The mother of all makeovers

Image: Eugenio Gonzaga


Without deep reform, the Brazilian political system will be dysfunctional

Brazilians are perplexed and hopeless. Political institutions have a low level of approval. It's not for less. The social indicators are frightening. Poverty, poor health, unemployment, uberization, informality and other ills affect most of the population. The middle classes suffer from urban violence and insecurity in terms of employment and income. The economic elite takes refuge in ghettos disguised as oases, surrounded by bars on all sides. The lack of prospects, jobs and income ends up affecting all classes and social strata, although, as always, it penalizes the poorest more severely.

It is true that we are not a backward country from an economic point of view. But we are also far from full development. We stopped midway. Over the last 40 years, per capita income growth has been 0,7% per year. An almost nothing. In the previous period, between 1930 and 1980, the GDP grew, on average, 6,0% per year.[1] Undoubtedly, a Chinese growth rate. It cannot be said that there has been no progress in the last four decades. However, when we compare Brazil with other countries that have recently developed, it seems that we stand still. But after all, what are the reasons for this stagnation? Why do we stop?

There is no simple answer to this question. This article intends to analyze some issues that, from an institutional point of view, may have been decisive for the formation of the desolate situation in which we live.

For some time now, economic science has considered a country's institutions as a key element in the performance of its economy. In recent decades, the study of the relationship between institutions and the economy has gained much prominence and earned Douglass North the Nobel Prize in 1993. As North wrote in his book Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, “History matters. It matters, not only because we can learn from the past, but because the present and the future are connected to the past by the continuity of social institutions. The choices of today and tomorrow are shaped by the past.”[2]

Based on data from the latest UN Human Development Report,[3] developed countries can be characterized as those with a very high HDI (greater than 0,8) and a per capita income of more than US$ 30 (in purchasing power parity). With this criterion, 45 countries are in these conditions. Of this total, 38 are democratic and the overwhelming majority are parliamentary or, in some cases, semi-presidential. The only two exceptions are the United States of America and the Republic of Cyprus, a small and beautiful country on an island in the Mediterranean. Both are presidentialists. It should be noted that the classification adopted for developed countries is somewhat arbitrary, but if we take other classifications such as those of the World Bank or the IMF, the conclusion will not be very different: the dominant political regime among developed and democratic countries is parliamentarism or a of its variants.

Due to its dimension, longevity and proximity to Brazil, the American system deserves our attention.


North American presidentialism

In the US, there is a solid bipartisan tradition that divides the country down the middle from an electoral point of view. When a president is elected, he carries with him at least something close to half of Congress. Its support base already starts with a significant number of parliamentarians. Even when the President does not have a majority in Congress, the difference in relation to the opposition is very small, which facilitates eventual negotiations.

Additionally, the overthrow of a presidential veto requires an expressive majority of 2/3 of the votes. The mere existence of this device ensures a high bargaining power in the negotiations, since the parliamentarians know that the President will use the power of veto in case of defeat. And this veto will hardly be annulled by the opponents, in view of the balance between the two parties.

Another equally powerful instrument is Executive Orders. They can be issued by the President on a wide range of subjects. Kenneth Mayer in his book With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power [4] lists eight categories for the approximately 5.800 Executive Orders that were issued in the period from 1936 to 1999. Creation, extinction or transfer of attributions of administrative bodies, declaration of a state of emergency, creation, alteration or extinction of areas or public reserves and policy including energy, environment, civil rights, economy and education are some of them. Many dealt with national security and foreign relations, such as the one that recently determined the US return to the Paris Agreement. In addition, Executive Orders give the President the ability to take the initiative when an issue is not yet regulated by law. When Congress decides to legislate, the effects of the Executive Order are already well established, limiting parliamentary action.

These characteristics of the American system, notably the bipartisan balance, the high power of veto and the Executive Orders, create conditions for the President, together with his party, to fulfill the government program that elected him.

Most likely, due to the cultural influence of the US, Latin America has adopted presidentialism since the birth of its Republics.


Brazilian presidentialism

One of the main differences between Brazilian and American presidentialism has been party proliferation. The growth in the number of parties since the end of the military dictatorship is quite expressive. Shortly after the end of bipartisanship, in the general elections of 1982, 5 political parties competed. In 1994, in FHC's election, there were already 15 parties, rising to 28 in Dilma's election in 2014. Today, 33 parties are registered with the Superior Electoral Court.

In addition to the increase in the number of parties, the system became increasingly fragmented. As a reference, it is worth noting that in 1982 the two largest parties held 84,9% of representation in the Chamber, while under FHC these same largest parties were reduced to 38,6%. In 2014, with Dilma, they represented 32,4% and today the two largest parties hold only 20,6%. In these four decades, the number of parties increased a lot while the representation of each one of them plummeted. In this context, building a parliamentary base is quite difficult, even for presidents with great capacity for political articulation.

For presidents with low articulation skills, this task is almost impossible. It is no coincidence that, since democratization, two of them have been impeached and the current one, in order to avoid their fall, handed over political coordination and government management to the leaders of Congress. A very confused and dysfunctional kind of parliamentary-presidentialism was formed.

It should be added that, in Brazil, presidential vetoes can be overridden by a majority of elected Deputies and Senators, in contrast to the 2/3 required by the American system.

