Local legislatures in Brazil even more fragmented than Congress

. Nov 29, 2020
legislatures fragmented Election observers from the Organization of American States. Photo: TSE

Brazil’s legislative elections are anything but straightforward affairs. Unlike countries such as the U.S. or the United Kingdom which use first-past-the-post systems, Brazil’s legislatures are elected using proportional representation — a multi-level process which takes days to fully calculate.

(Editor-in-chief Gustavo Ribeiro explained each step in a 2018 piece you can read here.)

While this system allows for minorities to gain parliamentary representation without needing to have

mastodonic party structures in their corner, it also breeds massive levels of fragmentation. In a country with 33 active political parties and counting, this often leads to abnormal electoral landscapes.</p> <p>Nowhere is this issue clearer than in the city of Vitória, capital of the southeastern state of Espírito Santo. Its 15 city council seats will be occupied by representatives from 13 different parties.</p> <p>In São Paulo, Brazil&#8217;s biggest city, the 55 municipal legislature seats will be split among 17 parties. The two largest benches — the Workers&#8217; Party and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party — control less than one-third of the assembly combined.</p> <h2>Why are legislatures so fragmented?</h2> <p>According to Marco Antônio Faganello, a political scientist at the University of Campinas, political fragmentation in Brazil can be partially explained by Brazil&#8217;s open-list voting system.&nbsp;</p> <p>Voters choose an individual candidate at the ballot box, and an electoral threshold is put in place that each party (or coalition) must overcome to get at least one congressional seat. Once all votes are tallied, electoral courts divide the number of votes each party receives by this electoral threshold, resulting in the number of seats each bench will receive.</p> <p>&#8220;The open list favors a personality-driven vote. Voters choose people instead of parties, which makes political groups weaker,&#8221; says Mr. Faganello, whose Ph.D. research concerns municipal elections. &#8220;Besides the more-established parties to the left of center, most regional parties have little ideological cohesion, and candidates shape-shift in search of the best opportunity to win public office.&#8221;</p> <p>But fragmented city councils are not only caused by the shortcomings of the Brazilian electoral system —&nbsp;they also reflect the plurality of society. &#8220;Legislatures are fragmented because our society&#8217;s interests are too,&#8221; says Rogério Schmitt, a political scientist who literally wrote the book on the Brazilian party system.</p> <h2>Changes for the better</h2> <p>The 2020 election marks the first municipal race in which parties were not allowed to form proportional coalitions, which previously operated as “super parties.” The rule had created a bizarre scenario in a political landscape such as Brazil&#8217;s, where few parties have consistent ideological identities. Often, voters could pick a conservative candidate for city council, but end up helping a left-wing politician (or vice-versa) if their respective parties were in coalition.</p> <p>Political scientists expect that, with time, fragmentation will become less accentuated across Brazil. In large urban centers, however, the results will take longer to appear.</p> <p>&#8220;In small municipalities, parties which are less representative are having a tougher time winning seats. But in major constituencies, with more seats in play, they still have a shot,&#8221; says Mr. Faganello.</p> <p>With time, the end of proportional coalitions makes it all the more difficult for small parties to meet electoral thresholds that would earn them a slice of the publicly-financed partisan fund that political parties receive each year.&nbsp;</p> <p>Fearing their demise, small groups are trying to <a href=";utm_medium=email">reverse the changes</a>. This backlash is supported by the so-called &#8220;Big Center,&#8221; a group of rent-seeking parties that leech off governments and whose very strength relies on party fragmentation.

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Aline Gatto Boueri

Aline Gatto Boueri is a data journalist. She has had her work published by Gênero e Número, Universa UOL, Marie Claire, Projeto Colabora, among others.

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