Why is the Brazilian government proposing a political reform?

Senator Romero Jucá, President Michel Temer and Senator Renan Calheiros, also leaders of PMDB

On last Wednesday, 15, the Federal government of Brazil announced an effort to start a huge political reform. This kind of reform has been subject of debates for a long time, but now it comes as a consequence of the current and unprecedented political crisis affecting the country.

And some of the main leaders of the government are suggesting that next year’s election, which include President, Governors, Federal Deputies and Senators, use closed lists for the last two positions, or at least for Federal Deputies.

It could seem that this would give the parties more influence. And as a consequence so should each party’s collective ideals supersede the power of individual members. But in this scenario, the proposal has more to do with the concerns of government leaders. And above all, with PMDB.

PMDB was never able to produce an elected president, but still is the most influential of the three main political parties in Brazil, along with PT and PSDB. It has today the majority of elected deputies and senators, and elected the president of Senate. It’s also the party with most mayors and governors.

But what has set the party apart from others is its characteristic of having no clear ideology or defined government program. If is common to political parties have inside rivalry, historically PMDB is a big umbrella party with groups often openly competing one another.

Because of that PMDB also has the unique attribute of being opposition and coalition at the same time. When PSDB won its presidential elections, they were formally opposition, but had leaders taking ministerial positions in the government. During Dilma Roussef’s impeachment process it was the other way around, with the party being formally in the coalition but with many of its leaders acting as opposition.

But with the Lava-Jato corruption case, politically, the most affected party has been PMDB. Some could argue that PT got a impeached President, but this move has made most of the criticism to fall in Dilma Roussef’s lap and put PT in the discrete opposition bench. The party also has traditionally a large portion of faithful voters that seem eager to “rectify” the impeachment against Roussef.

As for PMDB, its administration is getting, more than any other political party, most of the attention of the press and public opinion. A scrutiny that will continue until next year’s elections. To add to these circumstances, PMDB has high profiles in the middle of the storm while still being the government. Leaders such as the former president of the Senate Renan Calheiros and Chief of Staff Eliseu Padilha are being investigated. In some cases they are even getting arrested. That was the case of former President of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, and former Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral.

The current President Michel Temer, former vice-president of Dilma Rousseff and one of the most prominent leaders of PMDB, is still in his seat due to his promise to end the political and economical crisis. But he hasn’t been able to keep it. Unemployment is reaching almost 13% and the purchase power is expected to increase only 1% this year, after decreasing 10% in the last two years. Politicians consider the public mood unstable and although there have been attempts to delay the corruption investigation, the consensus is that stopping it could lead to demonstrations and riots, which would only worsen Brazil’s situation and PMDB’s reputation.

Power vacuum

In this complex scenario, the next government could be established for the first time since general elections started again in 1989, without any kind of support from PMDB. For now leaders of both PSDB and PT consider political misstep a coalition with the party for the next presidential election.

And with most of the main leaders being investigated, PMDB will struggle to maintain its large influence. It seems plausible that PMDB could lose seats both in the Senate and Congress next year. If that were case, the party with the elected President would have more power to influence both Houses. If no power vacuum lasts in politics, those who have more influence tend to have a relevant advantage.

So this proposal, in the government’s mind, could help PMDB get its investigated leaders elected and, at least, maintain influence. But, as mentioned before, contrary to PT and PSDB, PMDB lacks unified ideology. Historically, people vote for politicians that happen to be in PMDB, not because they are in PMDB.

A closed list election has potential to backfire and PMDB would still struggle or worse. In this case, PMDB will have to convince electors to vote for a party that has no clear ideology, high profile members under investigation and coming from a very criticized government.

Yet, another possible consequence of this current situation, passing the reform or not, is PT or PSDB — or whoever they support — to form a government with a more clear ideology and execute a program that is more aligned with its positions. In that sense, it could mean a government less centered and more to the left or to the right, depending of course on the elector’s taste.