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Demands for Change, from the Streets to the Ballot

Demands for Change, from the Streets to the Ballot
Kristin N. Wylie | October 2014

One year into her mandate, President Dilma Rousseff (PT) achieved the highest approval rating of any Brazilian president since redemocratization. Eighteen months later, widespread protests rocked Brazil, with participants citing an array of grievances with the political and economic establishment. Although Rousseff herself was not the primary target of the protests, she did not emerge unscathed; her approval rating dropped precipitously from its record-setting high of 65% in March 2013, to just 30% shortly after the June 2013 protests. Providing an outlet for citizen frustration with corruption, inadequate public services, rising prices, and the lack of transparency with costly World Cup preparations, the protests represented a palpable demand for change to politics as usual – a formidable obstacle for any incumbent. Now, with less than a week remaining until Brazil’s second round presidential election on October 26th, Rousseff is falling in the polls and may very well be unseated. The latest polls have Rousseff at 49% of the valid vote intentions, in a statistical tie with her opponent, Aécio Neves (PSDB), who has 51% (margin of error is +/- 2%). Excluded from that number are 4-6% of voters who have yet to decide; this one will go down to the wire.

So what were the congressional implications of societal demands for change? Out with the bums?! Not exactly. In the October 5th elections for Brazil’s lower house, the “renovation” rate was on par with recent elections; the next 513-member Chamber of Deputies will consist of 290 reelected incumbents, 198 newcomers, and 25 former deputies returning to Brasília after a hiatus. And although fewer incumbents sought reelection than in any legislature since 1994, those who did were relatively successful, with over 70% winning reelection (from 1994-2010, only 63% of incumbents won their reelection bids).

Still, 43.5% of the recently elected deputies are “new” (including the 25 former deputies). So who are these newcomers? Much to the chagrin of popular movements at the heart of the organized component of the June 2013 protests, the 55th Congress is already being characterized as “the most conservative yet of the post-1964 period.” (1) While 50% of the deputies affiliated with unions and social movements were defeated, politicians affiliated with the military and police, religious institutions, and agribusiness increased their numbers significantly. A clear reflection of the growing clout of evangelical churches in Brazil, the evangelical caucus elected 80 federal deputies (up from 70). The Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), backed by the socially conservative Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, more than doubled their caucus from 10 to 21 deputies. Among its members, the evangelical caucus counts Brazil’s most-voted deputy, television personality and millionaire, Celso Russomanno (one of the 25 deputies from prior legislatures). The third and fourth most voted deputies were Jair Bolsonaro, in Rio de Janeiro, who has spoken nostalgically of the military dictatorship, and Pastor Marco Feliciano, in São Paulo, who introduced several polemical proposals in opposition to LGBTQ and reproductive rights during his controversial tenure leading the human rights commission. A final indicator of the questionable newness of these “newcomers” emerges from their family ties – 1 in 5 are a part of the much-derided “bancada de parentes,” or caucus of relatives, which will seat 82 sons, daughters, spouses, and grandchildren of established political elite in the 55th Congress.

A record 28 of Brazil’s 32 parties will be represented in the next Chamber of Deputies, which means coalition building will be crucial. The PT managed to preserve its status as the leading delegation (70 seats) in spite of losing 18 seats (its biggest loss since 1998). The total seat share won by parties in Rousseff’s governing coalition is 304, just shy of the 3/5 majority required for constitutional amendments. The second largest party delegation is the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) – the party of Rousseff’s vice-president, which won 66 seats (down from 71). The PSDB saw an increase this year, improving their seat share from 44 to 54 seats. Parties comprising Neves and Silva’s coalitions won a total of 200 seats, well short of even a simple majority. Interestingly, however, the PMDB has already indicated that it would jump ship to the PSDB were Neves to win the presidency. Even so, whoever wins Sunday’s election, the requisite coalition building will be significant and the prospects for constitutional amendments limited.

