Politics as it is

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Panta Rei, digital painting, 2024


Excerpts selected by the authors of the recently published book

Presentation – Why is politics the way it is?

This book aims to meet a demand and a need: for political experts to talk about it, without disguises or complications, as close as possible to its reality. One thing that greatly disturbs our democratic progress is that most citizens know little about politics. Some say that it is just a matter for corrupt people – and because of this they give up on acting, as much as they can, to improve it. Others hope that politics will solve everything – even ingrown toenails, as the joke goes, or bring their love back in five days. Of course this is not possible.

We have different training and operations. I, Renato Janine Ribeiro, am a philosopher. I've always liked politics and history. In philosophy, I work with political philosophy, which deals mainly with big, huge themes – like democracy, representation, sovereignty. But, precisely because I like politics, I'm interested in knowing how it all works, beyond theory. In fact, the role of theory is not to rule the real world, it is to understand what it is, what the practice of politics consists of.

And, because I like history, I like to see how things happen. In addition to my work on political philosophy, I was Minister of Education, which allowed me to understand certain difficulties, when a government is faced with a lack of money and parliamentary hostility, and also some possibilities, when we learn what good policies can do well-focused public.

I, Alberto Carlos Almeida, am a social science engineer. Despite the fact that I started the undergraduate course in engineering and did not complete it, I believe that I took the way of reasoning from this discipline to political science and sociology: the constant search for analytical rigor and empirical evidence to support my statements. I was fortunate to complete my doctorate in political science, become a university professor (and stop being one), and specialize in public opinion research — which obliges me and allows me to listen to the other, another spread throughout the world. Brazil, from different regions and social classes – and to coexist with the most diverse audiences of the Brazilian elite: intellectuals, businesspeople, financial market participants, politicians and journalists.

My learning is constant and daily, which often leads me to review my visions and affirmations. My words in this book are the result of this trajectory that has always challenged, and will continue to challenge, my way of seeing the world.

We built this book based on dialogues that we recorded at the beginning of 2021 and later updated. In fact, it seems like decades have passed since then. This is part of our theme! Politics can sometimes drag on. We have the impression that we are repeating the same problems over and over again. Anyone who experienced strong Brazilian inflation, which lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s, and was one of the main legacies of the dictatorship to democracy, will understand this feeling that efforts are always frustrated. And in other times, the clock of history speeds up. Because, by better understanding politics – and also our politics – it will be possible to better understand this point, and know how to act in politics.

Political science, so many think, was born with Machiavelli. The 16th century Florentine thinker was left with a terrible image. Many people only know that “the ends justify the means”. But he never said that! In other words, many people don't know anything about him. What Machiavelli sought was to understand how politics works. It's shocking sometimes. But it's the way. To improve politics, we have to make politics.

But we can compare the evils of politics to diseases. A scientist, when looking for a cure for a disease, has to understand it. He will explain it. But that doesn't mean he approves of her! However, without this study, we would never have overcome so many diseases. It is high time to understand that serious, serious problems require knowledge. Corruption, for example. If we don't understand what its causes are, we will never overcome it.

Finally, we hope that you, our reader, enjoy this book, and that it gives you elements to better live politics – whether as a politician or as a citizen.


ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: Before starting to address the presidential system of government, presidentialism, within which Brazil has lived since the establishment of the Republic, I would like to make a brief comparison between presidentialism and parliamentarism. In this sense, I consider it important to reflect on the source of legitimacy in both systems.

Firstly, what is the source of legitimacy for the power exercised by the head of government in presidentialism? The popular vote. With the exception of the electoral system formed by electoral colleges, as is the case in the United States, in presidentialism the people always vote directly for the President of the Republic. Even in the North American case – in which the people elect an electoral college –,[I] the source of legitimacy is still the people: through popular vote, it is the population who elects an electoral college to mediate the choice of a president. In other words, the source of legitimacy will always be the popular vote for the president.

