Fernando Bizzarro is a Ph.D. Candidate in Harvard’s Government Department and a Graduate Student Associate at DRCLAS. He studies the nature, causes, and consequences of political parties in democracy globally, and in his home country, Brazil. Twitter: @fbizzarroneto
In summer 2019, as part of my doctoral research, I asked a retired Brazilian politician about the adoption of a constitutional provision to require candidates for political office to belong to one of the country’s political parties. As one of the leaders of the democratic forces during the writing of Brazil’s new constitution in 1987-1988, my interviewee had played a crucial role in defining the parameters under which Brazil’s new democracy would operate. I hoped that he would be able to explain why, in a country where less than 5% of the voters say they really trust political parties and where about 65% say they do not feel represented by any specific party, politicians would tie their own hands, forcing themselves to join parties that almost every voter dislikes. Wouldn’t they be better off if they run as independents?
“Because that’s what democracies do,” he answered, throwing me off my game. “What do you mean, that’s what democracies do?” I insisted, noting that independent candidates are allowed in many of the world’s oldest democracies, including Latin America’s historically democratic neighbors, the United States and Canada. “We did not even think about it,” he said. “We thought that you could not have a democracy without parties, therefore, we built one in which you must have parties.”
It’s not true that you can’t have a democracy without parties. In my dissertation, I am showing that for every democratic period in the Americas in which you have a stable set of political parties consistently controlling access to political offices, there are two periods in which strong political parties are absent. In other words, “party-based” democracies represent only one in every three democracies. The other two democracies have been what I call “personalist” with loose coalitions of politicians formed around few personalities who come and go at every election.
I also study under what conditions party-based democracies emerge. To learn more about that, I visited the small municipality of Vespasiano Correa in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Founded in 1995, Vespasiano Correa has a certain reputation among train and/or bungee jumping fans (maybe the two groups intersect, I don’t know), thanks to a large rail bridge known as “Bridge 13,” 470 feet above the river that cuts across the city. As everyone in the city proudly lets every tourist know, it is the largest rail bridge in the Americas. Bridge 13, however, is not the only remarkable thing about this town of 5,000 inhabitants in the Brazilian wine valley (did you know Brazil produces wine?). Since its first election in 1996, Vespasiano Correa has been Brazil’s best example of a party-based local democracy.
Two parties, the Progressives and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), have dominated local elections (there have been five since the city was created). These parties are not loose, ephemerous or personalistic. Rather, they are enduring coalitions between different groups of the local elites, with labels that indicate to everyone in the city, politicians and voters alike, to which group one belongs and which policies one supports. Because these groups were also on different sides of many of the political conflicts that divided Brazil—most recently during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, which the Progressives supported and the MDB opposed— these labels have a long history. Politicians and voters often declared that they couldn’t support a new party because that would mean betraying the party loyalty of generations of their forebears.
What is interesting about places like Vespasiano Correa is that they both should and should not exist in Brazil. They should exist because, as the delegate to the Brazilian Constitutional convention mentioned above told me, legislators wanted to build a party-based democracy and tried to design institutions to achieve such goal. Places like Vespasiano Correa, however, should not exist because while the intentions of constitution-writers were good, the institutions they designed ended up creating barriers for the development of strong parties. At least that is the dominant argument about Brazil: the electoral system, the set of rules regulating how votes are translated into seats, is candidate-centered; it creates incentives for personalism and for anti-partisan behavior among both voters and politicians.
These incentives seem to “bite” in many places of Brazil, but not in places like Vespasiano Correa. Why is it that, even though every Brazilian municipality follows the same “candidate-centered” electoral rules, only Vespasiano Correa and many cities around it have party-based local democracies? At this point, I still don’t know the answer. But it has been fun to learn about it.