While congressional results are thus unlikely to deliver the kind of systemic changes proposed by supporters of the June 2013 protests, the 2014 elections did usher in two important novelties that speak to the country’s “crisis of representation.” For the first time, Brazil’s electoral authority, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), collected data on candidates’ self-identified race/ethnicity. Those data offer stark empirical evidence for the underrepresentation of people of color in Brazilian politics, where the vast majority of politicians are white. According to the 2010 census from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 50.7% of the population identifies as Afro-descendant; however, only 40% of candidates and 20% of those elected to the Chamber of Deputies self-identified as negro (including pardo and preto), or Afro-Brazilian. Those aggregates obscure great variation across parties, with the majority of Communist Party of Brazil (PC do B) deputies identifying as Afro-Brazilian (negro), compared to just 26% of the PT’s delegation and a meager 6% of the PSDB’s delegation, the two parties at the pinnacle of power in Brazil.

A second innovation in these elections concerns the congressional candidacies of women, another underrepresented group in formal politics. Brazil ranks poorly in cross-national assessments of women’s legislative representation, coming in at a lowly 127th of 189 countries with less than 10% women in the Chamber of Deputies. That ranking is the lowest in Latin America, which has four democracies in the top 20 (Nicaragua, Ecuador, Mexico, and Argentina). A key determinant of women’s political prospects in Latin America is the application of legislated gender quotas, which require that a certain percentage of candidates are female. Although Brazil approved gender quotas for legislative candidates in 1995, and implemented the quotas in national elections in 1998, the language of the law, lack of enforcement, inadequate party commitment to promoting women’s participation, and basic incongruity with the open-list format of Brazil’s proportional representation elections have rendered the law ineffective. A 2009 “mini-reform” to the quota improved the language and prospects for enforcement, paving the way for the TSE to enforce in earnest the quota provisions. While 2010 enforcement was spotty, the TSE publically committed to enforcing the quotas in the 2014 elections, launching a widely publicized campaign, “More Women in Politics.” Elections this October marked the first time in the quota law’s nearly twenty-year history that the proportion of female legislative candidates approached the 30% target.

But while the reforms stimulated significant boosts in the proportion of female candidates advanced in state and national legislative elections (29% in each), gains in the proportion of women elected remain meager. Only 51 women were elected to the Chamber of Deputies in the 2014 elections (9.9%, up from 8.8%). In Brazil’s 27 state-level legislative assemblies, the proportion of women elected actually decreased from 12.9 to 11.3 percent. In contrast, while men were 71% of legislative candidates, 90% of elected legislators are male. The underperformance of female legislative candidates is particularly striking given the successes of women in elections to the country’s highest post. In the 2010 presidential elections, two-thirds of Brazilian voters cast their ballot for a woman; Rousseff and Marina Silva won more than 47.6 and 19.6 million votes, respectively (of just over 100 million total votes). In the second round, Rousseff increased her vote share to 56 percent, becoming Brazil’s first woman president. In the first round of the 2014 elections, Rousseff and Silva again captured the majority of votes, respectively earning over 43.2 and 22.1 million votes.

Nationally representative public opinion polls from the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) also suggest an electorate that is receptive to women in politics. A 2009 survey found that 7 in 10 respondents thought more women in politics would improve competence and honesty in politics as well as commitment to constituents, administrative capacity, and authority. And in 2010, 93.5% of respondents said they would vote for a woman for any majoritarian office, with a majority of these respondents believing women could be just as competent as men. A 2013 poll asked specifically about legislative offices, finding that 8 in 10 respondents strongly agreed that the law should change to require that half of legislators are women. Why has such postulated support for women in politics not translated into greater women’s representation? And why have significant increases in the proportions of female candidates not translated into greater electoral gains for women?

Preliminary evidence demonstrates that in the post-quota reform elections in 2010 and 2014, there were significantly higher proportions of “extremely nonviable” female candidacies. Those extremely nonviable candidacies entailed no campaign expenditures and earned minimal votes, totaling less than 1% of the state’s minimum winning vote share; these are most likely false candidacies, representing an empty gesture at the quota mandate. Although voters are clamoring for more women in politics, many parties have proven resistant to change. Predominantly male party leaders often fail to recognize and/or respond to the extreme gender imbalance of their candidate lists until the final hour. In the absence of genuine party commitment to women’s participation, in which parties actively cultivate, recruit, and support viable female candidacies, we have witnessed a widespread offering of sacrificial lamb candidates in the post-quota reform elections. The result is stagnation in women’s legislative presence.

