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Sex, drugs, and gospel music: Brazil’s madcap soap opera politics

. Aug 29, 2020
flordelis house politics brazil Congresswoman Flordelis. Photo: Lucas Tavares/Folhapress

This week, Brazil has been engrossed by a true crime soap opera that would make Game of Thrones screenwriters blush. Flordelis de Souza, a federal lawmaker and former gospel singer, has been implicated in the assassination of Evangelical pastor Anderson do Carmo, her adopted son-turned-son-in-law-turned-husband. Nine of Ms. Souza’s 55 children — of which 51 are adopted — were arrested this week, and she only remains at liberty thanks to her parliamentary immunity.

Besides the sordid details of the case, including a bizarre number of failed assassination attempts and the morbidly on-the-nose Google searches of one of Ms. Souza’s children — including “assassin where to find,” “poison to kill a person that is lethal and easy to buy” — the affair is an illuminating look into the bonkers aspect of Brazilian politics.

</p> <p>As it happens, this particular case might not even make it into the top ten of scandals involving sitting members of Congress.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s lower house — where Flordelis de Souza sits — has seen its fair share of convicted criminals, scam artists, murderers, alleged drug traffickers, and all conceivable types of scandalous individuals who make full use of their parliamentary immunity. </p> <p>Infamously, former Senator Arnon de Mello — whose son Fernando Collor de Mello went on to become president — shot a colleague on the Senate floor in 1962. He was never prosecuted and was re-elected twice before his death in 1983.</p> <p>In the late 1990s, it was revealed that federal representative Hildebrando Pascoal was a high-ranking drug dealer in his home state of Acre, and that he also led a brutal death squad. The grisly torture methods he used on rival drug dealers earned him the nickname &#8220;Congressman Chainsaw.&#8221;</p> <p>Brazilian politics has long surpassed the country’s famous telenovelas in terms of sheer sleaze and intrigue, but there is a reason that Congress attracts such a large amount of rogues and mavericks, and it lies in the design of Brazil’s political system and the notoriously weak political parties it has generated.</p> <h2>Demented soap opera politics</h2> <p>Brazil has an open proportional system with no effective mechanism for party representation in the legislature based upon large electoral districts. The political system, as a result, is permanently trapped in a swamp of weak fragmented parties sometimes characterized as “coalition presidentialism” — meaning that the president must cobble together a coalition that is not party-based in order to pass anything through Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>This system encourages voters to support candidates based on their personal qualities, and makes it more advantageous for politicians to cultivate direct relationships with the electorate, rather than through a party.&nbsp;</p> <p>A grand total of 30 parties hold at least one seat in Brazil’s Congress. Another three have no representatives, and several others are vying for approval from electoral courts. The vast majority of these parties lack any discernible political identity, and have become notorious for having potentially the most misleading names in world politics.</p> <p>Flordelis de Souza, for instance, holds a seat for the non-socially democratic Social Democratic Party (PSD). In fact, upon its creation, the party&#8217;s chairman famously said the PSD was &#8220;neither on the left, or the right, or in the center.&#8221;</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/3TkaVLHEiiOY19DYkdquJc" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Brazilians, in turn, have little party loyalty — with few exceptions — and are generally conditioned to approach voting with a certain degree of cynicism. Name recognition can be enough to gain you a seat in the Congress. The lack of faith in the political system also turns voters on to what they see as &#8220;protest votes,&#8221; that is, picking joke candidates as a way to flip off traditional leaders.</p> <p>In 1959, Rio de Janeiro cast over 100,000 votes for Cacareco, a female rhinoceros living in the city&#8217;s zoo. She ended up winning the race, though unfortunately non-humans are not allowed to take office in Brazil.</p> <p>Fifty years later, São Paulo elected famous clown Tiririca to Congress with over 1.3 million votes. His campaign consisted of running comedy sketches in the place of party ads, with a slogan saying that things simply “couldn&#8217;t get any worse.”</p> <p>But that kind of statement backfires, due to the <a href="https://brazilian.report/guide-to-brazil/2017/10/15/brazil-political-system/">country&#8217;s proportional system</a> — in which the number of seats a party gets depends on its share of the overall votes.</p> <p>Given the widespread disillusionment with politics and politicians in the country in the wake of what now seems to be a permanent political crisis in Brazil, the tradition of demented soap opera politics is more or less an institutional part of politics in Brazil.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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