Last year was an extremely positive year for Brazilians. To begin with, Brazil overtook the United Kingdom and became the sixth largest world economy. Such growth came hand in hand with a continuing decrease in poverty and income inequality, and the strengthening of social policies by the recently elected president Dilma Rousseff (Workers Party). While her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, sought to eradicate famine during his two terms in government, Dilma’s chief social ambition is to combat and eradicate extreme poverty. In line with her government slogan, “A Wealthy Country is a Country Without Poverty,” Dilma’s government transferred £5,8 billion to poor families in its first year in office.
Apart from continuing progress in social policies, 2011 was a positive year for Brazil in political terms. Both Dilma and Lula publicly declared their strong support for political reform in Brazil, and the National Congress created the first ever Special Council for Political Reform, which has recently produced a report with several recommendations. The report’s rapporteur, Henrique Fontana, is now lobbying fellow congressmen and senators in order to acquire support for his proposed changes.
So what are the key reforms that have been proposed in the report? The most important proposal is to end private electoral campaign financing, a problematic arrangement that works against those candidates who refuse financial contributions from interest groups. Not only does the current arrangement lead to an unequal battle between opposing candidates, but it also fuels corruption. It is well known that those candidates who collude with special interest groups are better placed to run extravagant electoral campaigns—often devoid of any real content—and that the same interest groups that donate to candidates will later on demand privileges and benefits from them. In fact, payback for financial support during elections will often involve access to advantageous information and overpaid government contracts. Under the proposed reform, campaigns would be financed by taxpayers only and candidates would spend less on their campaigns than they currently do.
Another key reform proposed by the report relates to the replacement of elected senators, which are currently nominated by running candidates before election. The way this works in practice is that senators often run their electoral campaigns without mentioning their potential replacements, even though they have already been chosen. If the senator leaves office before the end of her term, the preselected candidate— often unknown to the public—fills her position. In the best-case scenarios, the new senator is competent but lacks legitimacy. In the worst-case scenarios, she lacks crucial skills, and owes her nomination to family or personal connections with the previous senator. Under the scheme proposed in the report, a senator’s replacement will be the congressperson who received most votes in the senator’s state. Another important change envisioned by Fontana is for senators to have their term decreased from 8 to 4 years.
A final key change advocated in the report aims to increase public participation in the legislative process, by allowing the public to initiate reform on-line. Currently, citizens must collect written signatures from 1% of the voting population (roughly 1.36 million voters) in order to force Congress to discuss a new law. Under the proposed reform, voters could do so through the Internet, making collecting the required number of signatures far easier.
How likely are these reforms to come about? This depends. Some changes—such as the acceptance of on-line petitioning for bill drafting—aren’t likely to meet strong opposition in congress. Other changes, however, go against the direct interests of many representatives, and might therefore be rejected. For instance, many politicians benefit significantly from the current rules on private financing, and are unlikely to lend support for reform. Something to keep in mind, however, is that the public is likely to view anti-reformists negatively, giving some reason for optimism. If voters, journalists, academics and members of social movements mobilize in favour of reform, self-interested politicians will be forced into the spotlight and challenged. The development of a much more engaged, proactive and participative Brazilian civil society is thus the most important reform, upon which other significant changes are likely to depend.
In any case, the very fact that political reform is more strongly on the agenda is definitely a step in the right direction, since Brazil’s burgeoning economic growth won’t translate into a more just society if the political system continues to benefit those seeking self-interest, instead of those trying to advance the good of their fellow citizens.
Online version of the report available here: http://www.henriquefontana.com.br/projetos-deputado-federal-henrique-fontana/reforma-politica—relatorio-final
Luara Ferracioli is an Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.
Photography courtesy of Dan Schuurman.