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Brazilian Political Reform Falls Into Own Party Trap

Young protesters demand better hospitals and public transport, while calls for political reform are less focused. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 10 2013 (IPS) - In response to the mass street protests in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff proposed a raft of reforms of the political system which appear to be bogged down by red tape and interminable party negotiations – precisely the kind of thing the demonstrators are complaining about.

After millions of young people mobilised for weeks in the country’s main cities, leftwing President Rousseff sent a request to Congress on Jul. 3 asking it to organise a plebiscite to select a list of issues that would be subsequently debated by the legislature.

The issues suggested included: election campaign financing, currently based on private and public contributions; whether or not to continue the system of stand-ins for senators; rules on party coalitions for elections to the lower house and town councils; and ending secret votes in Congress.

“We still don’t know how the plebiscite questions will be phrased, but in principle it will be a consultation so that the electorate can say whether they want Congress to debate political reform,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political analyst and adviser to Amnesty International, when IPS asked him if it would be binding.

He said, “probably the plebiscite questions will define the issues that the legislature would have to address, but the specific nature of any changes would emerge from parliamentary debate.

“Initially, Rousseff put forward her political reform as a limited kind of constituent assembly (to rewrite the constitution), but that idea was immediately discarded as too controversial,” Santoro said.

“To address popular demands, we regard it as essential to make a broad and immediate combined effort to renew the Brazilian political system,” said President Rousseff, who belongs to the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT).

“There was a big effort to demand an overhaul of the political system. But so far, the efforts have unfortunately failed to produce significant results,” Santoro said.

Political reform has been discussed in Brazil for the past 15 years or more, but different party interests have stood in the way. And to judge by the differences of opinion it has given rise to in the last few days, even between parties that are government allies, there is little prospect for change.

“It’s a national malaise,” said researcher Fernando Lattman-Weltman of the Laboratory of Political Studies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), referring to the resistance to change displayed by the political parties, in an interview with IPS.

The opposition and the electoral authorities also question the effectiveness of a plebiscite and of the subsequent debate in Congress, which the government wants to settle before the 2014 general elections.

And many are criticising the plebiscite itself.

Santoro said, “it’s perfectly possible to have political reform without setting up a constituent assembly.

“Much can be achieved by just changing the laws or party statutes, and even if it is necessary to amend the constitution, this can be done through parliament; the only difference is that 60 percent of the votes are needed instead of a simple majority, as in a constituent assembly,” he explained.

Lattman-Weltman was more direct, saying all political reform is the responsibility of the legislative branch.

“When (the political classes) speak of reform, they want to divert the attention of the protesters, who are asking for more participation in decision-making,” said political scientist Ricardo Ismael, of the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro.

“They are attempting to co-opt the energy of the street protests, when it is clear that the issue (of the plebiscite) is not one the demonstrators consider their own. What the protesters want is more hospitals and better public transport. Otherwise, their dissatisfaction will continue,” Ismael told IPS.

The demonstrators are also criticising impunity, corruption and the political wheeling and dealing of national and local political leaders, whether allies or opponents of the governing PT.

In Ismael’s view, the key question is to take concrete measures, such as banning off-the-books election campaign slush funds (“caixa dois”), limiting or prohibiting private contributions, and increasing transparency, for instance by providing voters with information on the sources of campaign financing prior to the elections.

According to Ismael, these issues should be discussed first in Congress, and then a plebiscite should be held.

Meanwhile, Lattman-Weltman regards it as “essential” for Congress to also reform the current rules on stand-ins for senators. In Brazil, senators have unelected temporary substitutes who can assume their seat if they step down for some reason, such as taking a cabinet post.

“It’s ridiculous. People vote for a senator without knowing who his or her replacement will be,” he said.

But the most controversial issue is the election system for members of Congress and town councils, at present by what are known as “open lists” in which candidates’ “excess” votes are redistributed to other candidates within their party. The result is close to proportional representation.

The debate is whether this should be changed for a constituency-based “first past the post” system for electing members of the legislature: the candidate gaining a majority of votes wins the district seat.

Another option is the “closed list” system in which votes are cast for parties rather than people and candidates are selected according to the party’s own list. This option is preferred by the traditional parties. A further possibility is the two-round system (run-off voting), advocated by some civil society organisations.

The lack of consensus among the parties is reflected in the divergent opinions of the political analysts interviewed.

Lattman-Weltman favours closed-list voting “because it will strengthen the parties and drastically reduce the number of candidates and campaign costs,” as well as facilitating closer oversight.

In contrast, Ismael is in favour of maintaining proportional representation, but would like to see a ban on party coalitions for the purpose of electing members of the lower house and town councillors. He said closed lists would be “worse,” because they would “severely curtail the number of parties” (there are currently dozens), hindering renewal.

However, the two experts do agree that campaign contributions from private companies should be banned or limited, so that government officials are not beholden to them, for instance when it comes to tendering for contracts.

Marco Aurélio García, Rousseff’s foreign affairs adviser, said that one of the causes of the “unrest” in Brazil is that the economic and social changes achieved by a decade of PT governments “have not gone hand-in-hand with institutional transformation of the branches of state, political parties and the media, ownership of which is heavily concentrated.”

In an opinion column published in the Argentine newspaper Página/12, García added that, as in other parts of the world and particularly in South America, “the institutions were timid and did not rise to the occasion when the public sphere was enlarged and new political actors joined the scene.”

In this context, he said public financing of campaigns was needed in order to “eliminate the influence wielded by economic interests in elections.”

He said other mechanisms should also be used to secure “wider participation of society in political life,” including instruments like the power to recall elected officials and more plebiscites and referendums.

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