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The ultra-conservative government of Jair Bolsonaro is experiencing its hardest challenge. The president’s approval rating fell to its lowest since 2019 at only 19%. Due to his mismanagement during the pandemic, lack of economic achievements, and growing national inflation, Bolsonaro’s flagship has sunk to its deepest point.
On the other side of the sea, former President Luis Inacio “Lula” Da Silva leads the race for the 2022 election, almost doubling the vote intention of the government. With 55% for Lula against 32% for the ruling coalition, the numbers of a ballotage scenario are bitter for the Brazilian alt-right. The former steel-worker union leader has also struck Bolsonaro by forming an alliance with ex-presidents, like Fernando Henrique Cardoso, with the objective of constructing a joint force against the sitting president.
During Lula’s rule in 2010, Brazil became the 8th largest economy in the world. However, his return doesn’t necessarily mean that Brazil will return to the international podium. The reasons for the political instability in Brazil started long before Bolsonaro came to power. Such misgivings can be traced back to 2016 when Dilma Rousseff was impeached in a controversial process where Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to the memory of Dilma’s torturer.
What Are the Structural Causes of Brazil’s Instability?
Beyond the political show of 2016, during the PT’s (Partido dos Trabalhadores) period in government, an exceptional economic growth occurred due to the high prices of raw materials such as soybean and oil (Brazil is rich in both resources). With this unexpected income, and a solid economic situation after the emerging country’s debt crises in the late ’90s, Brazil skyrocketed in the early 2000s and Lula was able to use this income to build and, more importantly, in Machiavelli’s terms, sustain a coalition of power in 2002 included 13 parties. However, the crucial member of the alliance joined in 2005 when the right-wing party, the PMDB, joined Lula’s coalition. The alliance included the incorporation of ex-President Michel Temer, known on Twitter as the “Brazilian Underwood”.
Lula used the economic resources to build and sustain a big and heterogeneous coalition using excessive incomes from resources like oil. These resources were transferred through state-owned companies like Petrobras. Without the boom in commodities, will it be possible for Lula to build stability? What are the causes that affect the political stability in the country?
In “How is Brazil Ruled?” Argentinian author Vicente Palermo gives some clues about the complexities in the Brazilian political system, arguing that it is structurally prone to instability because of the federal system of government, a fragmented political party system, and a president with concentrated attributions in the executive branch that clash with a highly volatile and fragmented congress.
The Federative Republic of Brazil has a strong tradition of local elites that concentrate the economic and political power of the regions that form the country. This heritage goes back to the Brazilian Empire and the First Republic where local elites controlled the production of prominent resources and controlled the political scenario rotating in their control of the presidency.
Brazil’s federal institutions are considered much stronger than their Argentinian, Mexican, or Venezuelan neighbors. The strength of the federal system re-enforces the distribution of power in the territory with strong governors in every state. This fact combined with a fragmented party system makes for a fatal combination.
The solidity of federal institutions could be observed when President Bolsonaro intended to boycott the lockdown in São Paulo against the will of the governor. This crisis led the rest of the governors to apply their own sanitary measures against the president’s will.
Fragmented Party System
A federal organization combined with a proportional electoral system that chooses deputies via open seats is the breeding ground for a chaotic party system, especially where the electorates do not fully understand the party loyalties of their candidates and where party discipline is hard to achieve. The result has been the highest number of parties in the world, having the number of relevant parties reaching almost ten.
The impact on the composition of legislative chambers includes a diverse and hyper-heterogeneous Congress, where deputies change parties almost monthly due to the priority of local interests over national issues. Such an occurrence makes it less likely to follow both the line of national leadership and whomever operates in parties that try to persuade different social classes and political ideologies at a regional level (“catch-all” parties).
Another consequence of this volatility is the lack of a national agenda in legislation that forces the executive branch to intervene using provisional decrees, Medidas Provisória, to get some level of legislative initiative. However, this tool in the hands of the executive generates confrontation with congress due to its total exclusion in the production of legislation.
As previously mentioned, the centralization of the legislative agenda in the hands of the president causes frictions with Congress. Palermo describes the system as a presidency vested with strong proactive powers and very strong institutional constraints. If coalitions are held with the intention of possibly governing, the distribution of ministries should be even, particularly when talking about big, complex alliances. The negotiations and conformation of presidential staff tend to be chaotic due to the changing dynamics of the regional interests and the volatility of the political actors, thereby bringing the instability of Congress to the president’s office.
Due to the political reality of the Brazilian institutions, and the present stability of commodity prices, the elected government in 2022 will lack the economic resources to build and sustain political coalitions and give governance to the South American Nation. If Lula is to be elected, the tools used in the past to build stability won’t be applicable this time. In the context of a polarized election, the PT leader might need to build a brand-new political agenda with a complex Congress.
If Lula is to rule without a legislative majority, he might be tempted to get the initiative through executive decrees. This would be risky due to the possible opposition of Congress in feeling isolated in a fragmented context. No matter who gets elected, the future of Brazil is filled with challenges to its political stability.
- Will the 2022 election bring political stability to Brazil?
- Has the former President an ace up his sleeve we are not seeing?
- Will Lula (if elected) move towards pragmatic reforms as he did in his first Presidency?
- If Bolsonaro gets to be re-elected, which are the possibilities of stabilizing this chaotic Brazil?
“CivisAnalysis: Interactive Visualization for Exploring Roll Call Data and Representatives’ Voting Behaviour” Francisco G. de Borja, Carla M.D.S. Freitas – Institute of Informatics UFRGS – Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil.
“Why Coalitions? Party System Fragmentation, Small Party Bias, and Preferential Vote in Brazil” by Ernesto Calvo, Fernando Guarnieri, Fernando Limongi.