Who is afraid of political parties?

Image: Matheus Natan


The district and separate candidacies are bad ideas and of a deeply conservative nature

A ghost haunts Brazilian politics again: the single non-transferable vote, popularly known as “district”. In 2015, sponsored by Eduardo Cunha, it was almost approved in the plenary of the Chamber of Deputies. In 2017, he even obtained majority support in the special commission for political reform. In the new commission, set up by Arthur Lira and now in operation, there is “strong adherence” to the idea, according to the rapporteur, deputy Renata Abreu (Podemos-SP).

The electoral system is always the most burning issue of the unresolved political reform in Brazil. It is possible to question this prominence. The electoral system is the mechanism by which voters' votes are transformed into access to positions of authority (parliamentary seats or executive positions). As important as it is, it has much less impact on the exercise of power than other factors such as economic inequality, control of information and the division of domestic work. But such themes are rarely remembered when talking about political reform.

In Brazil, the legislative houses, with the exception of the Senate, are filled by proportional representation (RP) with open lists. Each federation unit is a district with a certain number of seats (today, from 8 to 70) and the vacancies are distributed proportionally to the vote of each party list. But the list is open, that is, there is no prior ranking by parties. Therefore, the voter chooses a candidate and casts his vote in him; seats allocated to the list are given to those who, within it, obtained the greatest number of popular votes.

The RP was instituted after the 1930 Revolution, as a way to reduce the power of the coroneis – since in the Old Republic, single-member voting prevailed in single-member constituencies (“district vote”), which maximized control of the process by local bosses . From the beginning, lists were open. Since then, the system has been maintained, with adjustments in the number of vacancies per UF, in the formula for distributing leftovers, in the use or not of the electoral quotient as a barrier clause and in the permission or not of party coalitions.

There are many criticisms directed at the Brazilian electoral system: it contributes to the expansion of the number of parties with parliamentary representation, it personalizes the political dispute, weakens the parties, demands too much from the common voter's ability to choose. It is not my purpose here to discuss its pros and cons in relation to the generally proposed alternatives (list closure, district vote, mixed district vote). The point is that the district gets worse all the problems pointed out today in the current electoral system.

I concede that the district is a system whose logic is easy to understand: the most voted are elected. But besides this, it is difficult to find other qualities in him. Electoral systems seek to privilege (or accommodate) two divergent objectives, which are to facilitate the task of composing parliamentary majorities and to give voice to different social interests. The district has the characteristic of operating simultaneously against both objectives.

It abolishes the proportionality in the distribution of seats among the party lists, but keeps the plurinominal districts linked to the federation units (or, in the case of municipal elections, to the municipalities) – and thus transforms the electoral dispute into a mad race between the candidates. Those who get the most votes win, regardless of the parties. Sold as a way of valuing the popular vote, it actually increases the waste of votes. Let's assume that candidate A gets 80 votes and is elected. Candidate B is also elected, in the last wave, with 20 votes. Now this means that 60 votes given to A were wasted: he only needed 20 to get the seat. In the proportional system, currently in force, these 60 “extras” help to elect supporters of A. The district destroys intra-party solidarity once and for all.

The main justification for this is to avoid the so-called “Tiririca effect”: candidates with little support reach parliament thanks to a large vote by a vote leader. This scarecrow has already led to ugly changes in electoral rules, such as the one that denies a mandate to anyone who has obtained votes below 10% of the electoral quotient. The problem, however, is not in the rules, but in the parties. If the lists were coherent, that is, if the parties had clear programmatic commitments, it would be more than reasonable to allow the “excess” votes of candidate X to contribute to the election of his co-religionist Y. from killing the patient to eliminating the disease.

At the same time, it opens the door to another “Tiririca effect”: the election of media celebrities with no history of political militancy. Without the effective mediation of parties, competition becomes even more favorable for people who have any kind of public visibility (like show-business stars on a downward curve).

It is complained that the fragmentation of the benches in the Chamber is excessive – in 2018, deputies from 30 parties were elected and the Rae fractionation index, which measures parliamentary dispersion, reached 0,94 (out of a mathematically possible maximum of 0,998) . With the district, this only tends to get worse. Each candidate would have an incentive to look for a party to call their own, avoiding internal disputes and association with other people's scandals. The creation of party legends to later sell them to interested parties in the states, which is already a flourishing business in Brazil, would start to occur on an industrial scale. Precisely for this reason, the idea of ​​demanding party loyalty to counterbalance the effects of the electoral system, as once proposed by a defender of the district, the jurist Ives Gandra Sr., is innocuous.

With the district, in 2022 the number of parties that elect representatives will certainly hit the 50 mark. I am not one of those who think that this number is necessarily just a problem. If there were 50 political positions participating in the discussion, we would also have gains. But it certainly won't be the case.

Those who sponsor the idea of ​​the district are well-known representatives of the old politics in Brazil. But there is a more modern-looking proposal that runs in parallel – and that, in fact, depends on the district to be fully implemented. It is the proposal for single candidacies, which has, among its main advocates, young deputies such as Áurea Carolina (PSOL-MG) and Tabata Amaral (Lemann-SP). Enthusiasm with the stand-alone candidacy is revealing of an illness that affects a considerable portion of the new generation's militants: excessive personalism, little willingness to work par excellence in collective construction that is the party.

The monopoly that parties have on electoral representation would be broken. Anyone could run for office, without going through a party convention, even without being affiliated. The argument is that these candidates would be better able to represent minorities – women, indigenous peoples, LGBTs, etc. No one denies that party structures are often oligarchic and often pose obstacles to members of minority groups. But is the solution, once again, to implode the parties?

Who else benefits from the customization of the dispute, which single candidacies promote? There's no doubt: celebrities and sub-celebrities – and money holders. Is this what we want? A political representation taken by decadent artists and sportsmen and puppets of millionaires? The parties would be weakened once and for all. The main beneficiaries would be initiatives to capture political business, such as RenovaBR, Acredita and RAPS. In Congress, this contingent of “loose” elected officials, committed only to their own careers, would once and for all disorganize parliamentary work, which has parties as a fundamental unit.

It is worth remembering that the organization of the political dispute around parties served to de-elite it and give voice to the interests of common people. They were the indispensable tool to overcome the regime of representation of “notables”. With all the problems it has, the parties' control over the presentation of candidacies forces negotiations and is a brake on the ambitions of holders of public visibility or economic capital. Party affiliation imposes commitment on the candidate, makes him publicly accountable for a project that transcends him.

This is another key point: project. Many of the parties' traditional functions, such as expressing interests and channeling demands, are now performed by other instruments. But not the function of articulating the different interests and demands in a comprehensive project, endowed with some consistency – this remains the prerogative of party organizations. Without parties, politics tends to focus on localized and dispersed agendas.

As can be seen, the effect of the emptying of parties is much more serious for the popular field, for those who do not have their interests already incorporated in the current institutional framework, for those who have the ambition to promote a radical transformation of the social world. It is on this side that lies the need to form collective organizations that generate their own leaders and to articulate comprehensive alternatives to the existing order.

The district and separate candidacies are already bad ideas, when thinking about political representation in abstract terms. When its effective consequences are analyzed, it is also possible to perceive its deeply conservative character.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of The collapse of democracy in Brazil (Popular Expression).

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