Brazilian Election System Reform

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Suggested Reform of the Brazilian Electoral System

Eric Anderson, John Ceisel, John Winn


When countries move towards a democratic system of government after many years in an oppressive authoritarian regime - particularly over the past 50 years in Latin America - the transition to fair direct elections can be a difficult process.  In the case of Brazil – a nation that has only had direct elections for a little over 15 years – the experiment has had mixed results.  Brazil’s current electoral system is for the most part effective, however it is very inefficient.  When it comes to selecting officials for office, Brazilian citizens are given a dizzying array of candidates from a ridiculous amount of parties that are commonly known only by number rather than name.  The laws for candidates and citizens’ voting rights are even more complex and at times contradictory.  This prospectus attempts to analyze these ongoing problems and provide a simple and effective solution for the Brazilian people.

            Before we dissect the bulk of Brazil’s problems, we should note the important elements already in place that are an important collective starting point.  Compulsory voting for the sake of this argument is a good institution to have in Brazil.  Because it is required that all literate citizens from age 18 to 70 must vote participation will never be a problem in Brazilian elections.  Corruption is also greatly reduced by some of the laws in place.  A campaign finance reform article passed in 1994 requires that all candidates and parties submit balance sheets and expense reports to electoral courts to be publicly viewed.  This helps discourage any internal corruption in parties as well as deter bribery scandals externally between parties and individual candidates.  These systems are great but there are still several problems that are dragging down the Brazilian electoral system and keeping it from being as efficient and effective as possible.

The history of the Brazilian electoral system provides many clues as to why the current electoral system is so disconnected and complex.  When Fernando Collor de Mello was elected in 1989 it represented the beginning of Brazil’s streak of successive direct presidential elections.  Before this time Brazil had a presidential system of government but the long-term military government in place never assured that the people’s voice would be heard directly.  The first semi-democratic indirect election took place in 1985 when the military relinquished control of government procedures to the people.  Brazilians had overwhelmingly voted for this system in 1963 and reaffirmed it in 1993 according to the stipulations of the Constitution of 1988.  The important Constitution of 1988 was written in a democratic frame of mind and the results of it are evident, however its installment has not fixed all problems.  The problems remain in terms of corruption and have been very evident over the past decade or so.  In 1994 a controversial amendment was passed under President Cardoso’s term that allowed for more than one consecutive term for Presidential office.  A more serious charge came against President Lula in the past two years when members of his party were caught in a bribery and vote-buying scheme that tarnished the image of the country’s otherwise progressive strides.

An analysis of the workings of Brazil’s current electoral system will show us the weak points and what can be corrected.  Like in the United States, Presidents in Brazil are elected together with Vice Presidents on their respective tickets by direct votes from the people.  There is no electoral college system in Brazil so therefore an absolute majority is required.  In the event of an absence of a majority – which is very common - a runoff is forced between the two most popular candidates.  This drags out the election even longer and is therefore taxing on both citizens’ patience and pocketbooks.  The reason for the frequent absence of a majority is the absurd amount of political parties participating in each election.  This results in a lack of party identity and loyalty and citizens therefore feel no tie to any particular platform.  In the 2002 election, Lula received only 18% of the votes in the initial stage of the election while there were a staggering 17 parties with less than 1% of the votes.  The use of a mandatory voting system also causes problems as far as getting a true reading of voters’ preferences.  Those citizens who are very informed about politics will go in voting without having a preference between a few of the candidates due to their identical platform (yet different parties).  Those citizens that are not informed or apathetic will go in and vote at random to fulfill legal requirements.  This “donkey voting” can sometimes account for up to 2% of votes.  Another major problem is sitting Presidents dealing in legislation to change term lengths and constraints.  As mentioned before, Cardoso’s term in the early 1990s was spent only focusing on how he was going to get reelected.  During this time nothing beneficial was achieved in Brazil and the country’s progress stagnated while one man tried to increase his power.

After viewing these problems we have proposed a system to the people of Brazil that will hopefully make the electoral process more coherent and much simpler.  The overall structure of the system is important and that will be addressed first.  Like a national selection team, the best players must be selected out of thousands to form the most competitive team in each respective position.  In the same regard, the team that is the nation of Brazil must have its best candidates with as few platforms as possible on display before the people to perform at their best.  It is because of this that strides should be taken to move towards a two-party system during elections.  The lesser the amount of candidates and redundant platforms the more streamlined the election can be.  This will also lead to a reduction of vote-buying scandals like the one faced over Lula two years ago.  The buying of referees in a World Cup match leads to an imbalanced and non-competitive match, much like the buying out of parties and their votes by bigger more powerful parties takes out the competition and honesty in an election.  Brazil also needs to remove its mandatory voting clause that requires able literate citizens to vote in all elections.  While it is noted that it increases support and patriotism because of the “duty” of the citizens to vote, the apathy by many citizens can end up hurting the nation by possibly putting the wrong candidate in office.  In a soccer match, a team must run a well-scripted play with everyone knowing their position and taking clear shots in order to score.  In a mandatory voting system, citizens may not necessarily know their position (knowledge of current affairs, backgrounds and platforms of candidates) and therefore take wild off-target shots when randomly selecting candidates.  Giving the citizens the option to vote will obviously decrease the participation rates in elections, but will hopefully create a much more informed and fervent group of voters from different classes that best represents their walk of life.  This would be equivalent to a well-organized soccer crowd like that of “La Doce” for the Boca Juniors that knows its teams chants and everything going on in the game and is willing to publicly show it.  Following this new two-party system with the necessary modifications to voting requirements. should make elections in Brazil much more painless and provide an overall better set of results with better leadership.

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photo by: joesu