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Angry Voters Push Brazil's Politicians to Reform

11/04/2016 - 13h57

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JOE LEAHY
"FINANCIAL TIMES"

Two months after removing Brazil's unpopular president from office, the country's politicians are beginning to realise that public anger with the dysfunctional political system is still on the rise.

Elections last weekend shone a spotlight on voters' waning patience with a status quo in which they have to choose between no fewer than 35 officially registered parties, while members of Congress lack individual mandates and backroom deals decide candidates' success. 

It is a state of affairs in which a women's party has all-male representation in Brasília and one of Congress's most effective vote-getters is a television clown without any policies.

Ordinary Brazilians made clear their discontent by abstaining or registering protest votes in record numbers in the second round of municipal elections last Sunday (30)- a result likely to be reflected in 2018 national elections. 

About one-third opted out in the contests, widely watched because of the importance of local power bases in Brazilian politics, while the remainder elected political outsiders in some of the country's biggest cities.

Politicians on both sides of the political aisle are taking note, seeking to kick-start reforms that many analysts have long argued need to be made to the country's unwieldy political system.

"Any electoral system would be better than the existing one, whatever it is," said Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of congress and a member of the ruling centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. 

"We need radical change," added José Guimarães, deputy leader of former president Dilma Rousseff's Workers' party, which now heads the opposition. 

The change agenda discussed in Brasília goes beyond electoral reform, also including steps to curb the proliferation of political parties and the country's tradition of promiscuous coalition-building.

Proponents say such measures would give Brazil's famously fractious parliament much greater efficiency - sorely needed to overcome the worst recession in a century and to increase rock bottom levels of trust brought down by a series of political scandals.

And while electoral reform has often been attempted before - including this year - some analysts say that this time is different, with politics in a state of flux following Ms Rousseff's impeachment and ejection from office.

Under Brazil's current open-list proportional representation system, few individuals are elected in their own right to the powerful lower house of Congress. The figure in the last national elections in 2014 was only 35 out of 513 deputies.

But such "super candidates" play an outsize role in the country's politics, since their votes help elect other candidates from their party's lists.

One prime example is Tiririca, a popular television clown, who assured the victory of several other lesser known candidates in the past two national elections. He originally campaigned on the slogan: "I don't know what a federal congressman does, but vote for me and I will find out."

The result is a congress largely populated with political "nobodies" - little known lawmakers for whom few people knowingly voted. Many people are left with the impression their vote is being misused. Popular discontent is clear.

"A citizen should be elected according to the quantity of votes that he wins, as well as his track record and ability to communicate," said Priscilla Torres, a voter in São Paulo. 

Thomaz Favaro, a political analyst with Control Risks, a consultancy, added that likely reforms could also include a ban on temporary coalitions during campaigns and a requirement that parties demonstrate they have a minimum threshold of popular support. "The main concern here is to diminish the number of political parties," he said.

At present, such election-time coalitions can include parties with diametrically opposed agendas. Since the system treats coalitions as one big party, a vote for one member of the coalition can help elect candidates from the others. 

Smaller parties also offer their television time during elections to bigger ones in exchange for favours down the line.

A further concern is the cost of elections. Each candidate for the lower house must compete for the vote in his or her state, which in Brazil can be the size of a European country. A recent supreme court ruling banning corporate donations has made the issue even more urgent.

Vicente Cândido, the lawmaker heading the lower house's reform committee, advocates a special public fund to assist with campaigns. But he acknowledges such a reform could be a bridge too far given popular reluctance to trust politicians with more public money.

"Society is horrified with the prospect of public funding because it is not accustomed to debating how much democracy actually costs," he said.

There are also political problems. Despite the sense that Brazilian politics has opened up after Ms Rousseff's impeachment, the new centrist government of President Michel Temer is struggling in the opinion polls, having taken power without a popular mandate.

Even though reform appears closer than it has for years, Brazil still has far to go to make its political system work to the satisfaction of its voters.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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