Almost half the politicians elected in 1999 no longer
represent the parties on whose ticket they
elected and the electors who voted
for them have been hoodwinked.
By John Fitzpatrick
At the start of this year, when a senior American senator switched sides from the Republicans to the Democrats his
action caused headlines because he had changed the balance of power in the Senate. However, his defection was also
noteworthy because it is fairly rare for elected representatives in mature democracies to do so. It has happened, of course, and one
striking example is Winston Churchill who joined the UK Conservatives from the Liberals in the early years of last century. In
general though defections like Churchill´s were done for ideological reasons. This is not the case in Brazil where party
swapping is routine and certainly not for reasons of principle. Candidates switch if they think they have better chances with other
parties regardless of the fact that they were elected as representatives of another party.
The newsmagazine Veja recently published figures which showed the astonishing extent to which this practice has
been carried out since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985. The figures show an increase in defections from 25% in
1987-90 to an estimated 42% in 1999-2002. Just think of this latter figure. It means that almost half the elected politicians no
longer represent the parties on whose ticket they were elected and the electors who voted for them have been hoodwinked.
None of these politicians ever resign their seats and stand again but merely exchange their membership cards and
remain in power continuing to receive their pay, perks and privileges. It is also common for politicians to move backwards and
forwards. One member of the House of Representative has switched loyalties seven times over three separate parties. He has
rejoined the evangelical PL party four times in the last two years.
There was a recent rush from one party to another in the weeks and days before Saturday October 6, which was the
legal deadline for politicians to register their party affiliations ahead of next year’s presidential and Congressional elections.
By Sunday October 7 we saw a reconstituted Congress. The new line-up was not radically different from the previous day
but was very different from the freshly-elected Congress in 1998. Two of the main governing parties, the PFL and the
PSDB of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso have seen their numbers in the Lower House fall from 105 to 95 and 99 to
92 respectively over this period.
By contrast the PMDB has increased its 1998 intake from 84 to 91 in 2001 but this is not surprising as the PMDB is
such a broad church that it could easily split into two or three separate parties. In fact the center-right PFL has overtaken the
PMDB as the biggest party in the House benefiting from the scandal surrounding PMDB Senator Jader Barbalho who stood
down as Senate chairman earlier this year in the face of allegations of corruption.
There was some relief for the PMDB, though, in the fact that Itamar Franco, the governor of Minas Gerais and a
former president, did not leave the party as some observers had expected. Franco is a well-know figure and could be a
presidential candidate if the PMDB decides to field its own person. The PMDB also lost four seats in the Senate but is still the
biggest grouping there. The PSDB is the second-largest grouping in the House but has lost more members reflecting fears that
the party may do badly next year if the economic situation continues to deteriorate.
This lack of party loyalty is accepted by most Brazilians who expect nothing better from politicians. Attempts to
reform the system have been bogged down for years. The voters’ apathy is surprising to the foreign observer as voting is
compulsory in Brazil with a hefty fine imposed on those who do not turn out on election day. Going to the polling station here is not
the kind of pleasant stroll or short drive associated with voting in western European countries.
Brazil is a huge, developing country and people often have to make great efforts in the face of physical and
bureaucratic obstacles. I remember being in the steamy heat of Manaus in 1989 during voting day for the presidential election and
saw long queues of people snaking around the street waiting for hours to cast a vote. The patience with which they waited in
the blazing sun was impressive and, in retrospect, misplaced as most of them voted for Fernando Collor who later resigned
to avoid being impeached for corruption.
When that election took place I was living in Berne in Switzerland with my Brazilian wife. She and the other
Brazilian expatriates could not cast a postal vote and to vote they had to go to the Brazilian consulate in Paris. Not only did this
involve expense and time but at that period Brazilians visiting France needed a visa so they had to go to the French consulate
and experience French bureaucracy at first hand. As my wife and most of her friends could not go to Paris they had
technically broken the law. They were subsequently contacted by a bureaucrat at the Brazilian consulate in Geneva who came to
Berne and officially registered that their reasons for not voting were genuine and they were not fined. All of this a tangled web
making a mockery of democracy and freedom of choice.
The voting system itself has improved enormously since then and Brazilians sniggered last year when the US
presidential election result was held up because of the primitive voting system there. The smug Brazilians compared this delay with
the fast results from their municipal elections, which had taken place shortly before the US vote, thanks to a new electronic
polling system. This is all well and good but worth little when you are forced to vote for people who put their own interests first
and treat your vote with contempt.
This material was originally published in the E-zine
John Fitzpatrick, the author, is a Scottish journalist who has been based in São Paulo since 1995. His career in
journalism that started in 1974 includes stints as a reporter in Scotland and England, deputy editor of an English-language daily
newspaper in Cyprus, news editor of a radio station in Switzerland, financial correspondent in Zurich and São Paulo, and
editor of a magazine published by one of Switzerland’s largest banks. He currently runs Celtic Comunicações, a São Paulo
company which specializes in editorial and translation services. You can reach him at