—Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
In my previous post “The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism”, I argued that, paradoxically, party fragmentation may “serve as a shield against radical and authoritarian intents by the executive power.” The continuous battle Brazil’s President Bolsonaro had until recently promoted against Congress – in what he called the “old politics” – was proving deleterious to his agenda, while raising an institutional barrier to his most authoritarian impulses. In a country where Presidents need to build strong coalitions in Congress and where parliamentary power is relatively high, party fragmentation sets high incentives for doing politics since reaching consensus in such an environment of concurrent interests is costly. One interesting consequence of such an institutional design is that more radical movements tend to suffer some sort of congressional backlash, pushing governments thereby to the center of the political spectrum to more efficiently coordinate concurrent interests. Incapacity of coordinating such interests has historically proven a bad omen for Presidents in Brazil and the two presidential impeachments since Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1985 are strong evidence of this reality.
However, this interesting phenomenon of Brazil’s institutional design features one relevant caveat: party fragmentation may also mean fragmentation in the opposition, and, more importantly, fragmentation in the electoral race. Opposition parties may have the common agenda of winning the election against a President running for re-election, but it does not follow that they are aiming to win it with the same candidate. Even if there is a runoff, as is the case in Brazil when no candidate reaches the absolute majority of votes in the first round, fragmentation in the electoral race implies that the opposition will possibly split their energy among diverse candidates and it is not assured that they will join efforts with the leading contender in the opposition in the second round. Politicking and electoral strategies may prevail in the end. For example, political parties might decide that it is best for their own interests to keep the same president in power while they gather sufficient public support for running with better chances in the next elections, or they might conclude that if they help the leading opposition contender, they will remain overshadowed by the new government, which will then be able to run for reelection.
Reaching consensus in such a scenario of conflicting and fragmentary party strategies is not an easy endeavor. If not reached, a probable outcome is that whoever is running for re-election has an important leverage effect: besides having a wide lead over other candidates because of holding office, he or she can take advantage of polarization. True, polarization affects the capacity of the government to build coalitions, but this logic also affects the opposition parties. Political parties leaning to the center will have difficulty in joining one or the other side of this polarization, but inertia and interests in having some participation in the future government tend to favor the party already in power. Unless such a polarization is weakened and a large consensus of different political forces in the opposition is reached, party fragmentation may behave as an important catalyst for re-election.
Comparisons between Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro and the United States under Donald Trump have been quite common since both came out from similar movements of a rising far-right agenda that take advantage of social media to disrupt traditional elections. They are the expression of a new type of presidentialism that has gained momentum worldwide and which has raised various red flags about their commitment to democratic values and the rule of law Institutional and historical differences between both countries, notwithstanding, it is also shocking that those similarities have become even more synchronized during the COVID-19 crisis. The United States and Brazil are currently the two countries whose Presidents seem to have made every single effort to worsen the crisis through a series of mismanagements, bad policies, false information, and conflicts, and both countries are currently leading the world in number of deaths caused by the disease. President Bolsonaro has followed, step by step, Trump’s strategy during the crisis: hydroxychloroquine became the magic pill for healing the disease, both called the virus a simple “flu” (or Kung-flu, as did Trump) or the “Chinese virus,” both attacked the World Health Organization (WHO) and blamed China for spreading the virus, and both have long argued that life should already be back to normal. Their behavior shows some differences – Bolsonaro has shown an even higher disregard for the victims, for example– but the tragedy in both countries has been apparent in the daily death tolls, many of which may have been preventable.
Despite these similarities, both countries face contrasting challenges when it comes to their presidential systems and highly distinct political frameworks. If hypothetically both presidential elections were held simultaneously, Donald Trump, even when obtaining over 40% support of Americans, would face much greater challenges to be re-elected than Jair Bolsonaro with a support of a bit of just over 1/3 of Brazilians. A two-party system, especially one that is anchored in a long series of primaries, pushes the opposition towards a gradual consensus around one candidate. In a more fragmented party system like that in Brazil, consensus might never be reached. Moreover, if a runoff were to occur, the gap between the first and second round is short (three weeks), which might not be enough time for coalescence.
It is no wonder that this has always been President Bolsonaro’s strategy for re-election. He may only need around 30% support if the opposition proves unable to reach consensus around a single candidate. Political fragmentation and polarization are electoral boosters for presidents running for re-election because they hinder potential consensus and lower the threshold needed for movements to remain electorally competitive.
During the COVID-19 crisis, polls have showed an interesting movement among Bolsonaro’s supporters: his base has been changing quite significantly. He has lost some support especially from the middle-class and richest strata of Brazilians because of his successive failures in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and scandals of corruption, and his approval was moving downwards. He reacted fast, though, and radically changed his persona: in the last two months, Bolsonaro has increasingly behaved as a typical populist taking advantage of the emergency aid that Congress had approved to help Brazilians deal with the COVID-19 crisis, which reached over 60 million people. He is moving fast towards the strongholds where the leading opposition party – the Worker’s Party – has long prevailed, especially in the Northeast region, and which are more dependent on such aid due to higher levels of poverty and underdevelopment. Bolsonaro has also begun negotiating with some parties in Congress and pork-barrel politics have become more explicit. More striking still, he has abruptly stopped openly attacking Congress and the Judiciary. A radical move, but one which has proven quite successful: the last Datafolha poll showed a 5% increase in approval and a 10% decrease in disapproval (37% and 34%, respectively), his best results since taking office.
This might sound paradoxical given the tragedy of over 100.000 deaths in the country, but the reality is that, leaving aside some relevant moral questions, it reflects three key features: 1) explicit radicalism, such as Bolsonaro’s routine attacks against democracy, does not seem to play well electorally; 2) if a government loses the opportunity to gain electoral dividends by leading and uniting the nation to handle a crisis, it does not follow that he or she could not regain support by taking advantage of the crisis by other means; 3) if an opposition is fragmented and does not project a viable leadership option against the government, that vacuum can be rapidly occupied by the government itself.
This sequence of events reveals how difficult it is to make strong statements about what is happening in Brazil. The landscape can change radically from one month to the other, which challenges political and legal analyses of all sorts. Bolsonaro’s presidency is strategically chaotic and the changes take place at an uncommon pace, and the COVID-19 crisis accelerated it even further. Yet beneath the surface, there is a more structural variable that is basically a matter of institutional design: political fragmentation may serve as a shield against authoritarianism since it tends to push the government to compromise in Congress. On the other hand, however, it may hinder efforts to consolidate around the opposition candidate, and thus to prevent reelection. Comparative politics and comparative constitutional law should look carefully into the interesting connections between party fragmentation, political polarization, and reelection for democracies, and particularly those with worries about democratic decay. Brazil is one such fascinating cases where all these elements are visibly combined. Whether those variables will end up favoring President Bolsonaro’s reelection is yet to be known, especially with such a rapid pace of changing circumstances in the country. They should serve, in any case, as a wake-up call for countries struggling to preserve their democracies.
Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Other Side of the Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Re-Election Booster? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 28, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/08/the-other-side-of-the-party-fragmentation-paradox-in-brazil-a-re-election-booster/
 Brazil’s Federal Constitution, Art. 77, §2.