The Brazilian Senate Plenary
The Brazilian Senate. Photo: Edilson Rodrigues/Agência Senado

The reform that already passed and what it reminds us of

What the approval of Brazil's Social Security Reform say about the country's political system

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Brazil’s Social Security Reform will be passed: if not in the first half of October, as is anticipated at the moment of writing this column, sometime later in the future. But what is for certain is that the changes to the retirement rules for Brazilians will receive the support of Congress in this second semester of 2019. And Brazil will finally be able to turn the page of the recent political and economic context, even if we might have to return to the same issue in a few years.

The economic team of the current government–which drafted the reform proposal that was sent to Parliament–and politicians–responsible for (various) adjustments to the text and the decision to take the proposal ahead or not–are sure the reform will pass in the period established.

The market–which demanded and awaited in expectation for this moment–also. The 13 million unemployed workers–that are hoping for the creation of jobs promised by the passing of the reform–idem.

The House of Representatives passed the reform bill this month and the text is now in the hands of the Senate, in essence a revising House of Parliament, even if it will likely approve the proposal without big changes. There will be a series of public commissions, the opposition will make some noise, and there might be some suspense in Brasilia on the eve of the final vote, but everything seems to suggest that the Social Reform is a reform that has already passed.

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Having said this, I dare offer an analysis of what the processing of the bill should remind us of: the Brazilian political system, considered a “coalition presidentialism,” does not allow doing away with what has commonly been called “the give and take;” that is, the vote on important issues for government–no matter their merit, as is the case–without the offering of something in exchange by politicians.

In a scenario in which 26 parties–that’s it, 26 parties–have representation in Congress, forming a majority to approve topics of interest to the Executive is an arduous task. Jair Bolsonaro was elected in the most polarized presidential elections in the history of Brazil with a strong anti-corruption discourse.

There isn’t any evidence that the president “bought” members of parliament, whether it be through periodic or sporadic tips, to make the Social Reform pass through Parliament. But this doesn’t mean the end of “the give and take,” despite the governing discourses.

The prevalence of favors being exchanged between the Executive and Legislative branches still present is independent of ideologies. It is a fact: leaders of key-parties in Congress will obtain, in the midst of the processing the reform, the naming of federal posts in their states; resources of the Federal Government were released for members of parliament, in a much bigger volume than in other periods, during the days prior to the vote on the bill. This is obviously no mere coincidence.

“It is politics,” could justify any person with, let’s just say, some experience in Brasilia’s backstage. The Brazilian Parliament reacts like an addict. It is addicted to that logic that leaves us intrigued: in the end, because a representative or senator can’t vote in favor of a project–and mobilize his peers to do the same–simply because they consider it important? They have the same response on the tip of their tongue: it’s the fault of the system.

Distribute posts and amends is no crime and doesn’t violate any of the rules or laws in place in the country. Nevertheless, the negotiations that involve these agreements are generally made in closed meetings and nobody, on both sides of the table, tends to go out declaring the outcomes of requests or concessions.

The current government’s efforts to manifest normalcy in the game is more pronounced than usual: Once more, the context of the last elections–in which precisely that political system was check-mated–left the president and his counterparts in an uncomfortable situation.

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It is through amends and posts won in votes such as those of the Social Reform that members of Parliament look to strengthen their political groups and captivate voters. In some measure, what is desired is that the reelection in the next plenary and, hence, the perpetuation in power.

Such coalition presidentialism transforms Brazilian representatives and senators in professional politicians that perfect their strategies throughout their mandate and, in each election, do everything (or almost everything) to stay in power.

Whoever stays in power knows very well the paths to deconstructing the system or, at least, how to turn them less attractive for “the give and take.” Perhaps for this reason why the changes take place so slowly. While the Brazilian system of government is yet to be seriously evaluated, any elected president will be hostage to Congress–and Brazilians will be hostages of both. Brazil is a country awaiting a political reform without “the give and take,” a reform that could truly bury “the give and take.”