The different views on democracy in Brazil

Simon Schwartzman – Simon’s Site, 9/12/2015

At the invitation of the Graduate Program in Social Sciences at PUC / Rio, I participated in an interesting round table on “Democracy Visions in Brazil”, with Luiz Werneck Vianna and Carlos Pereira, coordinated by Maria Celina D’Araujo.

Although not in the program, the main subject was the current political situation, with the government paralyzed in the face of economic crisis, the corruption scandals and the impeachment of the President becoming more likely every day. Where did we fail? Could it have been different? The current crisis is proof that our democracy does not work, because it generates incompetent governments, or, on the contrary, is a proof that it works very well, because there is no prospect of institutional breakdown?

To Werneck Vianna, if I understood him correctly, the current predicament is explained by the fact that the PT party abandoned the modernization project that presided the movement against the military dictatorship in the 70s and 80s, which brought together Lula’s independent unionism with Ulysses Guimarães of the MDB party, intellectuals of the arts and universities, replacing it by opportunistic tactics that allowed winning elections, but, at the same time, destroyed the foundations of this modern country in gestation. In broad strokes, he mentined important moments in Brazilian political history, from the territorial unification of colonial times to the Prestes Column and the Modern Art Week in the 1920s, and the modernization of Vargas years, noting that, although all these events and their problems and limitations, they pointed to an upward direction of modernization that was eventually betrayed.

Carlos Pereira came from a totally different perspective, but the conclusion was not very different. His focus is our system of coalition-based presidentialism, which he considers, together with other political scientists he quotes, that has worked well until recently, from the point of view of the executive’s ability of to pass legislation through Congress, paying the necessary price in terms of political appointments and funds money. His data show, however, that the cost of obtaining this support increased through the years, mostly because the PT chose to keep the benefits to itself, rather than using them to assure the support of other parties in the government’s coalition. The current crisis, he said, is explained by the PT’s failure, and of Dilma’s government in particular, to understand the way coalition presidentialism works.

Though from completely different assumptions, Werneck Vianna and Carlos Pereira agree that our problem is PT’s , and especially President’s Rousseff inability to understand the direction the country should take, and the rules of the game of the presidential system in the country.

Far from me to disagree with their criticism of PT and the Dilma’s government. But I believe it is the role of the social sciences to seek more structural explanations, relying less on the occasional choices, virtues and limitations of rulers. In my presentation, I began by criticizing two views of democracy which I believe are wrong. The first is the utopian view, which argues that, since our democracy is imperfect, it does not exist. The other is the hyper-realistic, or Panglossian view, which argues that democracy is like that, full of imperfections, and that ours is as good as many other imperfect democracies out there, and we’re in the best of all possible worlds.

I noted that democracy, more than value in itself, it is a mechanism that has proven extremely functional for solving disputes of interest and conflicts in society, and cited an important book of Bolivar Lamounier (From independence Lula: Two centuries of Brazilian politics, Augurium, 2005) that shows how, since the Empire in the 19th century, democratic periods have been much more stable and fruitful than the numerous authoritarian interruptions we went through. This does not mean, however, that there are not better and worse democracies, and the criteria for evaluating them cannot be limited to the Executive’s ability to implement its decisions.

To work well, a democratic regime must be legitimate, which depends on a representative system that ensures that citizens feel represented by governments; and must also be effective, both to guarantee the civil, political and social rights of the citizens and to deal with the growing complexity of economic, social and environmental policies required by modern societies. The two are linked, since legitimate governments have more authority to implement its policies, and need to rely much less in the exchange of favors for votes than weak governments that do not have the support from society.

From this broader perspective, the Brazilian political system since Lula has failed by adopting the short-term logic of winning elections and gathering support through wide distribution of large and small benefits for rich and poor, legally or otherwise. It is an electoral logic that works well in times of abundant resources, but there’s no way to keep in times of shortage, or when public resources are running out.

Another feature of our democracy has been the tendency to reduce public policies to its simplest form, through actions and “programs” geared to great effect, but of unknown quality or impact, and often with disastrous consequences (including, among others, the late Bullet train between Rio and São Paulo, the Science Without Borders of 100 thousand fellowships abroad, the subsidies to BNDES’ champions, the euphoria of the “pre-salt” oil bonanza, the More Doctors Program with Cuban MDs, the My House My Life program, the student loans (FIES) and technical education (PRONATEC) programs, and so forth).

The question is whether these problems of incompetence, which are at the root of the current crisis, are inherent to democratic rule or arise from the limitations of current holders of power. In my presentation I remembered an argument has been reiterated by the economist Samuel Pessoa, whereby the chronic deficit of the Brazilian public sector is due to an implicit pact ratified in the 1988 Constitution, to distribute the existing public resources to the maximum (and beyond the maximum) among the various interest groups (with special emphasis on social security benefits), leaving little or no room for long-term investments and rebalancing the economy.

There is no doubt that this pact, if it existed, could have been reversed by a government that understood the scope of the problems and had sufficient support and legitimacy to carry forward the necessary reforms, as it happened with the Real Plan in 1994. The problem does not seem to have been nearsightedness or other sins of the PT, but the political basis on which he arrived and has remained in power, which is a combination of populist appeal, alliance with traditional political oligarchies and the support of major interest economic that benefit from proximity to power. This combination worked very well until recently, but is now reaching its limits by two factors: the economic crisis, which does not allow for more abundant distribution of resources; and the strengthening of important new actors of society and the Brazilian political system – starting with the new public prosecution (Ministério Público) and the judiciary, dramatized by “Lava Jato” inquiry – and broad sectors of the population and the business community that neither depend nor want to rely on gifts from the state, but demand, above all, the strengthening of the rule of law and new policies focused on the representation of citizenship, instead of its manipulation.

We do not know what will be the outcome of this crisis, but two things seem certain: there will be no disruption of the democratic order, and the current support mechanisms of power, the old politics, are lot likely to survive.


Translated from Portuguese by the author himself, Simon Schwartzman, a former Wilson Center Fellow. Read original article in Portuguese here.

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