After Protests, Brazil’s Lawmakers Consider Political Reform

By Rachel Glickhouse

A Chamber of Deputies committee will soon begin work on a massive reform package. But will it happen in time for next year’s election?

After protests that rocked Brazil in June, the government is considering steps toward political reform following years of stalled talks. With pressure mounting after the demonstrations, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies formed a working group this month, with 90 days to draft a political reform bill. Questions remain about whether the reform has a chance of passing before next year’s presidential and legislative elections, as well as whether the reform will be put up for a referendum.

The main reform under consideration deals with the congressional electoral system. Currently, Brazil uses a proportional system with an “open list” to vote for deputies. Voters pick individual candidates or a party, and candidates who win large numbers of votes can redistribute the votes to his or her party—essentially electing candidates not chosen by voters. There are three main options to change this system. The first is a proportional “closed list” system, where voters pick only parties and not individual candidates. The second is a majority-based district system, like the one used in the United States. The third option is a mixed system that combines proportional and majority-based voting. Of the 14 members of the working group, half support some type of district system.

Policymakers will evaluate a variety of other electoral issues. Legislators will examine whether to make campaign financing public, which would ban political donations from individuals and companies.  They’ll also discuss whether to make voting optional; it is currently obligatory. Lawmakers plan to debate whether to end consecutive reelections for mayors, governors, and the president, and whether to change the January 1 inauguration date for these officials. They’ll assess whether to end electoral coalition building, allowing smaller parties to elect candidates by getting “pulled in” through victories by candidates from larger parties. They’ll also discuss other reforms related to alternates and party politics.

The proposed reforms could mean widespread changes after years of attempts to alter the system. Vagner Freitas, president of Brazil’s main trade union, said last month: “This political reform is the mother of all reforms, as it guarantees the transparency of the political process. At the moment, it is money that wins the elections.” But some argue that reforms will have little impact if corruption persists. “Democracy is made by institutions that work,” said Lenio Streck, attorney general of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. “People want a response to impunity, greater transparency in politics.” Others argue that bolstering existing legislation—such as a law banning politicians accused of corruption from running for public office—would be an easier approach. “We could get better results if we stopped wasting time with the mirage of big reforms and [instead] tried corrective measures that could be more easily implemented, like the effective implementation of the Clean Record Law,” wrote political scientist Leôncio Martins Rodrigues in O Estado de São Paulo this week.

The final question the working group must decide is whether the legislation will be ratified through a referendum. Eleven out of 14 members of the working group support this type of vote. But that would also mean a longer timeline for the reforms to be implemented. With a 90-day deadline for the working group to draft the bill, President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer want the reforms to take place before the October elections next year. Members of Congress say that won’t happen and that new rules would only be implemented starting in 2016. A political reform would have to be approved by October—at least a year before the elections, according to constitutional law.

The working group is already off to a slow start. After announcing the formation of the committee, Chamber of Deputies President Henrique Eduardo Alves suspended it July 10 due to conflicts about party representation. Alves subsequently assigned a member of the ruling party to lead the group and reconvened the committee on July 16. But the group won’t begin work until at least August, after the winter recess.