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The Price of Democracy in Brazil

by Patricia Zanini Graca

Last Sunday, Brazil closed another cycle of direct and democratic elections. In the lower house, Brazilian voters elected 513 legislators from 30 different parties, making the number of represented parties a record within Brazil’s government. The strangest aspect of how the newly elected officials got into office is only roughly 5%, or 27 legislators, obtained enough votes in the ballot to get a seat in the national parliament. The remaining 486 legislators were elected thanks to the famous 27 under the electoral quorum and the party quorum.

The electoral quorum elects  legislators and is determined by the minimum number of votes a party or a coalition needs to elect legislators whereas the party quorum proportionally elects the number of officials based off the number of votes the party receives. In the lower house, the seats are awarded in proportion to the votes that each party or coalition wins. The elected candidates are those who win the most votes within each party or coalition. The electoral quorum is the reason there are 50 plus active political parties in Brazil. Candidates enroll in parties where they have the highest chance of winning, incentivizing candidates to change parties so they can benefit from the system in place. Amongst the 30 parties which elected legislators in the 2018 election cycle, the most prominent are the Worker’s Party (PT) and the Social Liberal Party (PSL). PT shrunk his presence from 69 to 56 members while PSL skyrocketed its presence, from 1 in 2014 to 52 members in 2018.

Brazil’s parliament being composed of 30 different parties reflects its redemocratization. Brazilians elected new representatives in 2018 while old state chiefs and clans who dominated the political scene for the last 20 years were not reelected. This shift in voting patterns replaced over 50% of its legislators,  making this election cycle the most significant renovation since 1998.

In 2018, Brazilians elected 262 new legislators and reelected 251, demonstrating Brazilians’ exhaustion with the same old political makeup. With the advent of social media, the 2018 candidates used YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp to launch their political campaigns, advocate for their platforms, and directly engage with the public. As a result, WhatsApp became the largest source of information in Brazil throughout the elections. This created some tension with some parties who appealed in vain to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to block and ban the app.

As for the upper house, the Senate, the revolutionary voting patterns followed the same trend and was even stronger. Differing from the lower house, senators are elected by a majority of votes. Brazilians elected 46 new senators. Thirty-two former senators ran but only 8 were reelected, making the percentage of renovation over 80% who represent 21 different parties. The upper house holds 81 representatives, of which 27 are in the in the middle of their mandate, or term of service.

For the governor elections, 13 parties will be represented throughout Brazil. Twenty governors attempted reelection with only half succeeding, thus resonating with the 50% turnover amongst the legislators. PT has four governors concentrated in the northeastern region and for the first time PSL has three elected governors. Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) has three elected governors in the most extensive electoral state, Sao Paulo, having reigned in the state since 1995.

This year’s election cycle was the most discussed presidential election in Brazil, with right-wing politician, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), winning with a 27-year long career in Brazilian politics.  Although controversial, Bolsonaro and his party (PSL) are the new leaders in town as reflected in the dramatic turnover described in the other wings of Brazil’s elected government. Votes for the representatives in the lower and upper house of the parliament, around the 27 states, and the president’s office clearly passed the message that Brazilians are discontent and tired of the disappointing 13 years of left-wing dominance in government. In addition to the corruption scandals involving bribes, lies, and money laundering, the economic crisis was the last straw which drove Brazilians to vote for the far right in 2018.

Within the parliament, right-wing politicians secured more than 50% of the political representation while the upper house, or Senate, is composed of 61 PSL senators out of 81 total representatives. With more than 14 million unemployed people, Brazilians who elected these representatives were yearning for change. In addition, the number of Brazilians who migrated to other countries spiked 165% since 2011. In 2017 alone, over 20,000 Brazilians officially left the country according to data from the Federal Police. A high crime rate, excessive violence, and more than 553,000 murders in the past 11 years, which reflects a higher death toll than in Syria, have all been motivators for Brazilians to flee their country of origin.

Violence and the lack of opportunities are the main reasons for Brazilians to look for better a better life elsewhere. According to polls ran by Folha de Sao Paulo, 43% of Brazilians said they would leave the country if they had the opportunity. Among teenagers and young adults, the number is even more alarming, with 62% claiming they would migrate for better opportunities. In the 2018 elections, there were 500,727 Brazilians able to cast absentee ballots in 99 countries, the majority of whom also voted for Bolsonaro, further proving that the Brazilian diaspora continue to sympathize with the Brazilians who remain in their native country.

A country such as Brazil, where the economy is very unstable, where jobs are scarce, and bureaucracy hinders the creation of new business, Brazilians are encouraged to find job security by passing public tests to become a public server. Careers in public service provide stability and alleviate worry about maintaining a job. In one public server test to become a civil police officer in Londrina-Parana, a mid-size city in southern Brazil, there were a record 41,000 people competing for just 100 spots. In a country where a large part of the population hopes to pass public service tests to guarantee economic stability while another large part is migrating, indicates that all Brazilians want is a safe, economically stable country.

Bolsonaro and all the elected politicians bring hope to Brazil. The price of democracy entails union, not segregation. Democracy is a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their elected officials accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. Just an hour after the results of the presidential elections, there were aggressive online campaigns against Bolsonaro on social networks. The Brazilians who oppose him should not advocate violence against the president-elect and must remember that Brazilians are strong and fearless. Brazil has impeached two presidents, fought against a dictatorship, political coups, and more. Brazil is a unique country united by diversity. As a Brazil native, I candidly ask all Brazilians to believe in the principles of democracy which were clearly demonstrated in the 2018 election cycle.


This opinion piece was written by Patricia Zanini Graca, a second-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia is the Executive Editor at the Journal of Diplomacy, a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, an Abd El-Kader Student Fellow and the Director of International Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management. Her interests are human rights, gender equality and corporate social responsibility.


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