Brazil’s anti-political mood looms large over elections
‘They are all the same. Liars ... we’ve been disillusioned so many times before’
Supporters of former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attend a vigil outside the Federal Police Superintendence in Curitiba, Brazil. Photograph: Rodolfo Buhrer/Reuters
On a cold winter’s evening most workers commuting out of São Paulo’s Faria Lima business district show no interest in the few canvassers trying to drum up support for some of the more than 8,000 candidates running in Brazil’s congressional elections.
Every four years voters are asked to choose a new president and the contest typically stirs up fierce passions in a country where many people say they are loath to think about politics.
But this focus on the presidential race tends to obscure another simultaneous contest with huge implications for the future of Latin America’s largest nation, that for congress. Local worker Daniel Rozoni says he has no idea which congressional candidate he will vote for next month and, like an astonishing 79 per cent of Brazilians, according to one survey, says he cannot remember which one he voted for four years ago.
“They are all the same. Liars. Some of them might be honest but I cannot be bothered working out which ones because we’ve been disillusioned so many times before,” he says.
Such disdain for congressional elections is partly explained by their opacity. Brazil’s use of the confusing open-list system combined with ideologically incoherent coalitions and some of the biggest electoral districts in any western democracy – São Paulo state alone constitutes one constituency in which 33 million voters must elect 70 deputies – have all but broken any organic link between citizens and their legislators.
This is just as well for legislators. According to the Latinobarômetro polling organisation 89 per cent of Brazilians have little or no confidence in them. Much of this is due to the widespread perception that congress is systematically corrupt. Of the outgoing legislature, about half of its members have been investigated or formally charged with crimes.
Despite these levels of rejection the opacity of the electoral system means 402 of 513 members of the lower house are up for re-election, while of the 54 senate seats in play 32 will be disputed by incumbents. And analysts warn that despite the anti-political mood gripping the presidential contest, congress will likely see a return of familiar faces, family names and deeply entrenched political clans.
“The tendency is for a lower level of renovation than usual in congress despite a latent desire by our population for a much more significant change,” says Antônio Augusto de Queiroz, of the Inter-union Parliamentary Advisory Department, a labour organisation that monitors congress.
Among those confident of re-election are several dozen deputies and senators caught up in the country’s high-profile corruption investigations that have had such an impact on the presidential race, having landed the favourite, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in jail and dragging down the chances of the establishment candidate, Geraldo Alckmin.
This anti-political mood has been capitalised on by the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who was leading opinion polls when he was dramatically stabbed at a campaign rally on Thursday.
In reality what happens is not a renovation of congress but rather a recycling of power
This congressional obduracy owes much to the skilful way outgoing legislators, fearing the anti-incumbency mood, passed a series of supposed reforms last year that in reality were designed to tilt the electoral contest even further in favour of incumbents, most notably by capturing the majority of public financing for campaigns.
“The advantages of those seeking re-election over outsiders are therefore hugely significant,” says Queiroz. Even many of the new faces that do get into the new congress will in fact be part of the same political class voters have such disdain for, coming over from executive roles or being promoted from state assemblies or simply inheriting a seat in one of the family fiefdoms that litter Brazil’s political landscape.
“In reality what happens is not a renovation of congress but rather a recycling of power,” notes Queiroz.
Four hundred new laws is a lot when you consider each one will regulate some area of public policy or national life
As well as frustrating the desire of Brazilians for political change, the likelihood of little congressional rejuvenation also has important ramifications for the eventual winner of the presidential contest, given the ability of the outgoing congress not only to frustrate the chief executive’s programme but, as it demonstrated in 2016 with Dilma Rousseff, even remove them from office.
The incoming president will have to negotiate with one of the most fragmented legislatures in the world, stuffed with operators skilled at extracting federal funding and jobs for their networks in return for support of the presidential programme.
“This has an impact on the quality of a government’s management capacity because a president needs to form coalitions in order to get proposals made on the campaign trail through congress. The more parties you have the higher the cost in building these coalitions,” says Fabio Vasconcellos, a researcher with the Congress in Numbers project at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
With the new president inheriting a fiscal crisis their ability to buy support in congress will likely be severely circumscribed, which could boost the body’s growing sense of autonomy and confidence despite the public’s distrust.
Though few Brazilian voters know who they are, the outgoing deputies passed more than 400 laws in four years, a quantitative and qualitative improvement over its immediate predecessors.
“There is an improvement in the work being done at the committee level,” says Vasconcellos. “Four hundred new laws is a lot when you consider each one will regulate some area of public policy or national life.”