So why is there such a stark overrepresentation of white men in Brazilian politics? Three prominent sources of obstacles confronting women and other marginalized groups derive from societal inequities, electoral rules that privilege personal political and economic capital, and predominantly white, male party elites seeking to preserve the status quo. Constructed societal norms and white, male visualizations of power interact with persistent raced and gendered wage disparities to dissuade women and people of color from entering the formal political sphere. They are, in general, not socialized to possess the political ambition that it takes to thrive in an “entrepreneurial” electoral arena, where candidates must self-promote, self-nominate, and have access to personal political or economic capital. Moreover, the rules of the game in Brazil’s candidate-centered open-list proportional representation elections – where voters cast their ballot for individuals rather than parties – incentivize fellow partisans to compete amongst themselves. The result is a Wild-West style politics where each politician is on her own, collective party organizations are elusive, and candidates must spend increasingly more to lend visibility to their individual campaign. To illustrate, voters in São Paulo this year were asked to choose a single candidate among 1,296 contenders competing for the state’s 70 seats in the Chamber of Deputies; each candidate running with the PRB competed against 93 co-partisans.

Finally, predominantly white, male party leaders eager to maintain their own power remain resistant to change. Yet given the first two obstacles outlined above, parties constitute critical sources of support for traditional outsiders. Supportive parties offer campaign materials, production assistance for campaign television spots, and support from the party’s gubernatorial campaign. Parties are also a source of campaign funding, which comes from both public monies managed by party leadership structures and corporate and individual donors. On all fronts, women and people of color are disadvantaged, attaining significantly less campaign revenue than white, male candidates. In the 2010 elections to the Chamber of Deputies, among the top 14 parties, national directorates devoted only 8% of their party funds to the campaigns of women, who represented 19.7% of the total candidates. Paralleling the interparty differences in racial diversity, while the PC do B actually gave proportionately more money to the campaigns of female candidates than to men, the PT and PSDB dedicated less than eight and two percent, respectively, of their funds to female candidates, even though women represented one-fifth of each party’s candidacies.

A crucial difference that sets Brazil’s more outsider-friendly parties apart is the diversity of their leadership structures. Parties that are more inclusive of women and people of color in their state and national-level decision-making bodies tend to advance more viable outsider candidacies. When women occupy positions of power within party structures, they are able to lobby for changes that can help to level the playing field for other female aspirants. Diverse leaders “let the ladder down” to newcomers by pressuring party leadership to comply with the gender quota and diversify their candidate lists, actively recruiting candidates, elucidating the means for ascension through the party ranks, developing essential capacity-building opportunities within the party, and mobilizing organizational and material support on behalf of traditional outsider candidates. Together, those critical acts performed by diverse party leaders help to cultivate viable outsider candidacies by mitigating the socialized raced-gendered gap in formal political ambition and helping newcomers navigate the still white, masculinized domain of party and electoral politics.

In sum, the impressive performance of Rousseff and Silva in Brazil’s presidential elections belies a general pattern of political exclusion of women and other traditional outsiders that is sustained by a political system benefitting the political and economic elite. Calls from the June 2013 protests for far-reaching political reforms, including public financing of campaigns – proposals that have been supported by Rousseff – must be heeded if Brazil is to resolve its crisis of representation. Ironically, Rousseff’s opponent, Neves, is exemplary of the political and economic elite vilified in the June 2013 protests, and has expressed reservations with proposed reforms. Whoever wins Sunday’s election will enter office under a cloud of mistrust, with each candidate explicitly rejected by over one-third of the electorate, and more than one-quarter of first-round voters casting blank or spoiled ballots or abstaining altogether – the highest since 1998 (despite compulsory voting regulations for those aged 18-70). She or he must work with Congress to confront the root of Brazil’s crisis of representation – a widespread disenchantment with a formal political sphere that is broadly perceived as elitist and out of touch. Let’s hope the (next) president is up to the task. 


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Dr. Kristin Wylie is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at JMU. She is the faculty co-advisor to the JMU Feminist Collective, and co-coordinated JMU's first Diversity Teach-In, bringing students, staff and faculty together to raise campus consciousness about intersectionality and cultivate a culture of inclusion. Her teaching and research focus on political representation and participation, with an emphasis on gender and race in Brazil.