Thus, if we understand “legitimacy” as a synonym for “consent”, we will understand that society consents to being led by the president. So, therefore, the source of consent is the choice of society. In presidentialism, there are different sources of consent, that is, different votes: to head the Executive Branch, we vote for a president; to exercise Legislative Power, we vote for a federal deputy, for example, and one or two senators. Each vote, a different source of legitimacy, a different consent.

On the other hand, in parliamentarism, the source of consent and, therefore, of legitimacy, will be the same for both the deputy and the head of government – ​​the prime minister. While, in presidentialism, different votes consist of different sources of legitimacy, in parliamentarism, the citizen, when voting for a deputy, also votes for the formation of the entire government. With a single vote, he chooses both the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch.[ii] And from this distinction between the two systems of government derive other differences.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: Exactly. And I add another reflection: when we talk about presidentialism, and about the differences between presidentialism and parliamentarism, what exactly are we talking about? About democracy.[iii] Presidentialism and parliamentarism are the two main forms of organization of democracies.

For reasons that will be discussed later,[iv] The American continent is almost entirely made up of presidential nations. The United States, where presidentialism began, is a presidential country. The former Spanish colonies and the former Portuguese colony, Brazil, are presidential. In South America, only the former British and Dutch colonies are parliamentary, Guyana and Suriname. Or, in Central and North America and the Caribbean, the former British colonies, such as Jamaica and Canada. Parliamentarism is more prevalent outside of America: in Western Europe, made up of solid democracies, and in some democratic nations in Asia, such as Japan and India. In fact, the presidential system of power is basically something from our continent, an invention of the United States. And how did it come about?

After gaining their independence, Americans found themselves facing a gigantic challenge: how to build a democratic society? How to build an applied democracy in a large society, not just in a small city, as in Athens in Antiquity, or as occurred in Italian, Dutch and Swiss cities in the late Middle Ages? The philosopher and political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), for example, was proud to live in a democratic Geneva, the republic in which he was born. But the intellectuals who thought about politics in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries were unanimous in considering democracy a power regime suited to the context of cities, unsuitable for large populations.

In the United States, a system of power organization was then formulated consisting of a synthesis of other systems: an element of the monarchy, the president; an element of democracy, the Chamber of Representatives – as they call what in Brazil we know as the Chamber of Deputies; and an element of the aristocracy, the Senate. This new system is called presidentialism.

With presidentialism, the United States becomes the first democratic state of large geographic extent, with direct representation, in which the Executive Branch is elected by popular vote, even through an electoral college, and in which society in general cultivates a very relevant identification with the President of the Republic. Later, this would also be the system practiced by the countries emancipated from Spain in Latin America and by Brazil, when it became republican.[v] One way or another, we, on the American continent, feel more comfortable choosing the President of the Republic directly.

For us Brazilians, the idea that the leadership of the Executive Branch is directly established by citizens is very important. This applies not only to the Union, to the President of the Republic, but also to governors and mayors. In all spheres, executive and legislative are filled by direct vote. By direct vote, but separately, which sometimes generates conflicts. It is not uncommon for there to be an Executive under the control of one political group and the Legislature under the control of another.[vi] This type of conflict will be common, therefore, because, as Alberto explained, in presidentialism, there are two legitimacy conferred: that which is attributed by the direct popular vote for the president and that which is attributed to deputies and senators with another vote.

Furthermore, apparently, presidentialism works better when there are two Chambers.[vii] In other words, a so-called Lower House, the Chamber of Deputies – which represents the population more or less proportionally to the population of the states or districts –, and an Upper House, the Senate, which, both in Brazil and in the United States, is filled by an equal number of representatives per state, regardless of its population. When you have a Senate and a Chamber, the president has a difficult task, because he needs to find understanding with both Houses, while governors and mayors only need to dialogue with one legislative house.

