Political renewal movements a threat to Brazilian parties?

. Jul 26, 2019
Political renewal movements a threat to Brazilian parties? Protest in São Paulo. Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

Few would dispute the need for political renewal in Brazil. Not only is there widespread concern about formal corruption—graft, kickbacks, nepotism, and so on—it could be argued that the party system itself is corrupt. Many have therefore welcomed the emergence of new cross-party “renewal movements” in Congress, which seek to change the way politics is done. But the vote on pension reform has brought critical scrutiny, as several members of these movements turned dissidents and disobeyed their party whips. Political parties are now fighting back against lawmakers accused of having dual allegiances: to their party and to the cross-party movement. 

At the center of this controversy is rookie congresswoman and rising star Tabata Amaral, one of eight Democratic Labor Party (PDT) members to vote in favor of pension reform. Acredito (“I believe”), the cross-party platform she co-founded, was recently accused of being a “clandestine party” by 2018 PDT presidential candidate Ciro Gomes. Party chairman Carlos Lupi questioned whether Ms. Amaral would be more likely to follow the decisions made at party conference or to listen to Jorge Paulo Lemann, one of Brazil’s richest men, a backer of pension reform and a supporter—through his foundation—of the young congresswoman.

</p> <p>Mr. Lemann does indeed back several young,&nbsp;<a href="">first-time members of Congress</a>, belonging to various renewal movements, including&nbsp;<em>Acredito</em>. However, many have no such association. While all of them seek some form of political and institutional renewal, there are ideological differences between them. Founded in 2016,&nbsp;<a href=""><em>Acredito</em></a>&nbsp;emphasizes transparency and tougher stances on campaign financing, along with centrist visions of “realistic equality of opportunity.”&nbsp;<em>Livres</em>&nbsp;(“Free”), who elected two Members of Congress, follows a more right-wing, pro-market line, while&nbsp;<em>Ocupa Política</em>&nbsp;(“Occupy Politics”; four congresswomen) is more to the left, with all its deputies also being members of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (Psol).</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="900" height="506" src="" alt="tabata amaral ciro gomes political renewal" class="wp-image-21309" srcset=" 900w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px" /><figcaption>Tabata Amaral and Ciro Gomes. Photo: Facebook/T.A.</figcaption></figure> <h2>A push for political renewal</h2> <p>In all, 2018 saw the election of 29 Congresspeople and four Senators belonging to nine different renewal movements. Sixteen had never been elected to any position, and their average age—37—is significantly lower than the congressional average of 49. They are distributed across 16 different parties, with 11 several belonging to more than one movement. The largest of these is Raps, or “Political Action Network for Sustainability,” with 19 members holding federal mandates in the legislature. The second-largest, <em>RenovaBR</em> (11 congresspeople), claims to have no activist goals, aiming only to be a school for political formation.&nbsp;</p> <p>To some degree, they all share in this ambition. But the movements also foreground themes of dialogue, ethics, transparency and the quality of democracy. Most emerged in 2016 and can be seen as a product of the Brazil that emerged from the June Days of 2013 and the politicization of the middle classes that ensued in the following years, culminating in the pro-impeachment protests of 2015/16.</p> <p>And yet, <em>RenovaBR</em> or <em>Agora!</em>—which aims to engage “common citizens” and claims to have “over 100 members”—are not “movements” in a formal sense, rooted in society. Although they appear to follow the logic of the <a href="">new social movements</a>, of broad currents based on adherence to a set hopes and ideals, in most cases they have no social roots. They are organizations for the formation of individual political leaders. They derive their purpose and existence from their relationship to institutional power and their activities are directed solely to the electoral game. At the same time, they abjure the formal structures of a political party, making them ambiguous creatures.</p> <p>This promised renewal appears necessary in one of the most <a href="">fragmented</a> congresses in the world. Not only is there political corruption of the kind normally discussed, there is a deeper corruption: of what political parties are meant to be. October 2018 saw 30 different parties elected to Congress. Academic studies have repeatedly shown that they <a href="">lack ideological coherence</a>; in the previous legislature, one-quarter of federal lawmakers <a href="">changed parties</a> during their term, 34 of them doing so more than once. In theory, Brazil should only have something like five to ten effective parties, according to one <a href="">study</a>.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/479509">&nbsp;</div> <p><script src=""></script></p> <h2>An abundance of (non-effective) parties</h2> <p>The proliferation of parties—there had always been fewer than 20 in the lower house through the 1990s and 2000s, but this increased to 22 in 2010, and 28 in 2014—is one driver of corruption, as support in Congress often has to be <em>bought</em>. A measure was adopted last year, <a href="">creating a threshold</a> for parties, which in theory would lead to a reduction in their overall number at each subsequent election. But this may end up excluding some ideologically coherent—though small—parties, while leaving various other, more successful but less integral parties in place.</p> <p>The situation is complicated by the so-called partisan fund: public funding for political parties. In theory, it should make them less dependent on private funding, closing one door through which graft often enters. But it also stimulates fragmentation as new parties are formed to grab a piece of the pie.</p> <p>Hence the formation of the political renewal movements. Acredito, for instance, pledges that it candidates use no more than 50 percent of the public funds available to them. Another, <em>Livres</em>, was formed as a consequence of precisely the ideological vacancy of many parties. When Bolsonaro joined the Social Liberal Party—selecting it as a vehicle for his presidential campaign—an already-established group fighting for liberal renewal within the party left.</p> <p>These newcomers to the congressional scene follow the earlier creation of another cross-party formation: the theme-based caucuses. The most well-known are the evangelicals or the ruralist lobby (often grouped together as the “BBB”—Beef, Bible and Bullets). These are less obviously idealistic, but more clearly represent distinct social interests.&nbsp;</p> <p>Regardless, it makes for a confusing scene in Congress, with allegiances cutting across parties. The emergence of cross-party formations is a symptom of the morbidity of the party system. The renewal movements, at least, do suggest the possibility of improvement. One organizer from <em>Acredito</em>, however, recognized the difficulty of the task, telling newspaper <a href=""><em>O Globo</em></a>, “we are aware that merely appealing to parties to be more open will not change much. We’re working to create concrete proposals in our manifesto.”</p> <p>It’s unclear at this stage whether they will be successful. The presence of idealistic and motivated new congresspeople may lead to progressive reforms of the political system, also encouraging more democracy within parties themselves—a stated aim of several of the renewal movements. But it may also further weaken party discipline and coherence.&nbsp;</p> <p>And the emergence of the renewal movements raises a more fundamental question. Political parties are meant to be the link between civil society and state institutions, between the people and politics. When parties are the product of politics rather than society—in essence, if they are top-down constructions, rather than bottom-up—that link is weakened. Parties become means for the political class to win votes, rather than avenues through which sections of society pursue their interests and ideals.&nbsp;</p> <p>This is, a few notable exceptions aside, essentially what we have in today’s Brazil.</p> <p>But might the renewal movements not replicate the same problem? They often have no social base, while also lack the disciplining mechanisms of parties. Nice ideas without structure are ineffective, while structures unmoved by ideas become stagnant and corrupt. Will the renewal movements, breathing only the rarefied air of institutional politics bridge that gap? Good intentions may not be enough.

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Alex Hochuli

Alex is a writer, researcher and consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, and is currently researching a book on anti-politics.

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