Part 2 – 2018 Election Series: What Nobody Wants to Say about the Current Political Crisis in Brazil

This article is part of Brazil Talk’s 2018 Elections Series  and is intended to give our readers a deeper understanding of the Brazilian political system, its complex electoral process and gather diverse perspectives and opinions on what the world should expect from Brazil in the upcoming months and the future of the country at the beginning of 2019. 

By Rodrigo R. Soares

[5 min read]

A lot has been said about the political fragmentation in the current pre-electoral scenario in Brazil. This fragmentation has been mostly interpreted as reflecting increased radicalization, and seen as a manifestation of the underlying political preferences of a significant fraction of society. It is undeniable that there has been an increased degree of political radicalization in Brazilian society and that this radicalization also manifests itself in the pre-electoral scenario. However,  I believe most of this fragmentation comes from the increasing lack of representativeness of the political system and its detachment from the demands and preferences of a major part of the Brazilian population.

The current fragmentation can find its closest historical precedent in the first direct presidential elections, in 1989, after the end of the military dictatorship, when over 20 candidates were registered in the first round –  5 of which got more than 8% of the votes, and, 7 got close to 5% or more. The worrisome difference with this precedent is that, then, despite the disappointing outcome of the election and the ensuing impeachment process, the country was coming out of a military dictatorship and there was a lot of faith in the democratic institutions and the recently born political system. In addition, an extensive and diversified gallery of leading figures in the fight against dictatorship offered political alternatives that seemed electorally feasible and morally legitimate. We no longer have the luxury of relying on figures anointed by history to exercise political leadership. This generation has passed, and the country must move on, willingly or not.

The problem is that the Brazilian political system offers little scope for within party competition and insufficient instruments for political renewal to happen institutionally – that is, within the main established political parties. This is clear in the current electoral scenario; ignoring outliers from extreme right and left, we are looking at the same old players. As this article is being written, the two parties that have dominated presidential elections over the last 24 years, PT (the Workers Party) and PSDB (the Brazilian Social Democratic Party), are  presenting the same presidential candidates who ran for office 12 years ago, in the 2006 presidential elections: Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva and Geraldo Alckmin. The candidate presented by PDT (the Democratic Labor Party) as an alternative to the “old politics” is someone who has run for president twice since the return to democracy, the first time 20 years ago: Ciro Gomes. In the midst of this museum of Brazilian political history, it is not surprising that MDB (the Brazilian Democratic Movement) sees its originality in Henrique Meirelles, a competent former president of the Central Bank and minister of finance, but a far cry from what one would recognize as political renewal.

This situation would be worrisome regardless of when it happened,  but at the current juncture, it has the potential of being disastrous. We are coming out of five years of almost continuous political protests and clear popular demand for political renewal. Congress has already demonstrated that it is unable to break from its traditional working mode, based on the defense of organized corporative interests at the expenses of the population at large. Now traditional parties are also showing that they are unable to offer political renewal as an electoral alternative. If the political system is not able to offer renewal through its traditional parties and if congress itself does not react to popular pressure and change its modus operandi, renewal will inevitably take on a non-institutionalized shape. This may start happening with the election of a proto-fascist or of an anachronistically socialist president in the current electoral cycle, or maybe at some later point over the next decade, if the necessary political changes are not implemented. Or, if the current wave of unrest sparkled by the truck drivers’ protests gain enough momentum, it may take place even sooner.

There is always the hope that, by sheer luck, one of the candidates in the “normal” political spectrum gets elected and turns out to be able and willing to push the political and economic reforms. At present, however, there is no reason to believe, either from their histories or their rhetoric, that any of the current candidates is able or willing to deliver these reforms. This seems to be evident to the population at large and to be the main reason behind the current political vacuum.

The deeper problem is how to implement institutional change when the vast majority of Congress survives precisely from the imperfections and inefficiencies of the current political system. It is not reasonable to expect that a sizeable fraction of the political class will willingly commit political suicide for the common good; spontaneous legislative reform of the type needed to change the political landscape seems highly unlikely. The changes will have to be imposed onto the Legislative, either through a strong and independent Executive or the Judiciary. In the first case, it would require a strong president, which does not sound likely. In the second case, which to some extent has already been happening, there would be generalized outcry and accusations of over activism on the part of the Judiciary. Either way, these seem to be the only realistic possibilities of reform, barring a major institutional collapse.

The Brazilian political class has not yet fully realized what is at stake in the coming years. If they do not get their act together and respond to popular demand by offering political change through institutional means, the change will take them by surprise.


SoaresRodrigo R. Soares is Lemann Professor of Brazilian Public Policy and International and Public Affairs. Professor Soares’ research centers on development economics, ranging from labor, human capital, and demographic economics, to crime. His work has appeared in various scientific journals, including American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Public Economics, and Journal of Development Economics, among various others. Before joining Columbia, Soares taught at the Sao Paulo School of Economics-FGV, PUC-Rio, the University of Maryland, and the Harvard School of Public Health. He has acted as consultant for the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and state governments in Brazil on issues related to crime and violence, health, and development. He received his PhD in Economics at the University of Chicago in 2002.