Not by chance, it is rare for governors and mayors to have a minority in the Legislative Assembly or City Council, and cases of impeachment are even rarer. At the federal level, the president must reach understanding with both legislative houses. At the same time, as there are two houses, neither can consider itself the legitimate representative of the people in isolation – which, in return, strengthens the president, because it avoids his direct confrontation with a unicameral Legislature. (In Ecuador, the combination of presidentialism and unicameralism led to successive government overthrows in the short term.)

Furthermore, regarding the electoral system: it is worth reflecting on round-robin elections. In Brazil, for a long time, an electoral system with just one round was practiced.[viii] The two rounds were already adopted in the 1988 Constitution, for president, state governors, mayors of capitals and cities with more than 200 thousand voters, which are few municipalities.

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: Exactly 85 municipalities, including the capitals.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: In other words, just over 1% of the 5.570 Brazilian municipalities. And we adopted the two-round system, largely to avoid presidential choices without an absolute majority of votes.[ix] But it is interesting to note that, in some Latin American countries, the two shifts work differently. For example, a candidate is elected with 45% of the votes in Argentina, or with 40%, if there is at least a 10% difference to second place. Why does this happen there? To avoid a spraying of applications.

Here in Brazil, and this happens in many municipal elections, someone presents themselves as a candidate with only 2% or 3% of voting intentions, believing that, if they run a good campaign, they can reach 10% or 15%, and perhaps go to the second round – when you will have a chance of winning. An illusion is thus created: people with no chance of winning present themselves as candidates. And this pulverizes the applications. Sometimes generating very bad results.

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: It's interesting, Renato, when you mention the Argentine system, you realize that, if our rule were the same, Lula would have been elected in the first round in both disputes, in 2002 and 2006. Dilma Roussef would have been elected in the first round in 2010 and Jair Bolsonaro would have been elected in the first round in 2018. Only in 2014 would we have a second round, between Dilma and Aécio Neves. Lula, in turn, would have been elected again in 2022, with 48% of the valid votes. Let's say, therefore, that the Argentine rule, comparatively, tries to ensure a legitimacy as great as ours, but does so in a more economical way in relation to holding second rounds.

In any case, it is very difficult to go from the first to the second round. If we take the presidential elections in Brazil as a reference, whoever comes first in the first round always ends up winning in the second round. Of course, that doesn't mean a turnaround can't happen. But it is hard. Including in state and municipal elections.

Furthermore, Renato, I would like to add an observation about the Senate. It is present in federations, in countries that give greater autonomy to local governments. In countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, the United States, Russia – large territorially and with a large population and not concentrated in just one region or another – it is necessary to delegate regional entities to govern. And then the Senate has an important role in the representation of the federated units.

Brazil is a country with a strong presidential tradition, to get an idea of ​​what this means, in the brief parliamentary period that we had during the republican period, from September 1961 to January 1963, in Brazil, Tancredo Neves was the prime minister for more time and said a phrase that I have never forgotten: “I have never seen parliamentarism as presidential as this”. Why did he say that?

Because Congress overturned government proposals, but the cabinet continued, it did not fall. Tancredo remained prime minister. This already happened because of our strong presidential tradition. In the Brazilian mind, Parliament voting against the government would not be a reason to overthrow the cabinet. In other words, even in that brief period in which we adopted a parliamentary institution, our practice, our mentality, was more in harmony with presidentialism.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: Using this example, it is worth mentioning that a great advantage of parliamentarism over presidentialism is the possibility of changing governments without major trauma. Because, in parliamentarism, the Executive Branch does not have a fixed mandate. In presidentialism, the government has a fixed mandate.[X]

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: Yes, and this advent of the fixed mandate gives enormous rigidity to the political system. It is fixed precisely because it is written in the Constitution. Take the case of the pandemic, for example, when, in order to change the date of the municipal election, it was necessary to change the text of the Constitution itself.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: Certainly. And there is no such rigidity in parliamentarism. In parliamentary France, there is no specific day for a mega-election that elects president, governor, two senators, federal deputies and state deputies. It's not all on the same day, like here in Brazil. There is an election for deputy, then for mayor, another for regional council and another for the European Parliament, separately. For this reason, France does not have as much need – as do other parliamentary countries – to switch to electronic voting. Counting votes manually there is not as complicated as it would be here. It can be done in one or two hours.

