&#8217;s vice-president and successor Michel Temer was from one of Brazil’s main establishment political parties and he deserted the administration when impeachment proceedings were filed.</p> <p>Once in government, despite suffering from an incredibly low 5 percent approval rating and constant corruption allegations, <a href="">Michel Temer had a significant advantage</a>. Unlike a traditionally elected Brazilian president, he shared a common bond with Congress. In his two short years as president, Congress not only saved him from impeachment twice but they also allowed him to pass a series of major reforms, including an overhaul of the education system, labor legislation, and a public spending ceiling.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro pledges to end &#8216;old politics&#8217;</h2> <p>Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018 campaigning on his anti-corruption and anti-establishment credentials. He decried the decadence of Brazil’s Workers’ Party governments, while extolling the virtues of an imagined golden age during the dictatorship. He vowed to introduce a new form of politics: he would not hand out favors or bribes and he wouldn’t even give out government jobs or posts in his administration to secure congressional support.</p> <p>In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro claimed he wouldn’t form a coalition at all; instead, he would build majorities in Congress for each proposal. This went against the new norms in the age of coalition presidentialism ushered in during redemocratization. It was not unprecedented however; President Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992) had attempted a similar strategy, largely without success, until he was impeached after corruption was discovered in his administration.</p> <p>Still, President Bolsonaro was seemingly aided in his quest by two political events. First, he had strong coattails — he had been responsible for his party securing 52 seats in Congress, compared to the eight they had before. Second, a newly instituted electoral threshold promised to weed out the excessive number of parties by eliminating small vote getters from contention.</p> <p>In reality, these events reveal the depth of the institutional deficit. While Mr Bolsonaro’s party secured 52 seats, the total in the Brazilian lower house is 513, leaving the party 205 votes short of a majority. The Workers’ Party had the single largest share of any party with just 56 seats. Meanwhile, the new electoral threshold eliminated just nine of the previously mentioned 30 parties that won seats.</p> <p>The new Congress, dominated by parties other than Mr. Bolsonaro’s, never embraced the idea of new politics and the lack of a coalition. The president proved inept in terms of congressional relations and frequently clashed with the lower house speaker Rodrigo Maia. Mr. Bolsonaro’s relationship with Congress proved so rocky that he eventually left his own party.</p> <p>One brief example illustrates this poor relationship. The expansion of the right to own and carry firearms had been perhaps the most visible of Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign promises. Early on in his administration, he had attempted to institute his desired reforms through executive action, only to have Congress strike down his changes. While segments of the legislature are enthusiastic supporters of looser firearm regulations, congressional leaders did not approve of the president&#8217;s methods and refusal to negotiate with lawmakers. To this day, no such legislation has been passed.</p> <p>Having failed to bypass Congress through decree, President Bolsonaro has gone through a checklist of the other tried and true workarounds. Earlier this year, Mr. Bolsonaro called for a popular protest against Congress, and more recently, he engaged in behavior far more dangerous. Under mounting pressure due to his ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic, he attended a rally on April 19, held outside army headquarters, calling on the military to execute a coup and close the Supreme Court and Congress. At the rally, President Bolsonaro declared, “we don’t want to negotiate anything.”<sup>&nbsp;</sup></p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro denies allegations that he, or those around him, organized the rally. Nevertheless, his attendance and vitriol is a chilling endorsement of the protest’s message. In a live broadcast to a similar gathering, the president told his supporters that the Armed Forces were on their side.&nbsp;</p> <p>Soon after the April 19 rally, Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned and <a href="">accused President Bolsonaro of interfering</a> in the Federal Police. This sent shockwaves through the Brazilian political world and led to a flood of calls for impeachment and the beginnings of legislative action to that end.</p> <p>Finding himself suddenly exposed and unable to overcome Congress or undermine the democratic system, Mr. Bolsonaro attempted reconciliation. He approached an informal coalition of ideologically vague center-right parties that hold a substantial number of seats known as the Centrão, or Big Center. Forced into submission, he offered administration posts, government jobs, and favors in exchange for their support and protection in Congress. The Centrão has tacitly agreed and Mr. Bolsonaro seems to be sliding towards a more conventional presidency.</p> <p>Brazil’s current political crisis is both institutional and historical. The impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro may well be justified, and some of his actions have been truly repugnant to defenders of democracy. However, it is vital that Brazilians and their politicians understand that his impeachment or pardon will not solve the political crisis. If Mr. Bolsonaro were <a href="">impeached</a>, it would mean that of the five presidents elected since the return to democracy, three will have been impeached.</p> <p>Only institutional reform that brings the legislative and executive branches closer together can provide a stabilizing solution. There are myriad reforms that could potentially solve this problem and it is the burden of policymakers to decide which route they will take. Solutions range from strengthening the electoral threshold to switching to a parliamentary system.&nbsp;</p> <p>Ultimately, Brazil has more than just a Bolsonaro problem.

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Jonathan Madison

Jonathan Madison is a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. His research specialties include the history of democracy and the history of Brazil.

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