On Saturday, as Brazilian college students, billionaires and governors alike gathered in an almost full auditorium at Harvard University, four first-term lawmakers discussed the future of Brazilian politics at the fifth edition of the Brazil Conference, a forum hosted every Spring at Harvard and MIT. The event, which this year featured over 20 politicians, including keynote speaker Vice President Hamilton Mourão and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, also invited first-term representatives from all ends of the ideological spectrum to bring the conversation on political renewal to the table.

Despite their contrasting political views, the panelists, who ran on very different platforms, agreed that political renewal is not attached to any specific movement or ideology, nor to the traditional concepts of right or left politics. According to Paulo Ganime, from the libertarian Partido Novo (literally “New Party”), the true meaning of political renewal is “to bring values, that we somehow lost, back to politics,” giving the examples of listening and debating. His left-wing counterpart Mônica Seixas, of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), agreed, saying that it has to do with defending such democratic values.

“We are entering the political scene in a moment in which people are tearing each other apart on the streets and in Congress,” Ms. Seixas said. “So we have the tough responsibility to recover Brazilians’ passion for democracy. New politics does not mean being a first-time candidate, let alone being young. It means comprehending what democracy should really look like and working towards that.

The changing face of Congress

Political renewal has already begun in Brazil. According to Agência DIAP, a parliamentary consultancy for Brazilian trade unions, while less than 25 percent of the lawmakers elected in 2018 were new to politics, Congress saw its largest renewal since 1994. Of the 407 candidates who ran for re-election last year, only 246—that is, 48 percent—managed to win a second term. In 2014, that number was as high as 53 percent.   

In recent years, Brazil also saw the rise of political movements which went above traditional party structures. Some of those groups, such as RenovaBR—backed by TV host Luciano Huck—trained candidates to take political office and elected most of its “graduates” for the New Party. Others, including the Acredito Movement and the Political Action Network for Sustainability (RAPS), published manifestos committing to promote political renewal in the country. These non-partisan groups enabled the election of many faces at all levels of the Legislative branch.

The Acredito Movement—led by lawmaker Tåabata Amaral, one of the guests at the Brazil Conference and famous due to her public dressing-down of ex-Education Minister Ricardo Vélez-Rodríguez—elected three members to Congress. The Free Brazil Movement (MBL), a young conservative group born as a result of the 2013 national protests, elected four members, including its founder Kim Kataguiri. Together, renewal movements had over 30 of their members elected in 2018.

Divergence of opinions

While the panelists highlighted that this supra-partisan cooperation is crucial to promote political renewal, they still shared divergent opinions on several issues. When Ms. Seixas expressed her concerns about the lack of effective social policies under the new president, fellow panelist Hélio Bolsonaro—a representative of Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, but not related to the president—invited her to meet with Human Rights Minister Damares Alves to learn more about “the important policies she is developing and the great work she is doing.”

As well as a disagreement between Mr. Bolsonaro and Ms. Amaral on the topic of affirmative action, the quartet presented different steps on how to best approach the pension reform and contrasting accounts of the first 100 days of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.

In spite of the disagreements, the four panelists agreed that it was a productive conversation. For Tabata Amaral, who helped found the Brazil Conference back in 2015 as a Harvard student, while the event serves as an important forum to spark debate, there is much more that needs to be done.  

“I have always seen Brazil Conference as a place where dialogues began,” said Ms. Amaral, before receiving a standing ovation. “It is impossible to end a conversation in 48 hours. That is why I urge all of you that we continue this dialogue. We need to understand that not doing so is the real biggest threat to our democracy.”

Inspiring the new generation

Brazil Conference, which this year gathered more than 900 participants to the town of Cambridge and was watched by over 30,000 people online, is organized by students from Harvard, MIT, and other universities in the Boston area. Under the slogan #JuntosSomosMais (“#TogetherWeAreMore,” in Portuguese), the goal of the Conference is to promote a “plural environment for the discussion and development of new ideas related to Brazil.”

For the panelists, the productive conversations initiated at the conference should set the guidelines for how dialogues on Brazilian politics should be conducted from now on. All four of them reminded the audience that the essence of new politics lies in the openness to debate and discussion, as well as the eagerness to build a better country, to which Hélio Bolsonaro added that “voting for a first-time candidate has no effect if you are voting for someone who is attached to old politics.”

“Regardless of party and ideological affiliation,” declared Mr. Ganime, “if the four of us leave this panel today being able to convince you that it is necessary to engage in politics, no matter what your role is, either as candidates as we were, board members, public policy designers or public administrators, we will have done our part here today.”

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BY Augusta Saraiva

Augusta is a Brazilian journalism student at Northwestern University