Friday, May 16, 2008

The Brazilian Electoral System

Ultimately, there are two root causes to almost all of Brazil’s problems. The largest most complicated of these causes is poverty. Why is there so much violent crime in Brazil? Because people have no money and no job prospects, and need to survive. Why are there so many homeless people in Brazil’s cities? Because urban poverty is slightly better than rural poverty, so the rural poor migrate to the cities, where they still can’t find jobs and sustainable income, and become part of the cities’ problems. Why are so many people in Brazil undereducated? Because their families need whatever income they can generate, so the leave school and work, beg, or steal money for their families. And the lack of education makes them unemployable, and so the cycle continues. The other problem is political.

The Brazilian electoral system is simpler than its equivalent in the US, that much is true. Brazilians cannot figure out, and in fact enjoy being unable to understand, the American primary system. So, let’s give the Brazilians some points for simplicity and efficiency, and then get on with criticizing the myriad flaws of the Brazilian system (all of which were designed to benefit someone other than the voters, and work to perfection).

In Brazil, every candidate is an at-large candidate. Even worse, every voter votes for only one. So the approximately 1.1 million voting-age residents of Recife vote for one candidate (out of hundreds) for 36 city council positions. When there is a problem in the neighborhood, no one is directly responsible, no one answers directly to the voters in that neighborhood, and nobody can run specifically against an ineffective or corrupt councilman. The same is true for congressman and state representatives – all of them represent the entire state, and all of the state’s voters vote for only one candidate.

But the voters didn’t actually vote for a particular candidate. They voted for a party. (Voting specifically for a party rather than for a candidate is also an option in legislative races, and many voters do just that.) The proportion of the vote that each party (the sum of votes for the party itself and for each of its candidates) determines the number of councilmen, state legislators, or congressmen that the party puts in the legislative body. If a party wins 20% of the votes for congress in a particular state then the party wins 20% of that state’s congressional delegation. The most famous example of this was when Enéas Carneiro ran for congress in São Paulo in 2002. He received 1.8 million votes, far more than any other candidate. This entitled his tiny party to six congressmen in the São Paulo delegation, and among them was one who received just 300 votes. Left in the cold were candidates from other parties who had received over 100,000 votes. To whom did that congressman, who won 300 votes, owe his position? Certainly not to the voters of São Paulo.

This system makes it impossible for an activist citizen to enter politics. It is impossible to win office anywhere but in a tiny municipality without the support of a party machine. It is painful to hold Spiro Agnew up as a positive example, but he was (unfortunately) an example of the success of the American electoral system. Agnew went from PTA president to governor of Maryland to vice president of the country (Hunter S. Thompson referred to him as a sop to the voters who thought Nixon was a communist). In Brazil it is simply impossible for a community activist to hold a local politician accountable for the problems in a community – because there are no local politicians. So nothing gets done. Sidewalks are cracked and stay cracked, there is no hurry to repair any roads but major commuter arteries. Corrupt politicians are reelected year after year because there is no way to mount an effective anti-corruption campaign. Despite the entirely preventable outbreak of dengue fever in Rio, chances are that no one will suffer for it at the ballot box this October.

I wish I could end this on a positive note, offering hope for the future or at least pointing to a possible solution, but I can’t. The system protects the parties at the expense of the voters. Brazilian legislators everywhere but in the above-mentioned tiny municipalities owe their positions to the system and to their parties, and owe nothing at all to the voters. As long as this system remains in place, Brazilian society’s major problems will go unresolved and largely unconfronted.

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