Both Brazilian candidates support reforming an ungovernable Congress

But Rousseff and Neves disagree on how to bring order to body with 28 parties

Candidate Aécio Neves at a rally in Belo Horizonte.
Candidate Aécio Neves at a rally in Belo Horizonte.G. ANDRADE / AFP

Tiririca the Clown – real name Francisco Oliveira Silva – was the second most-voted federal deputy in the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections on October 5.

He has come up with barely any proposals on how to lead the nation; his campaign was based on jokes; and he was forced to take a reading and writing test before entering politics.

A member of the minority Republican Party – one of 28 political groups with congressional presence in a bicameral body made up of 513 deputies and 81 senators – Oliveira Silva represents an extreme example of Brazil’s entangled electoral system, which is in permanent need of reform.

The proportional model that creates such a mass of voices in Congress is what both contenders in Sunday’s presidential runoff, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) and Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), want to change.

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The June 2013 street protests underscored the pressing need for democratic renewal, even though reform has formed part of the public debate for years. Brazil’s last three presidents – Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB), Lula da Silva (PT) and Rousseff – all unsuccessfully attempted to tackle the nation’s complex election legislation.

In 2006, for instance, a bill was introduced that tried to take power away from parties that failed to obtain a minimum percentage of votes at elections. But the initiative was defeated in Congress, precisely as a result of pressure from these minority parties.

The paradox is that it is difficult for 28 parties to reach a consensus when the goal is to eliminate some of them.

The proportional system of voting counts both the votes received by a candidate and those obtained by his or her political group. This means that a candidate who gets a lot of votes may still get left out if his party is weak, but also that a tiny party can secure more representatives if it has a popular figure on its list.

This allows people like Tiririca the Clown to secure seats for fellow party members with very little support.

Meanwhile, large parties enter into alliances with small ones in order to gain added TV air time during election campaigns. Before the October 5 vote, President Dilma Rousseff had around 12 minutes of allocated screen time thanks to the PT’s association with eight other parties. Her rival Aécio Neves had as many alliances and began with four-and-a-half minutes of TV time.

Even identifying the ideology of a party is a complex task in Brazil. The international media tends to simplify things by calling the PT center-left while describing the PSDB as center-right. In the case of these two parties, the definition more or less works.

But doing this with the other 26 parties is impossible. The Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), for instance, forges alliances with the left or the right depending on which way the wind blows, and some of its internal factions support the government while others back the opposition.

The most voted deputy in the state of Río de Janeiro, Jair Bolsonaro, belongs to the Progressive Party even though he is an ultraconservative Catholic military man who ridicules homosexuals, defends the death penalty, and describes Brazil’s military dictatorship as “two decades of order and progress.”

The June 2013 street protests underscored the pressing need for democratic renewal

While agreeing that changes need to be made, Rousseff and Neves disagree on how to go about them. The challenger is proposing to resuscitate the initiative to leave out parties with very low voter support and to end “proportional coalitions,” to prevent unrepresentative parties from joining Congress. He also wants to end re-election for members of the executive.

Rousseff is suggesting closed party lists in which people would vote for a party rather than for a candidate, and a referendum on private campaign financing.

“Political reform has become a leitmotiv without any specific content; it will only be defined by someone with enough of a majority to get it approved,” says Cláudio Couto, a political scientist.

So far, there has been little change. A piece of legislation called Ficha Limpia (Clean Record) prevented 250 people involved in corruption crimes from running for office. In September, a popular, non-binding vote asked Brazilians if they supported holding a national referendum on reform. Eight million people expressed 97 percent support for the initiative. But a referendum requires congressional approval, and this will be difficult to obtain since the smaller parties are not willing to sacrifice themselves. And so everything goes back to square one.