The Current Political Crisis in Brazil: Daniel Buarque Interviews CIBS’ executive director Biorn Maybury-Lewis

Earlier this year, Daniel Buarque interviewed the Cambridge Institute for Brazilian Studies executive director, Biorn Maybury-Lewis (a political scientist) regarding his views on the current political crisis in Brazil.   A Brazilian journalist, Daniel Buarque  has written five books related to the image of Brazil abroad.  He writes regularly for and has contributed to the Folha de São Paulo as well as G1 while also serving as executive editor of the site,

The transcript of the interview, which took place in April 2015, follows:

Daniel Buarque: After the global financial crisis, there seems to be a growing discontent with democracy in a lot of different places around the world – with a lot of change in the political system. How do you think the Brazilian democracy stands amidst this international changes?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  I live in the USA and here pundits often say that “the US has never had such a divided politics, because the legislature makes it its business to stop Obama’s every initiative.”  While it is true that the Republican-dominated Congress is attempting to stymie the president in any way that it can, it is not true that the USA is more divided than ever.  We had, after all, an extremely bloody and bitter civil war in the 1860s.  Nor is it necessarily true that a democratic approach to government is inadequate, though discontent with it is certainly rising.

To address the question on Brazilian democracy it is imperative, like in the case of the US, to take an historical perspective.  Brazil is now in a crisis of corruption.  But the country has always had a measure of corruption, as has, of course, the United States.  Is it really worse today than it has been in the past?  Obviously, the Petrobrás scandal falls at the doorstep of President Dilma because she was Minister of Mines and Energy under the Lula administration.  Now, the corruption scandals that began under President Lula continue and may have become worse.  But many observers have short memories.  I can remember the corruption that turned to systematic blackmail under President Collor de Mello.  There are a number of books, now, on the corruption under the FHC administration. Even the military, though not a kleptocracy, had its share of technocrats famous for taking “their percentages”.

What we need is perspective.  If Dilma and the corrupt petistas leave, today, who is both untainted and ready to take their place?

The larger problem in Brazilian politics and its democratic institutions is that neither the PT nor the PSDB, today’s most influential parties, have the power to command the legislative body without entering into “coalitions” with the myriad parties that exist there:  a veritable alphabet soup of siglas.  And the currency for entering into partnerships has always been and is likely to remain jobs, federal largesse, and “unseen money.”  That won’t change in the foreseeable future.  This is the nature of presidentialist democracy with a strong legislature with disproportionate electoral power still concentrated in the latifundio-dominated municipalities of Brazil’s interiors.  It is by no means a perfect democracy, as all kinds of waste, slowness, and ineptitude are the norms.  Nobody likes this, but it is better than dictatorship.

Winston Churchill probably had the last word on this institutional dilemma:  democracy is bad – except for all the other political systems.

Daniel Buarque:  Some analysts argue there seems to be a growing number of political extremism in the world  today. Do you agree with that? Do you think this kind of political position can grow in Brazil as well?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  Again, we have left behind us the 20th century which saw the rise of despots that meted out punishment on their own people and those they conquered on a staggering scale:  Mao, Stalin, and Hitler come to mind.  The United States aggression in Southeast Asia also comes to mind, along with the horrific years in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Mbuto Sese Seko’s Zaire, South Africa’s Apartheid regime, the US-backed regime in Indonesia that killed over 500,000 people in one year (1965), and the list goes on and on.  Extremism, alas, is nothing new.

Brazil has had its share of Nazi-like parties in the past too:  the Integralistas, for example, who were to the right of Getúlio Vargas during the Estado Novo.  The country has had all stripes of politics from, literally, Stalinists to Nazis.

What worries me more than these obvious examples of extreme political organizations is the gnawing, seemingly subterranean violence that has become so ‘normal’ in Brazil and, indeed, in most of Latin America.  This violence, despite the remarkable social welfare achievements that have demonstrably occurred in Brazil, beginning with FHC and carried forward and fortified under Lula and Dilma, has only grown worse.

Recent statistics suggest that Brazilians, since the late 1990s, have suffered violent deaths from fire arms, every year, in a number ranging from 40,000 to 50,000.  This yearly rate of carnage, obviously related to drug trafficking, a truculent and unreformed police force, and public opinion that favors “matando bandidos”, approaches the number of soldiers that the United States lost during the entire Vietnam war:  a quotient of war dead that traumatized the USA over a twenty-year period.  I can only begin to imagine the trauma Brazil, with a significantly smaller population than in the US, is going through in that it must deal with such staggering murder rates, and the important role of the military police in this, every single year.  I find this social situation much more extreme than any of the political parties or extremist groups presently operating in Brazil:  corrupt or not.

