Opinion by José Roberto Novaes de Almeida Ph.D.
“His majesty the president of Brazil“: This is the title of a 1936 book by Errnest Hambloch, (translated and published by Federal Senate in 2000), who lived 25 years in Brazil. He was a diplomat in the British Legation and after his retirement worked at the British Chamber of Commerce in Rio de Janeiro. Hambloch feels that despotism in Brazil is the illegitimate child of personal ambitions and of the 1891 Republican constitution. The Republican 1889 coup d’état was a tragedy not for the Monarchy but for the Republic. He believes that Congress, despite Constitutional intentions, has little importance vis-à- vis the Executive Power. The result of the Republican constitution was to make the president a “lord and sovereign king in peace times, a generalissimo in times of war and a despot always”. Hamblock nevertheless concludes that his criticism is not against the Republic as such, but against presidentialism, and in favor of parlamentarism.
The present 1988 constitution has not essentially changed in various aspects compared with the 1891 constitution: in both cases representatives are chosen by a political caste and not by direct voting through a system called “party proportional”. As a result, a recent estimate by a Justice of the Supreme Court has concluded that 90% of the representatives are not elected by their own personally won votes. The electoral code also gives a minimum number of representatives to states in order to favor small ones, and stipulates a maximum number of representatives for the state of Sao Paulo that reflects a population that is much below its share in the Brazilian population. The electors of small states are often less educated and less politically astute compared with larger states and the poverty level of smaller starts stimulates rich candidates to spend lavish resources in order to be easily elected.
Lincoln Gordon, a former American Ambassador in Brazil, who served during the military coup of 1964, astutely observed in his otherwise optimistic book (“Brazil´s second chance, en route toward the first world “) that the electoral system has devised a mechanism very much adverse for the smooth working of the classical functions of political parties in a democracy.
In current times the Temer Administration has made admirable structural reforms for the economy. A recent constitutional amendment established draconian but much needed ceiling for public expenditures. Difficult but necessary discussions on social security are being debated in Congress after a half century of impasse. Fiscal policy has been strengthened considerably with strong focus on making monetary policy more effective and reducing the interest on public debt. Ingenious uses of the Guaranteed Employment Fund aim to increase disbursements and higher ceilings for financial housing loans have been established.
Additionally, radical elementary/high school reforms were introduced, ending many years of futile discussions. Pre requisites for officers and directors of public corporations now make corruption more difficult. The National Development Bank and Petrobras appear to be working well under new leadership. As a result of this broad range of reforms, the economy is on track for increasing confidence of recovery with lower inflation and a solid balance of payments.
However, in the overall reform agenda nothing definitive has yet been proposed for reducing an increasingly unmanageable number of political parties, in addition to dealing with the voter representation issues. It is time to expand the reforms, rebalancing governmental power to encompass constructive initiatives and participation of an effective and representative Congress. Urgent action is needed to establish modern electoral legislation in Brazil.
Click below to listen