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Voting Game

Voting Game

As a rule, parties in Brazil—like the individual candidates
themselves—do not put together programs, and those that do
are not known for sticking to them. Mud-slinging is
commonplace. What is a reluctant voter supposed to do?
By Adhemar Altieri

When President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was first elected in 1994, he campaigned on
the need to conclude five basic reforms in Brazil. One of the five was political reform, a
hot potato he simply did not deal with during that first term in office. Following
re-election in 1998, Cardoso was asked about first-term mistakes he did not intend to
repeat, and again he mentioned political reform—an unkept promise he said would be a
priority of his second term. With nearly half of term two gone, procrastination is about
to claim from all Brazilians a steep price tag. Nationwide municipal elections are around
the corner, and Brazil is nowhere near a badly needed sweeping reform of its political
scene.

Vital as they are to the democratic process, elections in Brazil fall short on a number
of basic requirements. It is extremely difficult for an average citizen to vote
responsibly because the process of selecting a candidate is quite complicated. Trying to
get details of a candidate’s platform is like pulling teeth, because the system
is—incredible as that may sound—not conducive to that type of relationship
between candidate and voter. In fact, most candidates don’t put together a platform to
begin with, and basically "wing it" throughout their campaign.

Mud-slinging is commonplace, with candidates spending far more time attacking opponents
than explaining what they have in mind. The net result is far from satisfying: there’s
little or no direct contact between candidates and voters, credibility is lacking, and
voters are forced to decide based on generalities and superficial data. And forced is the
right term, since in Brazil there is no choice: voting is mandatory, and skipping an
election carries numerous penalties. Invariably, it all leads to disappointment with the
outcome.

The trouble really begins with the fact that there are no districts at any level in
Brazil. Most anywhere in the world where the political system is reasonably effective,
voters only need to choose between candidates running in their district, riding or
ward—different names for the same thing: an area which will be represented by whoever
its voters elect, at the municipal, state/provincial or federal level. Normally, each
party competes with one candidate per district, which certainly makes life easier for
voters. They need to get acquainted with fewer people and platform details in order to
make their choice.

Compare that to what happens when there are no districts, as is Brazil’s case. A
resident of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and third-largest metropolis in the world,
will have to choose between 14 candidates for mayor, and well over one-thousand candidates
from various parties and coalitions vying for one of 55 City Council seats. All candidates
for council are allowed to campaign and gather votes citywide, but will not represent a
specific area of the city if elected—at least not officially. Many will say they
represent a certain area or neighborhood, but they are not in any way bound to that.

With a mind-boggling number of candidates in the running, voters need help to tell them
apart. The solution in use is to assign a five-digit number to each candidate. When a
voter steps into the box, he or she will punch in a number, not a name. The first two
digits of the number are common to all candidates from the same party, so if a voter
hasn’t decided on a specific candidate, it’s possible to simply vote for a party. These
votes are then split proportionally among that party’s candidates. Many voters end up
doing this, because they just can’t decide, or worse, don’t bother to decide, on a
specific person to vote for. And political parties in Brazil being what they are, it’s not
as if choosing one of them ensures the pursuit of anything too specific—as a rule,
parties also do not put together programs, and those that do are not known for sticking to
them.

All of this affects the way politicians campaign. Because they are not committed to
specific areas, they campaign at a distance. A favorite "strategy" is the carreata,
loosely translated to a car parade: a row of cars covered in flags and banners drive
through an area, with the candidate either on top of a vehicle or looking out through a
sunroof. The longer the carreata, the more "powerful" the candidate.
Residents are told in advance the candidate will be campaigning in their area, and those
who come out to watch get to wave as the smiling hopeful drives by, or maybe throw an egg
or two. Carreatas often go by at high speed and go through red lights at
will—no participant has ever been known to receive a traffic ticket.

All-candidates meetings at the school auditorium or community center, a fixture of
municipal elections in many countries, are unheard of in Brazil—how could hundreds of
candidates be rounded up? What would be the use of a debate among candidates not
necessarily committed to your area? Would they represent that area if elected? In effect,
candidates limit personal appearances at meetings and events to situations where they can
deliver a fast speech and move on. Questions from the floor are not habitual, unless, of
course, the questioners can be pre-determined and offer no "risk" to the
candidate…

In case you’re now wondering why the news media isn’t exposing all of this as the
campaign gets under way, you’ve come to the icing on the cake—the single most
important piece of the puzzle that politicians in Brazil do not want to see taken apart.
There is something known as Election Law, which determines how election coverage can be
conducted, and also that free time on radio and television must be allotted to political
parties during the campaign. Broadcasters are forced to do this because their licenses are
government concessions—the print media faces no such requirements. So the campaign
gets about an hour and 30 minutes per day on radio and television, divvied up among
parties according to seats held and votes received in the last election.

