The results of the 2018 Brazilian elections have called into question
recent academic conclusions on the institutional dynamics of the largest Latin-American
democracy. In fact, prior to 2018, the so-called Brazilian duopoly was even
praised for remaining stable for just over two decades.2 The remarkable fact was
that such stability occurred thanks to a strange coexistence between a
two-party system in the Executive branch and an extreme multi-party system in
the Parliament.3 However,
recent events seem to indicate that such stability was merely an illusion,
constructed upon a party system in which the principal objective of its leaders
was to prevent the emergence of new parties (or competitors) in order to
continue exploiting the privileges and resources of the state. In other words,
using the concept proposed by Katz and Mair,4 the established parties in Brazil
developed behaviors similar in nature to a cartel of producers in an economic
market. The Brazilian context was conducive to the rise of a marginal candidate
with a strong critique of its dominant political parties like Jair Bolsonaro,
who defied expectations by achieving victory in the 2018 presidential election
and thereby fracturing the dominant parties which ruled Brazil with cartel-like
behaviors over the two previous decades.
Literature Review on Brazilian democratic stability
Prior to the Brazilian presidential election on October 7, 2018, the predominant scholarly perspective on Brazilian democratic stability was entirely positive. For instance, Handlin pointed out that while in other countries political outsiders emerged, the representative democracy in Brazil remained consolidated. Handlin’s perspective attributed this tendency to the absence of a prior state crisis5 and the existence of a strong party organization (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) on the left. According to Handlin, the combination of both factors was enough to minimize political polarization and block or prevent the rise of radical outsiders.6
In turn, Mainwaring, Power and Bizarro developed a more moderate perspective. They considered that Brazilian stability rested on an unevenly institutionalized party system. According to their analysis, the PT was the only party that had taken root in specific sectors of society, while the rest of the political parties had failed to do the same. Nevertheless, they also noted that the percentage of partisan identification in Brazil never exceeded 40% of the population; moreover, in 2015, when a series of acts of governmental corruption were exposed to the public, the percentage of citizens with no partisan self- identification reached a historical high of 75%.7
But some interpretations went further and considered the Brazilian case as proof that the institutional combination that since Linz had been viewed as perverse —or the anti-ideal: presidentialism plus a multi-party system— was plausible. Proponents of this interpretation argued that the key to successful governance —in terms of stability— is a constitutionally strong Executive branch. In practical terms, this system denotes a president who controls political assets (initiating laws, decrees, etc.) or “goods” (Cabinet positions, “pork projects,” etc.) which are crucial to building coalitions, and thus avoids having a minority or weak position in the government. Of course, the democratic nature of this institutional design should be complemented by reliable and effective institutions (Legislative, judiciary bodies or the media) to prevent the president from taking an autocratic path.
The cartel of parties and the emergence of a maverick
However, the features of the Brazilian case that were used to explain the political stability of a highly fragmented and unevenly institutionalized party system were also the root of its debacle. As Mello and Spektor mentioned, the institutional design of the Brazilian government —which facilitated the relationship between the Executive and the Legislative— “… [also] encouraged exactly the kind of graft that the Car Wash scandal revealed …”. 8 In other words, this institutional framework not only made it possible for the Executive branch to control the Congress based on perks, but also allowed private interests to gain more significant influence on governmental decision-making. The result of all the illicit exchanges/transactions required to sustain this system” was the neutralization of the checks and balances system, and the consolidation of representative institutions of non-democratic countries, such as clientelism, patronage networks, etc.
So, what happened? A viable response is to characterize the Brazilian party system as a cartel of parties. Indeed, after a long period of coexistence —and due to the institutional incentives described above— the PT, the PSDB, the MD9, and various medium-sized parties in the Congress morphed into a political cartel. The evidence of this phenomenon is clear: an increase in public funds directed to government-recognized political parties combined with an increase in legal barriers to the entry of new parties.10 These are precisely the types of party behaviours that Katz and Mair—the creators of the cartel of parties’ concept— identified in their analysis of Europe. 11 The only difference is that in the Brazilian case the parties not only exploited public resources but also channeled private funds in their favor.
In this highly cartelized political context, whenever corruption scandals were exposed by the mass media, the majority of citizens perceived that the uncovered acts of corruption were not exceptional, but rather a routine component of the institutional arrangements that defined relations between the Executive and Legislative branches —and interest groups— for almost two decades. This political environment, along with a period of economic contraction, provoked a low- intensity state crisis in Brazil. In other words, widespread corruption undermined the legitimacy of established political institutions, while economic contraction revealed the weak performance of the state in providing basic services like public safety.