But, going back to what I said about the change of government in both systems, in the presidential regime, if a president is not satisfactory, it is difficult to remove him from office. In presidentialism, the president can only be impeached due to a crime committed. An impeachment should not be approved merely because the president has become unpopular. In the case of former president Fernando Collor de Mello, at the time affiliated with the National Reconstruction Party (PRN), the crime was detected, classified, etc. But deep down he fell because he had become unpopular. In the case of former president Dilma Vana Rousseff, of the Workers' Party (PT), it was more difficult to prove the actual commission of a crime, and they still removed her.[xi]

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: It’s important that you mention this. There is a lot of controversy about Dilma's impeachment. There are those who claim that she was prevented without a crime of responsibility. But let's think about what the impeachment mechanism consists of? I compare it to an atomic bomb. Because the presidential system is rigid. In presidentialism, impeachment is something very traumatic. But an impeachment trial is not a legal trial. It's political. This must be kept in mind, because it is decided by the vote of elected representatives, deputies and senators. That's why he's political. Impeachment is not judged by judges, the Federal Supreme Court (STF) or the Supreme Court of Justice (STJ). For it to happen, it needs to have a reason with legal bases, but the judgment itself is a political judgment.

What can be said is that there are impeachments with a better structured legal basis – therefore, more acceptable from the point of view of the law –, and there are those with a deficient legal basis, which therefore have greater difficulty in legal acceptance. However, in the end, those who decide whether it was a crime or not are deputies and senators. They are the ones who decide. And, precisely for this reason, impeachment will always be a political trial.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: I understand that here we have a double aspect: on the one hand, impeachment is a political trial, but on the other it is a trial that presumes a crime. Impeachment is something that was born in England. “Impeach”, in English actually does not mean to condemn, but to accuse someone to be tried by another court. Something like “accusing, pointing out”. In the United States, the House of Representatives carries out impeachment, which accuses the president and then faces trial in the Senate, without removal from office. A very quick process. Donald Trump's impeachment, at the beginning of 2021, was decided in fifteen days. In just fifteen days, he was acquitted.

Unlike here, where an impeachment process takes months. But, in both cases, the idea behind impeachment is to decide based on a high level of demand. In the United States, this high level works. Only one president has come close to being sentenced to lose office – Andrew Johnson, in 1868. Of 45 American presidents, none have been removed from office. In Brazil, of the five presidents elected by the people since 1985, two were removed. So, in this sense, the impeachment mechanism became something traumatic in Brazil.[xii]

Does this mean that changing to parliamentarism would be positive for us Brazilians? Not necessarily. Our culture doesn't make much room for this. Everything indicates that we want an individual to lead, to personalize the government. Leaving presidentialism in favor of parliamentarism would necessarily presuppose a change in political culture. And this is not done easily.

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: Absolutely. See, for example, that, at the time of the 1993 plebiscite, supporters of presidentialism justified their aversion to parliamentarism with the motto “Don’t let politicians take away your right to choose the president of the Republic”. In other words, choosing parliamentarism, for them, would be the same as delegating the choice of the nation's chief leader. Note the strength of this argument. And notice how much it is associated with a mentality, a political culture, of personalization.

