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The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism?

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

Brazil features possibly the most fragmented party system in the world. At this current legislative term, there are 25 parties with representation in the Lower House, and 16 in the Senate. The level of fragmentation is so steep that the biggest party in the Lower House – the Worker’s Party (PT) – and the biggest party in the Senate – the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) – amount to merely 10.5% and 16% of each House, respectively. In order for a government to reach the needed support in Congress to advance its agenda, presidents must build stable and disciplined political coalitions, a system that has long been called “coalitional presidentialism.”[1] If they are not able to do so, the chances of a political crisis are real – and the two presidential impeachments since the transition to democracy in 1985 (Collor de Mello, in 1992,[2] and Dilma Rousseff, in 2016) are evidence of what may happen when things go terribly wrong. Interestingly enough, such a high level of party fragmentation, which is a structural dysfunctionality of the Brazilian political system, may paradoxically serve as a shield against radical and authoritarian intents by the executive power. Brazil may be experiencing such a paradox: a dysfunctionality of its political system may well function to protect democracy against a president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose authoritarian mindset is undisputed.

Such a phenomenon seems unexpected and, comparatively, underexplored in the constitutional literature. Indeed, most analyses of the current phenomenon of democratic decay in the world focus on a series of markers to describe and diagnose the level of degradation of democratic credentials, such as rising polarization, court-packings, strategic use of referenda, disruption of the political system (normally associated with an anti-systemic and antipluralist­ rhetoric), attacks on civil liberties and on the media, rejection of the democratic rules of the game,[3] “colonization” of the state at all levels,[4] populism, etc. Constitutional lawyers, in this scenario, tend to deposit their faith in constitutional courts as the last resource to safeguard democracy, and it is no wonder that also the constitutional literature tends to focus on courts. Parliaments, on the other hand, tend to be much less explored, not only because constitutional law has a natural bias towards courts, but also because, as observed in numerous cases of advanced democratic decay such as in Hungary[5]and Turkey,[6] parliaments were unable to function as an effective check on the executive power – quite the opposite, in fact.

Yet how parliaments behave and react to the rise of an authoritarian figure in the executive power may possibly play a more fundamental role in protecting democracy than constitutional courts themselves. Constitutional design can be, particularly in this subject, the key to understanding the political players’ behaviors vis-à-vis the various strategies authoritarian figures will most certainly attempt to adopt to strengthen their grip on power. For instance, a system such as the Hungarian, which favors larger parties and provides extra seat bonuses for the sake of governability (and which increased Fidesz’s vote share from 53% to 68%, enough to change the Constitution),[7] is clearly a bad omen in the circumstance of an authoritarian government. On the other hand, a political system which is largely fragmentary such as the Brazilian may prove quite effective in curbing some more visible authoritarian projects, especially when the president’s party shares only a fraction of the votes needed to pass legislation, let alone a constitutional amendment. This situation becomes more difficult if the president himself – also following the authoritarian recipe – attacks the political system as a whole and argues that political coalitions and parties are nothing other than a staging ground for corruption.

For many analysts during the 2018 elections in Brazil, the most frightening scenario would be President Bolsonaro obtaining massive support in Congress, which was likely given that the Congress elected was the most right-leaning since democracy was reinstated in 1985. It was also a new Congress, with a turnover rate of 52% and 85% (of the available seats) in the Lower House and the Senate, respectively. The evangelical, military, and rural caucuses, just to name some, increased significantly by surfing the conservative wave that swept especially left-leaning and traditional politicians out of power. Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) was such a political phenomenon that it jumped from 1 to 53 federal deputies, and saw a growth of 1341% of vote share in the population in comparison to the 2014 elections. However, 53 federal deputies, the second biggest bench in the Lower House (just behind the Worker’s Party, which, despite a drop of 25% of vote share, still elected 56 federal deputies), represent merely a bit more than 10% of the 513 deputies in Lower House. In the Senate, only four senators (of 81) from PSL were elected. Such a small fraction would not be a problem if President Bolsonaro followed the guidelines of the “coalitional presidentialism” in Brazil, which many in the past did with relative success,[8] especially in an environment of mostly convergent ideological interests.

However, Bolsonaro’s staggering capacity of manufacturing conflicts has, first, raised the political costs of any negotiation in Congress, and, second, eased the external control over his steps. By attacking the political system and calling it corrupt, he undermines many of potential bridges he could build with other right-leaning parties, and opens the Pandora’s box that may afflict his own party. Since the campaign, President Bolsonaro has adopted the strategy of confronting what he calls “old politics” by linking it with graft and clientelism, and appointed mostly non-partisan ministers to his cabinet. His confrontational behavior, nonetheless, has sparked a backlash in Congress and some of his agenda have faced difficulties in obtaining Congress’ approval. Certainly motivated by disputes over public money for the next political campaigns (PSL will obtain a large amount of money for having elected the second biggest bench in the Lower House), he even triggered fractious disputes inside his own party, which is now not only under a corruption probe but is also under serious disruption. This month President Bolsonaro explicitly attacked PSL’s President, Luciano Bivar, which has sparked a deep divide among PSL members – a movement that will be politically costly. Bigwigs of other parties will also seize this opportunity to raise extra costs for any potential negotiation in Congress.

