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Why Brazilian congressmen prefer local office to federal posts

. Dec 04, 2020
congressmen mayoral races Congressmen João Campos ditched a House seat for the Recife City Hall. Photo: Campaign

In the world of politics, local elected offices are frequently seen as stepping stones for politicians with higher goals. It is a way to build popularity and climb the political ladder to a seat in Congress, a governor’s office, or — for the truly ambitious — to the presidential palace. However, while this premise is often repeated in Brazil, traditionally the opposite has been true, with federal-level politicians choosing to aim locally.

In 2020, more than 10 percent of the House of Representatives ran in the municipal elections. Of the 70 that did so, a total of 11 were elected — three in the first round and eight in the runoff stage. The list includes major constituencies such as Recife, Maceió, São Luís, and Belém.

</p> <p>Political scientist David Samuels was the first to explicitly identify this trend in his 2003 book &#8220;<a href="https://www.amazon.com/Ambition-Federalism-Legislative-Politics-Brazil/dp/0521816718/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&amp;keywords=Ambition%2C+Federalism%2C+and+Legislative+Politics+in+Brazil&amp;qid=1606858741&amp;sr=8-3">Ambition, Federalism, and Legislative Politics in Brazil</a>.&#8221; His argument is that federalism shapes political ambition in the country, making careers in subnational levels of government particularly attractive. Weakly institutionalized legislative careers also play a role here.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the case of municipal elections, political power is what attracts federal congressmen to mayoral offices. Based on interviews with politicians, Mr. Samuels writes: “In every municipality, the mayor is the local political ‘boss’ — the person the people turn to with requests. Across Brazil, city councils are weak; the population looks instead to the mayor to solve local problems.” And the larger the municipality, the more attractive the mayoral office.&nbsp;</p> <p>As a result, many congressmen do not build careers in the House of Representatives. Instead, they use their time in Congress as a stepping stone for future opportunities at subnational levels of government. To illustrate his argument, Mr. Samuels used the comparatively low rates of successful re-election in Congress at the time. In the 1994 and 1998 elections, the percentage of congressmen winning re-election was 61.5 and 69.4 percent, respectively.&nbsp;</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/5iA2Sh7x4DODR4SHJj7ZXu" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Brazilian congressmen bucking their own trend?</h2> <p>However, further research into this phenomenon shows that this trend may not be as consistent as Mr. Samuels affirmed, and Brazilian congressmen could now be more inclined to stay put in federal-level offices. A 2012 paper by political science Ph.D. <a href="http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/ojs/index.php/riel/article/view/5846/4545">Fabiano Pegurier</a> highlights that the rate of attempted re-elections in the House of Representatives was high in 1994 and 1998 — sitting at around 78.5 and 80.2 percent, respectively. This suggests that many congressmen tried to hold on to their federal seats but were not wholly successful.&nbsp;</p> <p>Since then, the re-election rate varied, rising to 70 percent in 2002 and falling to 61.6 percent in 2006. In 2018, only half of Brazil&#8217;s lower house successfully won re-election. However, this election was treated as atypical&nbsp; due to the victory of outsider President Jair Bolsonaro and the ascension of dozens of congressional candidates on his coattails.&nbsp;</p> <p>Finally, turnover at the House of Representatives has also been decreasing. The percentage of first-term representatives in 1994 was 50 percent, but it remained steady at around 37 percent until 2006. This suggests that more and more members of Congress are choosing to stay put, in comparison to democratic periods.&nbsp;</p> <p>This development is seen as positive news. In Brazil, when a politician resigns from his/her House seat, they are replaced by politicians who did not receive enough votes to be elected. My own research suggests that these understudies are less effective as lawmakers than those who are directly elected.&nbsp;</p> <p>The more politicians begin investing in their current jobs, the better off Brazil&#8217;s democracy will be.

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Beatriz Rey

Beatriz Rey is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

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