As a result, it is natural that political parties are generally weaker in presidential countries and stronger in parliamentary ones. Even in the United States, where the parties are strong, they are still weaker than European parties. Why? Because personalism allows certain leaders to guide the party in a certain direction.[xiii] This does not happen in parliamentarism. If a given leader does not find consensus with the majority of the party, he is overthrown. That simple.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: I add another element that illustrates our cultural aversion to parliamentarism: we pay more attention to the choice of candidate for the Executive Branch. Brazilian citizens think, discuss and choose who to vote for as mayor, governor or president, but reflect little or nothing on their choice for deputy, councilor and even senator. This little attention to the Legislative Branch creates Chambers that are little representative of the popular will, compared to the Executive Branch. Presidents, governors and mayors end up having greater legitimacy, not in the legal sense, but in the sense of the emotional investment that people make in their choice.

To change this, to perhaps become parliamentarians, there will be a prior, logical need to turn more attention to the Legislature. I don't know if we are presidentialists because we pay more attention to our vote for the Executive, or if we pay more attention to our vote for the Executive because we are presidentialists.

ALBERTO CARLOS ALMEIDA: It becomes a trap door. Once you enter the system it is very difficult to leave. This applies to us, presidentialists, and to parliamentary countries too. The system feeds itself all the time. When I see people arguing that, if Brazil were parliamentary, we would avoid some of the latest political crises, I always remember the series House of Cards and the character Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey: a deputy who little by little became more and more important. As? Using his contacts with the main lobbyists to distribute resources to his party's parliamentarians and, consequently, receiving more and more support and power until he reached the presidency.

All things considered, Frank's trajectory is reminiscent of that of federal deputy Eduardo Cunha until he became president of the Chamber. How did he do it? Making small and big blessings. In other words, if we had parliamentarism in force in Brazil, perhaps we would resolve crises more easily, but perhaps someone with the profile of Eduardo Cunha would be able to mobilize campaign resources and finance deputies to be prime minister forever.

In the countries where it is in force, parliamentarism is linked to a specific electoral system. Our electoral system, combined with parliamentarism, could provide the ideal conditions for a guy like Eduardo Cunha to remain prime minister forever. We have proportional voting with an open list, that is, our electorate votes for a candidate, it is the voter who defines who will be in first, second, third place and so on on the list.

The parliamentary European countries that, like us, adopt proportional voting present the vast majority of them with a closed and pre-ordered list. It is within the party, in a convention, that the first placed on each list are defined and they are precisely those who will probably be elected. Our system encourages individual campaigns, making each deputy obtain resources exclusively for their campaign, hence the need to have the help of someone like Eduardo Cunha, whereas in closed list systems the campaign is to vote for the party. In this sense, for Brazil, presidentialism can be infinitely superior.

RENATO JANINE RIBEIRO: I agree. Parliamentarism and presidentialism are just different systems of government. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Because one works well in Europe doesn't mean it would work well here. Let’s look at parliamentarism in more detail below.

*Alberto Carlos Almeida He is a political scientist, journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of The Brazilian's head (All time lap record). [https://amzn.to/3wnteSG]

*Renato Janine Ribeiro is a retired full professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Machiavelli, democracy and Brazil (Freedom Station). https://amzn.to/3L9TFiK


Alberto Carlos Almeida & Renato Janine Ribeiro. Politics as it is: Dialogues between Alberto Carlos Almeida and Renato Janine Ribeiro. Rio de Janeiro, Difel, 2024, 252 pages. [https://amzn.to/4a2L1fK]

The launch in Rio de Janeiro will be today, May 6th, starting at 19pm at Livraria da Travessa (Rua Voluntários da Pátria, 97) with a conversation between the authors with Bernardo Mello Franco and Jairo Nicolau.


[I]. In the United States, direct popular voting elects an Electoral College that chooses the president. The Electoral College is the sum of delegates elected in each state of the federation. States with more voters, such as California, elect many more delegates than electorally small states. An important feature of the system is what is called in English the “the winner takes all”. The candidate with the most votes in a state wins all of that state's delegates; It is not, therefore, a distribution of delegates per state proportional to the vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate. This is why it sometimes happens that the candidate with the most votes in the popular vote ends up with fewer delegates and is not elected.