But that is not all. In terms of the President's autonomy, deterioration over time is also evident. The 1988 Constitution created the Provisional Measures (MP) with the purpose of providing the President with a certain freedom, mainly in situations of relevance and urgency. From 1988 to 2001, Provisional Measures could be issued on practically any subject, as the constitutional text was very vague regarding the meaning of relevance and urgency. They were valid for 30 days, but in order not to lose legality, they could be renewed indefinitely. This period was marked by seven attempts to contain the high inflation inherited from the military dictatorship. Due to the fight against inflation or the ease of issuance and renewal of Provisional Measures, this practice reached absurd numbers. At its peak, from January 2000 to September 2001, 134 Provisional Measures were edited with more than 1000 reissues.

With the justification of containing the proliferation of Provisional Measures and their reissues, Congress approved in 2001 a Constitutional Amendment that restricted the powers of the President. This Constitutional Amendment listed matters that could not be dealt with by the MP, prohibited re-edition and established that if Congress did not deal with the matter within 45 days, the MP would lock the voting agenda. In 2009, an interpretation by the President of the Chamber, endorsed by the STF, ended with the agenda being blocked, establishing that in 120 days the MP would lose its validity if it was not appreciated. In practice, the presidential autonomy represented by the Provisional Measures has lost much of its value.

With the fragmentation of parties, lesser veto power and uncertainty regarding the Provisional Measures, Brazilian presidentialism increasingly moved away from the American model. Over time, the executive branch lost its protagonism. However, for public opinion, the President continues to be primarily responsible for the success or failure of public policies, although power in fact has progressively migrated to Congress.

Often, the President-elect begins his term with a very small support base. After his election, he began a pilgrimage in search of parliamentary support with punctual negotiations that were not always very republican, popularly known as “toma-lá-da-cá”, “exchange-exchange”, “business desk” and “secret budget”. . The result of this misallocation of power and dilution of responsibility is plain to see. For some time now, the country has seemed like a ship without direction.

While Brazil is debating an evident political identity crisis, not knowing for sure whether it is presidential or parliamentary, it is worth examining in more detail how almost all developed and democratic countries are politically structured.


Parliamentaryism and semi-presidentialism

In parliamentarism, the Chief Executive is not directly elected by the population. It emerges from the support base in Congress. A majority in parliament is formed with one or more parties coming together to govern. This majority, structured after the elections, chooses the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, in charge of the administration of the country. The first consequence of this type of training is that it is clear to public opinion which party or set of parties is responsible for the success or failure of public policies. The population quickly noticed this configuration and began to pay close attention to the parties and the choices for deputies and senators.

On the other hand, political parties come to understand that their survival depends on the success of the Prime Minister and his direct assistants, chosen by them. Another advantage of this arrangement is the ease of replacing the Prime Minister when his performance is not meeting the expectations of the parties or public opinion. In general, in this case, it is necessary that the majority of the Deputies approve a Motion of Censorship, to overthrow the Prime Minister. In some cases, so that there is no discontinuity, the Prime Minister only falls when a new majority able to replace him is established.

This formation is accompanied by the choice of a Head of State who is a President elected by the population or by the Senate. In parliamentary monarchies it is a King or a Queen. In general, the Head of State has the task of dissolving the Chamber of Deputies when parliamentarians fail to establish a majority to govern. In this case, the President calls a new election, in the expectation that voters will choose parties capable of constituting a stable majority.

In the last half of the last century, some variants of the parliamentary system emerged that slightly changed its essence. The main one is the so-called semi-presidentialism. In this case, the President, in addition to being able to dissolve the Chamber, has other powers, such as the command of the Armed Forces and the administration of Foreign Affairs. In some cases, he shares responsibility for choosing the Prime Minister with Parliament. France and Portugal are the best examples of this configuration.


The mother of all makeovers

Economic science and international experience, to a large extent, already have instruments to lead a country to full development, with social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

However, this path is necessarily political, since it requires a broad agreement between the representative forces of society around this objective. And in the institutional framework in which Brazil finds itself, this agreement is very difficult.

In fact, American institutions and those of other developed countries require the political composition of parties with ideological and programmatic proximity. The Brazilian system, on the other hand, favors spraying and physiologism. What the sociologist Sergio Abranches politely called “coalition presidentialism” and FHC, more realistically, “co-option presidentialism”, is nothing more than a serious institutional failure.

In order to bring Brazilian presidentialism closer to that of the North American one, it would be necessary to carry out a profound and difficult-to-implement constitutional reform, empowering the President to carry out the program that brought him to office. On the other hand, it would be necessary that only candidates from parties or party federations that bring together a significant portion of Deputies and Senators register. With this restriction, there would be a maximum of two or three candidates and the new President would start his term with a solid base in Congress. This impediment would prevent the registration of separate candidates, without party support, and would make voters pay more attention to political parties.

Alternatively, political reform could introduce parliamentarism or semi-presidentialism, as practiced in the vast majority of developed and democratic countries. This, perhaps, is the path of least resistance, as the weakening of the President and the empowerment of Congress appear irreversible.

Perhaps, in order not to be understood as casuistry, the new system should be programmed to start after the 2030 general elections, when the barrier clause reaches its maximum value (3%). Of course, broad political agreement and recognition of its importance could bring this reform forward. The truth is, we don't have many choices left. None of them is simple, but as the saying goes “doing nothing is not an option”.

*Sergio Gonzaga de Oliveira is an engineer from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and an economist from the University of Southern Santa Catarina (UNISUL).



[1] Cardoso, Richard, Development in crisis: the Brazilian economy in the last quarter of the XNUMXth century, Publisher UNESP, São Paulo, 2002.

[2] North, Douglass, Institutions, Institutional Changes and Economic Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2002.

[3] United Nations, The 2020 Human Development Report, United Nations Development Program, New York, NY, USA, 2020.

[4] Mayer, Kenneth, With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA, 2002.


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