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Group Blog 5: Electoral Reform in Brazil

Written by: Nicole Tocci, Brent Brannen, and Rachel Benkeser

Since 1988 Brazil has maintained its current constitution, identifying itself as a federal presidential representative democratic republic. The nation uses a bicameral legislature fraught with issues that stem from a multiplicity of “parties” that lack solid party lines and politicians who lack party loyalties. Without defined and consistent political parties, Brazil finds herself in a precarious situation. Not only is she more prone to corruption, but the fluidity and inconsistency of the multiple party system is such that the nation finds herself electing representatives who merely work for their own interests.  (Consequently, clientelism aligns the interests of the representative’s colleagues rather than for the good of those they represent.)

The Brazilian electoral system functions with an open party list, thereby using a proportional representation system in the upper and lower houses within its government. In this system the people do not vote for a particular political party, but rather vote for an individual. Individual seats are assigned first to the parties of the candidates and then, based on the number of votes the party received, a proportional number of seats are allocated to the party and are filled by the top vote receiving candidates of that party. Such a system is rarely used in the international arena, two other countries, for example, are Chile between 1958 and 1973 and Finland. Because the success of a political candidate is determined not by party loyalty but rather by the number of direct votes the candidate receives, individualism in campaigning is encouraged.  This form of election that generates politicians who, once in office, are not held accountable to any particular party platform poses great problems that plague the legislature. With 513 congressional seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies works though open party list proportional representation. Using open list to elect representative into office is not proven to be the best option for a nation the size of Brazil.

Closed list systems are more often used by democracies around the world today. Congressional candidates who once received votes for outstanding ‘personal qualities’ must now focus more on a solid campaign and their goals for the legislative future (Montero 61).  Their elections are no longer solely based on the respective persona, but their party’s standing in the nation and the candidate’s standing within the party. This also seems to alleviate the issue that Brazil faces with fluidity. In the past, candidates have found it quite easy to switch to the party they believe will get them elected, regardless of the politics of that party. With closed lists, the focus will shift from the individual to the party, strengthening the party and hopefully encouraging them to solidify their ideologies.

As the fans of the football team are not left to pick their team’s starting line up, this idea can be transferred to politics. Sometimes the coach or the physician is alert to a weakness of which the fan is unaware.  Often, a team will not reveal the true nature of an apparent injury to avoid negative publicity and not allow the opposing team to know if said player will start an upcoming match.  By not playing that player, it benefits the whole team and makes for a better and more competitive game. Sometimes you must remove a flashy player from the game and replace him with a player with completely different talents; though this stuns the fans it does not mean that it was not the right decision. The party is better capable of to judge the qualities and capabilities of candidates and therefore place their candidates where they see fit. The flashy smile is saved for the public and the politics can begin, so the game can be played fairly.

Senators also have a special privilege deemed the ‘birth-right candidacy’, having held a seat once automatically entitles the congressman to a place on the ticket regardless of party loyalty or lack thereof (Montero 58). You would not give a futebol player a spot on the national team one year simply because he had been on it before.  Nepotism is essentially and without needing to be spoken, forbidden in the professional world of futebol today.  When a player from Serbia Montenegro was selected by the coach, also his father, he resigned from the team under the growing pressure before this year’s world cup.  A person’s qualities, strengths and weaknesses, must be assessed constantly to determine whether they are the best fit for the job at hand. Therefore the idea of the ‘birth-right candidate’ is both outdated and completely hazardous to the continued development of healthy Brazilian politics. This nation is in need of legislators who are both experienced but have a consistency about their beliefs and ideologies. Brazil needs politicians who can maintain a relationship with their party, and continue to appeal to the needs of the people.

Stronger party ties and a consolidation of parties can be achieved as well by reducing the impact of proportional representation system by placing a quota on the percentage of the national vote required by a party to gain representation in congress. As the system is currently structured, the electoral quotient (number of votes divided by number of seats) used to determine seat attainment in both federal and state depute elections is so low that in Sao Paulo, for example, a party or coalition needs only 1.67 percent of the vote to win representation in the Chamber of Deputies (Mainwaring 23). Because it is so easy to obtain a seat in the congress as a small party, there is little incentive to consolidate parties and new parties are frequently forming such that even futebol club presidents like Vasco’s Eurico Miranda can be elected to the Chamber of Deputies. By placing a percentage of the national vote, even if it is as low as three percent, required for distribution of a seat in congress politicians are forced to consolidate parties and are discouraged from leaving a better known party to start a new one.

Still another plague to the electoral system in Brazil is the great degree of mal-proportion in the representation of the states. There are several reasons behind this, the most import being a floor of 8 deputies per state and a ceiling of 70. In the larger states such as São Paolo, this has created such a disproportion in the deputies compared to the much less populated states of the North like Acre and Amazones such that the number of voters per deputy in São Paulo is over ten times greater than in Acre (Mainwaring 22). A potential solution to this problem would be removing the cap at the number of representatives from each state and in increasing the number of voters a deputy represents. Just as the American colonists said in the 1700’s, ‘no taxation without representation,’ it is not just for a geographic divide that fosters inequality to transcend into politics.

In the face of last year’s Mensalão scandal that is threatening to destroy the most consolidated political party in Brazil, it is more and more transparent that Brazilian politicians are as corrupt as Italian futebol referees. Without reforming the electoral system by placing increased barriers to party formation and increased incentive to politicians siding with political parties Brazil faces the threat of being overrun by a period of political populism as experienced during the Peron years in Brazil’s southern neighbor Argentina.




Bellos, Alex. Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. 

Mainwaring, Scott. “Politicians, Parties, and Electoral Systems: Brazil in Comparative

Perspective.” Comparative Politics, Vol. 24, No. 1. (Oct., 1991), pp.21-43.

Samuels, David. “Ambition and Competition: Explaining Legislative Turnover in

    Brazil.” Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3. (Aug., 2000), pp. 481-497. 

Norris, Pippa. “Electoral Reform and Fragmented Multipartyism: The mechanical and

psychological effects of electoral systems on party systems.” Paper for the

International Conference Political Reform in Brazil in Comparative Perspective. June 27-28 2002 UCAM, Ipanema, Brazil.

 Jones, Mark P. “Presidential Election Laws and Multipartism in Latin America.” Political

Research Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1. (Mar., 1994), pp. 41-57.

 Samuels, David J. “The Gubernatorial Coattails Effect: Federalism and Congressional

Elections in Brazil.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 1. (Feb., 2000), pp.



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