Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Brazil’s Congress Discusses How to Fix the Nation’s Broken Politics

  • Only 3% of Brazilians have much confidence in Congress
  • Proposals include public financing of election campaign

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After years of crisis that saw some of Brazil’s highest elected officials ousted, imprisoned or charged, the country’s Congress is now discussing ways to fix a deeply discredited political system.

So far, one of the few proposals most lawmakers agree upon is the need for more public money to fund election campaigns. Indeed, a congressional committee on Wednesday approved a text that creates an election fund worth roughly 3.6 billion reais ($1.2 billion) in taxpayer money, as well as new rules on how candidates win legislative districts, according to Camara Noticias. The committee convenes again on Thursday to debate amendments to the legislation.

Whether or not legislators agree on new rules to heighten transparency, accountability and representation may have far-reaching implications for their own political survival and for the 2018 presidential race. Just 3 percent of Brazilians have much confidence in Congress and the approval of President Michel Temer’s administration ranks just two percentage points higher. The armed forces are the most-trusted institution, and former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro is tied for second place in voter intention for the country’s top job. Unsurprisingly, skepticism abounds as to whether that same discredited political class can lay the foundations for renewal.

"The electoral and political reform needs to be deep," said Silvana Batini, a professor of electoral law at FGV in Rio de Janeiro. "But it needs to be done by a Congress with greater legitimacy." 

Brazil’s politics is expensive, messy and seen as self-serving by most of its citizens, who are obliged to vote on pain of a fine. The steady drip of horror stories of kickbacks lining politicians’ pockets that was revealed by the three-year corruption probe Operation Carwash only reinforced deep disaffection. Support for democracy among Brazilians fell 22 percentage points between 2015 and 2016, according to a poll published last September by Latinobarometro.

And yet the country’s politicians receive some of the highest salaries in the world, according to a 2013 ranking by The Economist. Similarly costly election campaigns don’t necessarily produce efficiency: 26 parties are represented in the lower house of Congress alone, massively complicating the process of legislation.

Millionaire Candidates

As the debate got underway on Wednesday, it became clear there was only one area of agreement.

"There’s a consensus in the house for public financing of campaigns," said Marcelo Aro, a congressional deputy from the Humanist Party of Solidarity, or PHS.

The proposed election fund is a matter of some urgency for politicians after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling banned corporate donations. Many welcome the decision but the inadvertent impact has been mixed. Those who did particularly well in last year’s municipal elections, the first to be held since the ruling, were millionaires and candidates backed by wealthy tax-exempt evangelical groups.

Also likely to be approved is a minimum threshold for parties to enter Congress, thereby simplifying coalition negotiations.

"This exaggerated number of parties is no good for anyone," said Luiz Felipe Baleia Rossi, leader of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, the country’s largest political group. "It’s not good for democracy or for parliament."

Smaller parties, unsurprisingly, tend to disagree.

"The reform will not only not make things better but will actually make things worse," said Ivan Valente, from the Socialism and Liberty Party, or PSOL, which has only six members in Congress. "The trend is that these large parties are pushing through this reform to keep the bosses and the current structure in place."

Some legislators already say that limited time will necessarily limit the scope of what Congress can do. As any change to electoral law must be made at least a year before the next election, the deadline is Oct. 7.

"I suggest we touch on specific issues," said Cleber Verde, lower house leader of the Brazilian Republican Party, or PRB. "Only after 2018 would we make proposals for deeper change."

— With assistance by Gabriel Shinohara

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