by Eric Nogueira Andrade

Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Elections lie at the very heart of democracy, and they are exclusive periods in which citizens are most politically engaged, providing the foundation for all representative democracy. Given such relevance, electoral rules are the subject of considerable attention from academics and the public debate around the world. In Brazil, this relevance has produced intense discussions and studies about the need of electoral reforms.

The agenda for studies on electoral institutions has developed mainly in two directions: the analysis of the consequences generated by electoral rules on party competition; and in the formulation of causal models that explain not only the current institutional choices but also their eventual reforms.

Studies analyzing the consequences of electoral rules have increased greatly over the past decades, and the central common finding has been the confirmation that institutional specificities matter. Electoral rules directly impact the profile of governments, making them more or less representative, stable or unstable, effective or inefficient, inclusive, or exclusive. The studies on the explanations to understand the conditions under which electoral reforms take place, however, continue with most of their questions unanswered.

Although we know many things about the electoral reform processes, this knowledge is not systematic. Much of what we know came from case studies around the globe and even the surveys produced were not extensive enough to reach more generalized conclusions. According to the author, all the main issues have been covered through different methods, although none of them can provide a decisive answer. Three can be distinguished. The first uses formal theories to derive precise hypotheses that can be tested against reality (Benoit, 2004; Boix, 1999; Colomer, 2004a, 2005; Iversen; Soskice, 2006). The latter searches for empirical evidence through case studies using quantitative statistical methods or qualitative methods. Boix (1999) and Colomer (2004a, 2005) test their hypotheses from a database. Gallagher (2005) and Katz (2005) develop inferences through extensive surveys. Finally, the third group uses intense analysis focused on small groups of cases in an attempt to escape generalist hypotheses. Examples of this group include post-communist countries, Asian and Pacific countries, African countries, Israel in a comparative perspective, and on changes in the electoral system in Europe since 1945.

When we analyze recent studies on electoral reforms, we can infer that they have produced two main theoretical perspectives to explain the electoral reforms of recent decades. The first is based on the power-maximization notion. Part of this literature, embracing the rational choice theory (Tsebelis, 1990; Cox, 1997; Boix, 1999; Colomer, 2004a; Bowler et al, 2006; Benoit, 2004, 2007), has produced explanations that describe the reform process as essentially a game of interest of elites who, as party rivals, formulate their calculations based on what they hope to obtain in terms of political positions. 

For this approach, the people demand institutional reforms as part of a process described by the agenda-setting theory. This theoretical concept assumes that politicians control the process of choosing the electoral system, motivated by the possibility of maximizing their power.

The second theoretical perspective, developed by Shugart (2001) and Shugart and Wattenberg (2001b), allows a large range of actors to be involved, including politicians and civil organizations, and perceive electoral reform as the result of a mix of contingent and inherent factors. Thus, inherent factors are those linked to pre-existing historical conditions and demands, while contingent factors produce conditions and demands arising from circumstantial events such as crises and scandals. For this theoretical approach, electoral reforms may “occur in response to specific instances of systemic failures”.

In Brazil, the institutional arrangement that has shaped the representation, particularly the electoral system, has been strongly criticized since its foundation under the 1988 Constitution. Known by the term “presidencialismo de coalizão” (coalition presidentialism), it was originally described as a model with alarming limitations that would obstruct its fully functioning without potential crises. The main concern of this first interpretation is related to the impasse generated by the relationship between an independently elected executive and a legislature characterized by a highly fragmented party system. The problem identified is the combination of presidentialism with a proportional electoral system. Throughout the democratic transition and in the early years of the new Constitution, part of the Brazilian academic production was deeply involved in demonstrating that the institutions chosen by the constituent did not have ungovernability as a subproduct, but rather a rationalized “presidencialismo de coalizão”, as demonstrated by Santos (2003).

Hence, we can divide the studies on the performance of “presidencialismo de coalizão” in Brazil into two perspectives. The first seeks to defend the fruitlessness of this model (Abranches, 1988, 2001; Lamounier, 1991a, 1991b, 1992a, 1992b, 1994; Mainwaring, 1991; 1997a, among others). Under this theoretical approach, there are authors (Ames, 2001 and 2003; Cintra, 2000, 2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007, 2008; Fleischer, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2014, among others) who attribute to the electoral system the main cause of the malfunctioning of the mentioned institutional arrangement. According to this view, the negative effects of the “presidencialismo de coalizão” are enhanced by the specificities of the open list proportional model, since it “does not induce the formation of ideologically cohesive parties and disciplined behavior and does not prevent party fragmentation” (Cintra, 2007, p. 250. In free translation).

The second perspective opposes the first and argues that the “presidencialismo de coalizão” is rational and viable (Figueiredo and Limongi 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999; 2017; Santos, 2003, among others). It took time to demonstrate the functionality of the Brazilian system. It was attested that the Executive produces decisions and that it has the means to avoid the governance crisis. It was also demonstrated that there is an initiative in the Legislative with significant participation especially in ordinary laws of social content. And, above all, recent studies indicate the participation of Congressmen in other forms of Legislative production (Amorim Neto; Santos, 2003; Almeira, 2015; Freitas, 2016). These researches show that far from an inherent conflict, what is observed is the partnership, most of the time, between the two powers, Executive and Legislative, in the production of decisions.

Thus, the discussion extends to the political discussion and countless attempts of reform have been made throughout basically all elected legislatures without being able to change the electoral system. Although national literature can explain the functionality of Brazil’s institutional arrangement, it fails to explain the huge discontent of the political class with electoral rules and the recurring frustrated attempts to change. After all, if the political system works well, why successive attempts of reform? And if there are successive attempts, as a result of the dissatisfaction of the political class and/or the supposed malfunctioning of the rules, why the electoral system remains unchanged?

Some of these issues were examined in a recent study (Andrade, 2019), and the conclusion reached was that specificities in Brazilian electoral rules increase the insecurity of the political class, in terms of reelection, at the same time as empowering voters. Therefore, the big challenge is to reform the electoral system without provoking the median voter. Nevertheless, much still needs to be empirically tested until we have more decisive conclusions. 


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