|Multi-Party Democracy, Brazilian Style|
|Tuesday, 24 January 2012 23:08|
It may not be pretty, but it works
By Carlos Pereira
Brazilian democracy has comeÂ of age. Elections are free and fair and the courts independent. Brazilian media speaks its mind. In fact for more than two decades democracy has been the only game in town, without a single political actor having broken the rules of engagement. Brazil not only has consolidated its democracy but also managed to achieve macro-economic stability, reduce poverty and inequality, win international credibility, slash unemployment and rise to become the world's sixth-largest economy. And the list of accomplishments doesn't end there. Achieving such success in a short period of time is no trivial feat. So why don't we still feel that things aren't going well? Why do we insist on seeing the Brazilian political system as a glass half empty?
Politics, perhaps. Until very recently, Brazil's combination of aÂ strong presidential regime with a multi-party system was seen as a formula for trouble. Frequent deadlocks and administrative paralysis prevailed due, we were told, to the difficulty presidents faced in stitching together sustainable coalitions in a fragmented political environment. The reigning political theories told us that democracies with this sort of institutional arrangement were doomed to fail, often disastrously. Even the optimists admitted such a hybrid system was difficult and expensive to manage. For alarmists, they were an invitation to shady dealings between political elites, who exacted a stiff price in exchange for governability. As a consequence, all manner of urgent political reforms were proposed. Driving these efforts was the political conceit that a bipartisan majority system was the superior form of government, purportedly offering greater transparency and accountability.
But recent political history tells another story. A close look at Brazilian democracy reveals that, contrary to the received wisdom, the "problematic" combination of a presidential system and a fragmented political scene has worked relatively well. The model once dismissed as heralding governmental chaos, ideological polarization, confrontation, gridlock and a propensity for instability, has transformed instead into an example for emerging democracies - not just in Latin America but also in Asia and Africa.
The functionality and - in some ways surprising - viability of the multi-party presidential system demands an explanation. This institutional arrangement belongs to a special class of constitutional models that operate neither like the US bipartisan presidential system nor the European multi-party parliamentary one. Rather, they obey rules of their own. There are three elements necessary for good governance under a presidential system with fragmented political parties.
First, the president needs to consolidate the legislative powers delegated to him by the Congress. Here, though, a distinction is necessary: where presidents consolidate power unilaterally, there is no legitimate delegation of constitutional powers, but the usurpation of civil rights and the abuse of power (think Venezuela). In Brazil, however, the majority of legislators understand that a weak president would be unable to govern in a highly fragmented political environment. The solution was to delegate a series of powers to allow the president to function as a kind of coordinator of the legislative game.
Second, the system needs political currency - ministerial appointments, budget line items, bureaucratic jobs and political concessions - that presidents can "spend" to negotiate support for building a governing coalition and forwarding the executive agenda in the legislature. In a fragmented institutional environment, party loyalty, ideology, and even the power to set the political agenda are not enough to guarantee the support of lawmakers. Such political currencies are crucial to the smooth functioning of ruling coalitions which often are ideologically heterogeneous and involve many parties.
The third element is a network of institutions to deliver independent checks and balances - institutions such as the judiciary, the MinistÃ©rio PÃºblico (public prosecutors), the audit courts, the federal police, the media - capable of curbing excesses and holding the executive branch accountable. In Brazil, therefore, a powerful executive doesn't get a blank check. Rather in order for a strong president to carry out his public mandate to coordinate policy in a fragmented and competitive democracy, independent and robust institutions must be in place to keep the executive in line and publicly accountable. Political competition and the diversity of political parties also serve to restrain presidential action. This is why reducing the number of parties in the political arena would actually be counter-productive, potentially enhancing executive dominance.
Brazil's multi-party presidential system possesses these three elements, which have served the nation well since democracy returned in the mid 1980s. Virtually all Brazilian presidents in the democratic era have managed to build and sustain majority coalitions in Congress. And in spite of the executive's dominance in the political game, over and over again a strong institutional web of accountability has played a fundamental role in watch-dogging the executive and restricting detours. The corruption scandals that led Dilma Rousseff to dismiss six ministers in the first year of her mismanaged governing coalition are only the most recent examples of Brazil's firewall of checks and balances, notwithstanding skepticism over the quality these institutions of control.
A multi-party presidential model is not an ideal or flaw-free system. Indeed, our emerging democracy still suffers from serious problems such as cronyism, inequality, corruption, and a lack of transparency. Even so, the rules of our political system have delivered equilibrium and cooperation, and the net result for society is positive. Recognizing the virtues of our multi-party presidential system can help us to also see the full half of our glass, and not just the empty one. Salut!
Carlos Pereira is a professor of Public Administration and Business at the FundaÃ§Ã£o GetÃºlio Vargas, and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute. A version of this article appeared in Valor EconÃ´mico on January 25, 2012. Translation: Roman Gautam