[ii]. In short, in parliamentary countries, the source of legitimacy of Parliament and the head of government (the prime minister) is the same. In presidential countries, such as Brazil, the source of legitimacy of the President of the Republic (head of state and government) is different from the source that confers legitimacy on the Legislative Branch. Deputies and senators are, therefore, chosen through a different source of consent than that which elected the head of the Executive Branch.

[iii]. We do not include presidentialism in this conversation in cases where the president is a dictator, of course, we think of both, presidentialism and parliamentarism, within a democratic context.

[iv]. See chapter 2. Parliamentarism.

[v]. It is worth highlighting the occurrence of two brief essays on parliamentarism in Brazil. In the second reign, with d. Pedro II, who accepted parliamentarism, but protected by the monarch's moderating power; and in the Republic, between September 1961 and January 1963, when a brief parliamentarism was put into practice to prevent vice-president João Goulart from exercising presidential powers. In any case, both in the 1963 plebiscite and in the one held after redemocratization in 1993, presidentialism was chosen by the overwhelming majority of Brazilians.

[vi]. See, for example, that, of the five presidents elected after 1985, two presidents lost their majority in Congress to the point of being impeached with votes from more than two-thirds of the House and Senate. These were the cases of Fernando Collor de Mello and Dilma Rousseff.

[vii]. Ecuador, for example, adopted the unicameral system and, as a result, went through some legitimacy conflicts, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. The President of the Republic was removed several times. One of them was removed under accusations of being crazy (and it seems that he was). In other words, in presidentialism, there is a balance between president and Parliament that must always be under negotiation.

[viii]. The two rounds, although they had appeared before, basically took place in 1958, when General Charles de Gaulle, when reforming the French political system, created parliamentarism with a strong president. As a result, he proposes that the president be elected with an absolute majority of votes. If none of the candidates receives an absolute majority, it goes to the second round between the two most voted.

[ix]. ACA: Some believe that, if there had been two rounds at the time, Jânio Quadros (president in 1961) and Juscelino Kubitschek (president from 1956 to 1961) would not have been elected. I doubt it.

[X]. Furthermore, in Brazilian presidentialism, there is a vice-president normally chosen for reasons of convenience — to gain more TV time, for example — who can later become a big problem, as was Itamar Franco for Fernando Collor and more recently Michel Temer for Dilma Rousseff. Or, if it doesn't become a problem, the vice-president doesn't make much difference, like Marco Maciel for Fernando Henrique Cardoso and José Alencar for Lula. In other words, either the deputy is loyal and does nothing, or he ends up turning against the incumbent.

[xi]. RJR: If we lived under a parliamentary regime, this wouldn't be a problem. In parliamentarism, the same coalition that supported Collor, or the same one that supported Dilma, could simply decide to change the government, including with someone from the same alliance. In parliamentarism there is an ease in changing the government, which does not occur in presidentialism. In this sense, the Brazilian republic could have avoided several of its traumas, caused by presidential crises, with the adoption of the parliamentary regime. However, our culture, and there are those who claim Latin American culture, is quite personalistic. We personalize who is in power, a habit we are apparently not willing to give up. Each and every opinion poll shows that the preference for presidentialism is largely the majority in Brazil. The PSDB, for example, came up with the proposal to work for parliamentarism, but Fernando Henrique Cardoso stayed in power for two terms and what did he do to implement parliamentarism? Anything.

[xii]. However, note a curiosity: in the case of state governors, the ritual is a little different. The Legislative Assembly accuses, but the judgment is carried out by a mixed court, made up of five elected deputies and five randomly selected judges. The elected legislators will probably represent the dominant political forces, but the judges, because they are drawn, may or may not be sympathetic to any political spectrum.

[xiii]. For example, the influence that Donald Trump exerted on the Republican Party in the United States.

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