Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Notwithstanding the committee recommendation for the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies to approve the malodorous “Distritão” for the 2018 elections, there is now talk about jettisoning this project, whose main aim was self-preservation for incumbents, and returning to the original proposal.
The original proposal was that Brazil should adopt a “mixed” electoral system, broadly copying the one successfully used in Germany’s Bundestag (lower house) since the end of WWII. Half of the seats in the Bundestag are determined by plurality votes in 300 small districts. The candidate with the most votes in the district wins.
The remaining half of the Bundestag seats are determined by party votes — if a party gets thirty percent of the total votes in a federal election, it gets (roughly) thirty percent of the number of Bundestag seats in the chamber. Therefore, in Germany, voters must cast two votes — one for an individual candidate and one for a political party.
The other essential provision in the German system is the five percent threshold clause — only a party with at least five percent of the popular vote is allowed to have representatives in the Bundestag — this provision ensures governability.
The German system has the advantage of combining overall proportionality of political parties’ representation in government, with plurality voting for individual representatives in local districts. German voters are thus represented by both political parties and by locally elected deputies.
The German system is, unfortunately, not simple. Besides requiring two separate votes, it demands extremely complex mathematical calculations to determine the exact number of seats each party receives. The German Constitution does not include any formulae or regulations; those are left to the Bundestag itself.
The advocates of the Distritão system in Brazil claim that its biggest advantage is its simplicity — there is only one vote, and the candidates with the most votes are seated, no matter which party they belong to. No complex calculations, no further legislation — quite simple, really.
Simple is important because Brazil’s Congress is in a hurry, for a very good reason: all the new electoral rules must come into effect at least one year before the next election. In other words, if nothing is enacted by this September, the 2018 elections for Congress will be held under current rules — which are admittedly demodé.
One proposed compromise is to pass a constitutional Amendment which installs the “Distritão” system for the 2018 national elections; this will be followed, obligatorily, by the “mixed” system for 2022. Congress would thus have time to deliberate over the detailed enabling legislation for the “mixed” system.
The problem with this compromise is that the current collection of scoundrels in Congress, having been easily re-elected in 2018 under the Distritão, will have every incentive to pass yet another constitutional Amendment, which would simply undo and reverse the 2017 Amendment and install permanently the “Distritão” system which has assured they remain in office.
Did we mention that Congress is about to vote itself R$3.6 billion to finance the 2018 campaigns? And that it’s probably not going to impose a significant representational threshold? Do not despair, the Curmudgeon will treat both in Part III of this series of essays.