A “coalitional presidentialism” and a highly fragmented Congress seems to be the perfect context for creating incentives for corruption and clientelism. It is a widespread feeling among Brazilians that their political system is rotten, and clientelism has been interpreted as the trade-off for any government to advance its agenda. In fact, such a configuration has provided one of the richest debates among political scientists, some pointing out its structural deficiencies related especially to potential gridlocks for governability, instability, and clientelism,[9] and others sustaining that, contrary to conventional wisdom and the mainstream literature, such a system is functional and accountable. Marcus André Mello and Carlos Pereira, two respected Brazilian scholars, even argue that, as a matter of constitutional design, the combination of a “strong president, a set of institutionalized tradable goods for the working of coalition government, and a vibrant and independent web of accountability capable of constraining political players” makes Brazilian “coalitional presidentialism” a viable and efficient system.[10] Fernando Limongi and Angela Cheibub Figueiredo, two of Brazil’s most renowned political scientists, also argue that the “corruption and the crisis the country has endured have little to do with institutional design.” And they go further: “to acknowledge that institutions matter is not the same as saying that only institutions matter.”[11]

It is indeed reductionist to relate most of the evils and misfortunes of the Brazilian political reality to constitutional design. Long-standing practices and the way politics have been practiced in the country certainly play a major role. Sergio Abranches, who coined the concept of “coalitional presidentialism” in the late eighties,[12] has a point when he says he would not follow those who see more virtues than vices in the Brazilian coalitional presidentialism nor those who see in it more vices than virtues.[13] What lies beneath such a system arguably challenges constitutional design, but it would also be wrong not to acknowledge the power of constitutional design to create incentives for political behavior.

In either scenario, the message is that institutions matter, but so do politics.[14] “Coalitional presidentialism” sets high incentives for doing politics as a condition for governability. A consequence of this design is that more radical – and also authoritarian – movements can only go forward when reaching a broad coalition in Congress, which becomes costly in an environment of such fragmentary and concurrent interests. It is no wonder that Brazilian past presidents with successful coalitions have all leaned to the center of the political spectrum. An authoritarian figure could only succeed if he or she were able to radically disrupt such a system. President Bolsonaro’s acolytes have, in this regard, appealed for a popular revolution – a concept that, in the current scenario of President Bolsonaro’s decreasing popularity – seems rather short-sighted and even desperate.

Naturally, distinct strategies to disrupt the political system may still come up, but, at least up until this moment, the political system seems more prone to tolerate President Bolsonaro’s diatribes while Congress takes the lead in passing legislation that is of its particular interest, some naturally coinciding with President Bolsonaro’s, especially in economic and fiscal matters. This is a sign of a weak, though histrionic, President: his control over the congressional agenda is visibly reduced and the most radical and authoritarian proposals in need of congressional approval are not going much further. Some even say that Brazil is now under a sort of “soft parliamentarism” and the Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia, is Brazil’s Prime Minister, thought such a concept seems rather overstated.

It is thereby misleading to place Brazil among the typical cases of democratic decay. The decay is certainly there – and the recent episodes are more than evidence that the situation of democracy in Brazil is to be watched carefully. Yet there is a singularity – its “coalitional presidentialism” and the fragmentary party system – that may paradoxically serve as a valuable barrier to counter authoritarian movements. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen. In any case, constitutional designers should look carefully to Brazil, as it may provide an unexpected mechanism to make democracy more resilient in times of decay.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 24, 2019, at

[1] See Abranches S, Presidencialismo de Coalizão (Companhia das Letras 2018)

[2] See Brasilio Sallum Jr. and Guilherme Stolle Paixão e Casarões, ‘O Impeachment do Presidente Collor: A Literatura e o Processo’ (2011) 82 Lua Nova 163, 163-200.

[3] See Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt How Democracies Die, (Crown 2018)

[4] See Jan-Werner Müller What Is Populism?, (University of Pennsylvania Press 2016)

[5] See Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai, and Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Hungary’s Iliberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution’ (2012) 23 Journal of Democracy 138, 138-46.

[6] See Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, ‘The Perils of “Turkish Presidentialism”’ (2018) 52 Review of Middle East Studies 43, 43-53.

[7] See Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai, and Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Hungary’s Iliberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution’ (2012) 23 Journal of Democracy 138, 138-46.

[8] See Argelina Cheibub Figueiredo and Fernando Limongi, ’Political Institutions and Governamental Performance in Brazilian Democracy’ in Dana de la Fontaine and Thomas Stehnken (ed.), The Political System of Brazil (Springer 2016)

[9] See Barry Ames The Deadlock of Democracy in Brazil, (University of Michigan Press 2001); Scott Mainwaring, ‘Dilemmas of Multiparty Presidential Democracy: The Case of Brazil’ (1992) Working Paper #174 Kellogg Institute

[10] Melo MA and Pereira C, Making Brazil Work: Checking the President in a Multiparty System (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), p. 20.

[11] Limongi F and Figueiredo AC, “A Crise Atual e o Debate Institucional” (2017) 36 Novos Estudos CEBRAP 79, p. 96

[12] See Abranches S, “Presidencialismo de Coalizão: O Dilema Institucional Brasileiro” (1988) 31 Dados – Revista de Ciências Sociais 5

[13] Abranches S, Presidencialismo de Coalizão (Companhia das Letras 2018)

[14]  See Fernando Limongi and Angelina Cheibug Fiegueiredo, ‘A Crise Atual e o Debate Institucional’ (2017) 36 Novos Estudos CEBRAP 96

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Published on October 24, 2019
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  1. […] JULIANO ZAIDEN BENVINDO points to the paradox that Brazil’s dysfunctional party system offers some protection against the authoritarianism of its president. […]

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