Recent surveys show that 96 percent of Brazilians don’t feel represented by our current elected officials. And 89 percent of voters think that politicians are not well prepared enough to perform their duties. But while Brazilians are certainly unhappy about our political system, big parties have crafted the electoral legislation in order to preserve their positions of power. Certain groups, however, are trying to break such a monopoly.
To challenge traditional political forces, some groups have launched a model of collective candidacies. They were tested in 2016 with some success. Armed with social mobilization, bold marketing strategies, and the promise of transparency, these candidacies have an ambitious goal: to change the political system from within.
The concept is simple. A group of people promises, if elected, to exercise power as a group, rather than as sole individuals. Since this model is not recognized by the electoral legislation, only one of those people will formally be running for office. Those who defend this model state that it could help improve representative democracy and enhance the dialogue between elected officials and voters.
“The idea for collective candidacies is interesting because it combines two characteristics that are typical of today’s youth: avoidance of leaders and distributed networks,” says Moysés Pinto Neto, a philosopher and professor at the Lutheran University of Brazil.
A new paradigm of political representation
According to Pinto Neto, collective candidacies could strengthen the links between power and people, in addition to democratizing policy-making and the responsibility over public institutions. “The possibility to try new experiences profits from public indignation and tries to fill up a void that could otherwise be seized by the extreme right,” explains Pinto Neto.
Brazil’s lawmakers are currently elected through a proportional system. In theory, if a party receives 20 percent of votes for city council, state council, or National Congress, it should also receive 20 percent of the seats. But Brazil’s system allows legislative coalitions. It means that multiple parties can join forces to form a “super party.”
This creates a myriad of small, unexpressive candidates with no political skills who merely parrot clichés, valued only because they could be “vote magnets.” As a result, you can vote for candidate X, and end up electing candidate Y.
In 2014, only 36 of the elected 513 congressmen would be in Congress if they were running on their own. The rest of them were elected thanks to coalitions and votes to fellow party members. “We need to try something new. Our electoral scenario is worrisome, and we could end up with a Congress that is less representative of our society than what we had in 2014,” says Pinto Neto.
“Hacking” the system
There are currently two running experiments with collective candidacies in municipal legislatures: one in the small town of Alto Paraíso de Goiás, and the other in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais. In two cities so different in terms of size and economics, their political strategies have also differed considerably.
In Alto Paraíso, five people teamed up to run for a city council seat. “Our first year in office was filled with several proposals. Public management in small cities can be extremely slow, but we managed to get approval for most of the 14 bills we sponsored,” says Ivan Anjo Diniz, one of the members of this joint action group.
To ensure transparency for its actions, the group’s members registered their proposals and political engagements in a notary’s office. “I work with people both to my left and to my right. The goal is to be committed to the city’s well-being,” says Diniz.
Lawyer João Yuji, however, is the only member of the group recognized by the electoral justice. He is the one holding the office, and a member of the dwarf National Labor Party (PTN). “We chose PTN precisely because of its small size: it gives us the possibility to work with the leaders of the local chapter and have a say in the party’s future,” says Yuji.
Ivan Anjo Diniz goes further: “Being connected to a party won’t stop us from following our convictions. João [Yuji] only enlisted to a party because the electoral justice demands so.”
In bigger centers, however, things work differently. Two members of the extreme left-wing party PSOL (Socialism and Liberty), Áurea Carolina and Cida Falabella pioneered collective candidacies in Belo Horizonte. Their agenda is quite similar that of any other left-wing party: it covers issues related to gender and race, and focuses on social militancy with an emphasis on cultural and popular forms of expression.
“When we joined the party, we decided to fight for it and within it. We are independent,” says Áurea Carolina.
Nonetheless, the internal partisan struggles have taken their tolls on the duo. “We value the party. But we will try to renew its structure within our capabilities. Today, we can’t see another party that would house us,” she explains.
The duo’s collective mandate has quite a structure: from popular encounters to stimulate popular participation in elaborating their policies, to the presence of several groups dealing with communications, legal issues, political alliances, or talking to the public. “Our groups have ‘relative autonomy’ to build consensual decisions. These teams can establish our positions to be taken to the city council.”
Uncertain future for collective candidacies
Although they vary considerably from one another, the two initiatives share some common ground. One is the paramount need for transparency. For both groups, transparency represents a way to be held accountable by voters and to strengthen their ties to the community.
“This is the kind of innovation that people actually want,” says Moysés Pinto Neto. The philosopher recalls what happened in Chile, where, facing the rise of the extreme-right, voters elected a progressive front with unconventional power structures. In that scenario, parties will assume a central role.
“Generally speaking, parties have reacted in a very negative way, trying to submit any decision to its bureaucracy. New projects have little room to prosper.”
For collective candidacies to prosper, they need to be integrated into parties’ strategies without undergoing sterilization. For now, only PSOL and Rede (presidential hopeful Marina Silva’s party) have revealed themselves open to this novelty.
But even if large parties try to prevent the system from renewing itself, change might still be inevitable.