This is bad enough—parties waste this time with mostly nonsensical, unspecific
gibberish, and of course, more mud-slinging, that goes a long way in further disappointing
the electorate. But it gets worse: the Law also differentiates between how the print and
broadcast media can cover the campaign. Radio and television face numerous restrictions,
which seriously affect their ability to offer listeners and viewers appropriate coverage.
For example, the law says all candidates must be given equal time. With fourteen
candidates for mayor in São Paulo, this means covering all of them equally—in terms
of minutes and seconds of airtime! This also affects debates: broadcasters cannot organize
them unless all candidates are present, and time is equally allotted to all
participants—try and imagine a useful debate with three, perhaps four candidates who
are in fact contenders, and ten others whose reasons for being there vary from propping up
or attacking another candidate, to "investing" in a future candidacy.

Now carry this to the campaign for City Council: if broadcasters are forced to give all
candidates equal time, how is it possible to cover the campaign for council with its
thousand or so candidates, and stay within the law? The answer is that it is not possible
to do this. Stations that try risk heavy fines, as candidates who feel that another has
been "privileged" often file grievances, which are seldom turned down by
Electoral Courts. The campaign is hardly under way, and numerous broadcasters have already
been assessed heavy fines in São Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil, for airing stories that
in most cases would qualify as simple and basic coverage. This aspect of the Election Law
is about to be questioned in the courts by several broadcasters, because it clearly defies
what is on the Brazilian Constitution: like the American charter, the Brazilian version
says no law can be created that in any way inhibits freedom of expression. Clearly what we
have here is unconstitutional.

The practical results of all this are absurd: after two years of almost continuous
exposés involving municipal corruption in São Paulo, councilors kicked out and arrested,
city officials fired and jailed, the near-impeachment of mayor Celso Pitta, and effects of
this felt throughout Brazil as other municipalities tuned in to their similar problems,
the broadcast media finds itself unable to closely follow the election campaign for
renewal of city councils. In other words, broadcasters are not allowed to exercise
journalistic criteria in their coverage. This leaves a major portion of Brazilians exposed
to nothing but the free-time campaigning by candidates. Although newspaper readership has
grown noticeably in Brazil in recent years, it is still very low even if compared to other
Latin American countries. So the majority, who get their information from radio and
television, will take in little or no serious coverage of the campaign.

Transpose this to all other elections in Brazil, and it should become quite clear why
it is so disappointing to see no serious movement at all towards political reform—and
certainly no effort whatsoever from President Cardoso in almost six years in office, in
spite of his promises. Yes, this is a tough one to deal with—clearly Brazil’s
politicians want no part of district voting, or wide open coverage by the media: it would
mean accountability forced down their throats, a word for which there isn’t even a known
translation in Portuguese. They’re in no hurry to create one. Theirs is the easiest
possible routine: they campaign superficially and undisturbed by the media, and once
elected, remain undisturbed because voters have nowhere to go—remember, those elected
to municipal, state and federal legislatures do not answer to specific districts, and
thus, do not have to entertain any matters raised by an average citizen.

As if further proof were needed, Congress recently offered up yet another example of
why political reform is often described as this country’s most urgent reform. On Thursday,
August 10, a majority of honorable members put on a grotesque display of self-serving
politicking of the worst possible kind, when they voted to overturn a presidential veto
and reaffirm a proposal that any reasonable person would find totally unacceptable. They
voted themselves amnesty from election rule violations committed in the 1996 (municipal)
and 1998 (general) elections. This had been approved in late 1999, vetoed by President
Cardoso, and the veto now overturned by a majority in the Lower House and the
Senate—of course, in a secret ballot. Members excused themselves from paying fines
for things like plastering campaign posters and banners on city property—bridges,
monuments, poles, buildings, etc.—or painting their names and numbers on walls. This
is another ugly consequence of the way elections are conducted in Brazil: the need to
campaign city-wide or state-wide, depending on the election, means candidates cover every
centimeter of available space with their pictures, names, numbers and colors, be it legal
or not. Cities become horribly disfigured throughout any election campaign because of
this. Later, as the past week has shown, all it takes is a secret ballot for Brazilian
legislators to quickly forget that they are the lawmakers, and not above the law.

Elections are the way out in any democracy—it is through the vote that changes are
made in any civilized society. But in Brazil, this is a badly disfigured process.
President Cardoso has acknowledged this, but must go beyond words. Had political reform in
fact been treated as the priority that it is, as promised twice by the President, many
other reforms would very likely have been concluded in Brazil far more quickly. In spite
of the way things are, Brazil has made impressive strides in the past few years. One can’t
help but wonder how much more quickly the country might have progressed, if political
reform had been tackled seriously and appropriately back in 1994.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com

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