The Root of Brazil's Political Problems

5 MINS READJul 31, 2016 | 13:03 GMT
The Root of Brazil's Political Problems
Brazilian lawmakers vote April 17 on whether the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff will move forward. The proliferation of political parties in Brazil has made it more difficult for executive powers to avoid impeachment.
(EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images)

Much ado has been made about Brazil's precarious political situation ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics. But how did the country come to be in such a tight spot? In large part the answer lies in the massive number of political parties active in Brazil, which has led to a particularly fragmented congress. It is an old trend, observed most famously by Brazilian political scientist Sergio Abranches in a 1988 paper titled "Coalition Presidentialism: The Brazilian lnstitutional Dilemma." According to Abranches, one of Brazil's most serious institutional challenges is what he deemed to be a "coalitional presidentialism" — a system by which the president must form and govern over a multiparty coalition, which becomes more difficult the more parties are involved.

Brazil's was a concerning political model, but a temporary one, Abranches argued. He believed that as democracy strengthened in the country, elections would limit the number of viable political parties. But he was wrong. Since Abranches made that prediction in 1988, the number of political parties with more than 5 percent representation in congress has doubled, rising from four to eight. In the same period, the Brazilian congress impeached former President Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992, and it is now in the process of impeaching President Dilma Rousseff, who will likely be forced out of office by the end of August. This is not to say the proliferation of political parties actually caused these impeachments. But it certainly made them more difficult for the executive powers to manage, and impeachment more difficult to avoid.

The problem with a system that incorporates so many political parties is that it can weaken the executive if he or she is unable to unify a ruling coalition. Maintaining balance in such a heterogeneous environment becomes more difficult in times of social upheaval or political crisis. That is why even when marches and protests were being held against Rousseff across Brazil in early 2015, Stratfor was monitoring Roussef's political coalition even more closely than the developments on the street. At the time the protests, though dramatic, did not pose the biggest threat to the president; the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the main political ally of the ruling Workers' Party, did.

Though an impeachment case must be based on a specific alleged legal violation, it is ultimately a political decision rather than a judicial one. If Rousseff had been capable of maintaining a cohesive coalition in congress, she would have earned the one-third of the votes needed to stop the impeachment proceedings against her. As it happened, though, once the PMDB distanced itself from Rousseff, her impeachment became all but certain.

Rousseff did not lose control of her coalition in one fell swoop. It was a gradual process, driven by a declining economy, accusations of budget manipulation and revelations of a monumental corruption scandal involving state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, which Rousseff formerly chaired. The final nail in the coffin, however, came when PMDB candidate Eduardo Cunha, an outspoken opponent of Rousseff, won the presidency of the lower house of congress over the Workers' Party candidate. In this role, Cunha had the authority to take up the impeachment request against Rousseff in December 2015.

Forming a Coalition

The more parties there are in Brazil's political landscape, the more difficult it is to build a viable coalition. The PMDB, the country's largest party, has only 13 percent of the seats in congress. But in Brazil, where there have been impeachment requests filed against every president since 1988, building an effective coalition is vital for a president, not only for the purposes of passing legislation but also for keeping the post. Only in 1992 and 2015 have Brazil's ruling coalitions been so weak as to allow impeachment requests to pass through congress and into the judiciary; the 1992 request led to the ouster of the sitting president, and the 2015 request appears as though it will do the same.

In fact, interim President Michel Temer has already been working to strengthen a new ruling coalition in preparation for Rousseff's permanent removal. Temer has allocated ministries and high-level positions in state-owned companies, including the Caixa Economica Federal bank, to members of nearly all the political parties in the coalition to win their favor. When asked why Temer appointed mostly politicians rather than industry experts to his Cabinent, he responded that his first priority was to build a strong ruling coalition. In his view, he would be able to remedy the economy only with congressional unity and support.

Creating Corruption

Though creating a solid coalition is necessary to avoiding impeachment, the process of actually cultivating support can also lead to corruption. For example, one of the Workers' Party's main tactics is to allocate prominent positions to political allies and their supporters. By appointing party backers to key positions in state-owned companies, politicians can ensure bribes and kickbacks for themselves. Former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Fernando Collor de Mello, among others, have been accused of adopting such tactics.

The Brazilian congress is currently considering legislation to limit the number of political parties active in the government based on a minimum performance in elections, but the Supreme Federal Court ruled a similar proposal unconstitutional in 2006. The reality is that the fragmentation of the Brazilian congress is likely to be enduring, no matter which party controls the presidency. It will also probably be both a source of corruption and a threat to the stability of the presidency. Even if Rousseff is ousted, Temer will have to pull together a strong coalition that will back him if an impeachment case is brought against him. But he will have to be careful to ensure that in doing so, he does not empower any one party any more than the others — because as Rousseff knows all too well, that can be a dangerous approach.

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