This being the case, the political arena was propitious for the emergence of an external candidate with a strong anti-establishment position; however, as a feature of Brazil’s party system, an anti-establishment candidate was actually able to arise from within the system itself. Having served as a federal deputy in Brazil for more than three decades, Jair Bolsonaro was not an “outsider,” but neither was he an “insider,” despite his long party militancy in a small conservative party.12 In any case, Bolsonaro was a maverick working inside this so-called cartel of parties in Brazil. But, still, how did such a marginal figure within Brazil’s political party system become a strong candidate? Considering that the principal established political forces —both the opposition and the government— represented options from the center in political-ideological terms, Bolsonaro’s extreme political positions were seen as “a virtue” by a significant group of discontent citizens. Why? There was no doubt that his extreme ideological positions had prevented him from participating in the coalitions that governed Brazil during the two previous decades; therefore Bolsonaro was able to portray himself to the public as an unpolluted political figure. In sum, the growing public frustration with the Brazilian cartel of parties led many citizens to search for candidates on the margins of the party system; but the only ones readily available were those with extreme ideological positions.
If what has been said is true, then why was a right-wing and not a left-wing radical elected? The answer can be given considering the hegemony of the PT on the left. Indeed, it is clear that extreme options on left were non-existent; the PT, in its little more than ten years in power had absorbed or moderated such parties. Additionally, there was not a significant amount of free space open to leftist sympathizers for new political options since the PT hegemonically channeled the citizen preferences on the left, especially in northeastern Brazil. However, since no center-right party had been able to consolidate reliable sources of electoral support, the growth potential across the spectrum on the right was enormous; and the parties that did exist were utterly discredited.13
Furthermore, Bolsonaro correctly perceived that his electoral support relied not only on his “anti-petismo,” (that is to say: anti-PT) but also on his anti-establishment speech.14 In addition, because of the overwhelming lead that he developed in the first round of voting (46,6% of voters), he targeted his campaign at specific sectors or social groups (evangelicals, rural population, etc.) and not at significant political parties. Seeking the support of or forging an alliance with an established party – and therefore moderating his anti-establishment political posture— before a runoff election would have been a grave mistake on the part of Bolsonaro; in other words, a political maneuver that would have been interpreted by many in Brazil as an undesirable pact with the cartel of parties in power.
In summary, Bolsonaro’s victory has called into question some recent interpretations on the success of political minority presidents. In the case of Brazil, political stability relied on a type of cartel of parties in which incentives came not only from the state (cabinet positions or public funds) but also from the private sector (bribes, extra payments, etc.). Indeed, this reality forces us to rethink about whether there may be other institutional solutions to the consequences of this challenging combination: presidentialism plus a multi-party system. Additionally, extrapolating from the Brazilian case, one could assume that outsiders and mavericks have a similar origin: an ineffective state. Paradoxically, it doesn’t matter if the extreme ideological positions are on the right or the left —that would depend on the political configuration of each society— because both (radicals on the right or the left) share a critique of the incapacity of state to resolve the most prominent social problems of their societies (inequality, poverty, insecurity, etc.). The only difference would be that outsiders emerge more often in a weak institutionalized party system, while the mavericks frequently appear in a party system unevenly institutionalized but whose main parties look to ensure their privileged positions.
Guest post, Gerson Julcarima Alvarez, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Canada.
1 I thank Prof. Alan Siaroff for his comments on a previous version of this article.
2 Between 1994 and 2014 Brazil only had three finance ministers and with the victory of Dilma Roussef Brazil became the first country in Latin America where three presidents were successively re-elected.
3 In the last six Brazilian elections, two parties (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT and the right-center Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira- PSDB) reached between 70 and 90% of the presidential votes in the first run-off elections. However, in the Lower House, their joint vote was between 26 and 38%. See in this respect: Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power, eds. (2017), Democratic Brazil Divided, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, p.10; Scott Mainwaring, Timothy J. Power, and Fernando Bizzarro (2018), “The Uneven Institutionalization of a Party System: Brazil” in Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse, ed. Scott Mainwaring, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.174-75.
4 Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (2018), Democracy and the Cartelization of Political Parties, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.134-38.
5 The state crisis is the combination of a deficit of public services and a loss of citizen legitimacy towards political institutions. See: Samuel Handlin (20147), State Crisis in Fragile Democracies: Polarization and Political Regimes in South America, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 5-6.
6 Ibid., p. 8.
7 Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 182.
8 Eduardo Mello and Matias Spektor (2018), “Brazil: The Costs of Multiparty Presidentialism,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, no. 2, p. 115.
9 Political party created in 2013 from the merger of two left-parties: Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) and Partido da Mobilização Nacional (PMN).
10 Cynthia McClintock (2018), Electoral Rules and Democracy in Latin America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 47-55; Mainwaring, Power, and Bizzarro, p. 192.
11 Katz and Mair, pp. 144-45.
12 Wendy Hunter and Timothy J. Power (2019), “Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Illiberal Backlash,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30, no. 1, p. 75.
13 Kingstone and Power, p. 13; David J. Samuels and Cesar Zucco (2018), Partisans, Antipartisans, and Nonpartisans: Voting Behavior in Brazil, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-39.
14 Hunter and Power, p. 80; Samuels and Zucco, pp. 48-49.