Daniel Buarque: Brazil seems to be living a strong political polarization between the PT in power and the PSDB in opposition. Isn’t it strange to see polar opposites in a system with so many parties?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  The differences between the PT and the PSDB are hardly polar.  FHC and Lula shared many stumps together, delivering speeches at comícios as they both rose to power before and after inauguration of the Nova República.  They have emphasized, since their respective rises, their differences, arguably for branding purposes.  They represent center-right and center-left parties, respectively. But FHC knows, and has said, how people both underestimate the intelligence of Lula and his importance in keeping the more radical petistas under control.  Meanwhile, among the greatest legacies of FHC was beginning the bolsa program:  something that Lula and Dilma not only continued but expanded.   These parties are hardly polar opposites.

There is a tendency, in politics, to live in an echo chamber:  when “polarization”, for example, is thundered in the press, on TV, and on the radio enough times, the idea is echoed back and forth.  People begin to believe it without looking too closely.  If one examines carefully the proposition, one can cite excellent examples of how muddy the water really is as we analyze the policy differences (or lack thereof) of the Tucano and PT administrations.

Daniel Buarque. The Economist magazine just published an article calling the Brazilian party system the most fragmented in the world. Do you agree with that?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  The Economist is correct in pointing out that Brazil’s political party system is probably among the most fragmented.  But one needs to talk more about the meaning of the parties, their ideologies, and their approaches to seeking power and making policy before condemning the phenomenon outright.  Are groups of parties so radically different from each other?  Can we not tease out important similarities across parties; particularly parties that unite in coalitions?  And if so, is not the general understanding correct that Brazilian parties each seek to join the winning coalition in parliament, united with the president in power, to conduct business as usual:  securing jobs, patronage, influence, and funding for constituents?  In short, does a fragmented party system, from a substantive perspective, really matter?

Daniel Buarque: Can the political system work with so many parties?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  Of course it can.  There are innumerable reasons why having many political parties complicates matters, but political scientists, by and large, argue that the risk of extreme dysfunction associated with many political parties is highest in a parliamentary democracy where there is no real “check” from the executive or the judiciary.  But in the case of Brazil, there is both a strong parliament and a strong presidency, so there are many avenues for, as the Anglo-Saxons say, “to muddle through”.  (Brazilians, more cynically, would call this:  empurrar com a barriga).  But function, it does – such a system – if not to the satisfaction of many.  One has only to look around the world to see that although Brazil’s political system seems messy and overburdened with party politics, there are cases elsewhere which plunge the country in question into far worse scenarios: even civil war.

Daniel Buarque: Why has Brazilian politics become so gridlocked?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  The nature of divided political institutions is to cause gridlock.  That is their purpose: to limit the power of a possible despot.  The hemispheric love affair with “checks and balances” is the reason for what, at times, seems like gridlock.  Brazil is a deeply divided society. In Brazilian terms, the most important divisions are related to social class. Governmental institutions that, a priori, are designed to deflect decisive action reflect these societal fissures.  Much as many would like decisive action as a function of streamlining and concentration of political power in one branch or the other, this is not going to happen soon.  The nation will need patience with itself as it gradually sorts through problems, largely of its own making, that are deep and of an historic nature.

Daniel Buarque:  Is there a way out of this mess? Is political reform the solution?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  For the time being, a strong legislative body, with disproportionate power in rural areas, will confront a strong presidential executive branch, with the current president presently “wounded” politically.  But there is little real danger to “politics as usual”.  Administrations will come and go.  Regional authority will impose itself, from the countryside, on the legislature.  The slow and frequently unfair judiciary will continue to play its subordinate, supporting role in this drama.  Political reform instigated by those who benefit from the political system seems to me quite unlikely.  And Brazilian civil society, still remarkably dependent on the state, is also unlikely to impose reform from the outside.  We shall have to wait and see.  Predictions have a notorious reputation.

Daniel Buarque: Analysts of Brazilian politics argue that the system of coalition presidentialism is the source of the current political instability. What do you think of that?

Biorn Maybury-Lewis:  Again, instability is a matter of degree.  Since the military left power in the mid 1980s, there have been a series of relatively orderly presidential campaigns, elections, and changes of power.  Even the impeachment of President Collor de Mello was, in retrospect, an orderly affair.  During the 1950s, the military, in its self-styled role of poder moderador, came into and out of power with a certain regularity to put what it perceived as “order in the house” within Brazil during the world-wide context of the Cold War. Arguably, this was a far more unstable period than the one Brazil is in now.  Later, in the 1960s, the generals decided to change their approach and come in “to stay”, particularly following the Institutional Act #5 in December 1968.  They imposed “stability” on Brazil for many years.  But is this really what the majority of Brazilians would prefer?

Democratic politics are messy, free-wheeling, inefficient, often corrupt, but we need to remember the remarkable economic, political, and social achievements Brazilians have forged for themselves in the New Republic, despite the violence, corruption, and frustrations of today’s democratic politics.

The present imbroglios will pass.  Brazil won’t.




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