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  • Latin America's Critical ElectionsBrazil at an Impasse
  • Bolívar Lamounier (bio)

As Brazil heads into presidential elections this October, its democracy faces the most daunting array of challenges since the military completed its gradual withdrawal from power a decade ago. Although they manifest some familiar Latin American features, these challenges are distinctive in the region for what they do not include. While Brazil has regional and ethnic tensions, for instance, and even a little separatist sentiment in the South, few analysts see these cleavages as grave enough to threaten either democracy or the country's territorial integrity. There is drug trafficking, but it is not as powerful and organized as in Colombia. There is political antagonism, but without the directness and violent intensity that we used to see in Argentina and Venezuela. There is no guerrilla movement, let alone anything like Peru's Sendero Luminoso. Why, then, has the period since the transition been so difficult, and why does democracy seem so far from consolidated almost ten years after the demise of military rule?1

Rejecting the view that Brazilian political culture is inherently antidemocratic does not mean believing that democracy can withstand any amount of social inequality and hardship so long as politicians play "the right game." A number of severe stresses have been gathering force since the early 1980s, and they now pose a serious threat to Brazilian democracy. Economic stagnation, a permanent state of high inflation (now at an annual rate of over 2500 percent), the aggravation of already severe poverty and income inequality, mounting public distress at corruption, and the resulting crisis of confidence in representative institutions have combined to steepen the decline of governability, a [End Page 72] decline that has its ultimate basis in the country's institutional architecture itself.

Since the transition in 1985, the politicians have employed a counterproductive strategy. They have been trying to deal with the crisis of confidence by increasing the number of issues on the political agenda even as Brazil's economic and social problems grow worse. This ill-advised approach has actually impeded a broader settlement, diverted attention to secondary matters, and led to the entrenchment of an incredible variety of corporatist interests in the detailed and extremely rigid 1988 Constitution. The upshot of this strategy of overloading the formal political agenda while actually accomplishing little or nothing is a phenomenon that I call "hyperactive paralysis."

To be sure, this story is not without its positive side. What from one point of view looks like paralysis appears from another as a string of redemocratizing and democratic institution-building steps designed to help the country recover from two decades of military rule: organizing peaceful mass demonstrations for direct presidential elections in 1984, rechanneling that energy into the broad coalition effort that made Tancredo Neves the first civilian president in 1985, calling a Constitutional Congress in 1987-88, managing a highly polarized presidential election in 1989, impeaching a president by orderly means in 1992, submitting a proposed change toward parliamentarism to a plebiscite in 1993, and now trying to enact a far-reaching revision of the 1988 Constitution.

Impressive as it is, however, this ambitious series of democratic experiments also shows how Brazil's politicians have been biting off more than they can chew: engaging in too much proposing and too much reforming, all of it through lengthy and cumbersome procedures, and in a context of institutional weakness and economic turmoil.

Hyperactive Paralysis in the Making

Born of a misguided response to declining legitimacy, hyperactive paralysis in its turn became part of a vicious circle of downward-spiralling governability. To understand how this happened, we need to examine the situation in which the country found itself in the early 1980s.

The origins of Brazil's current democratic afflictions are to be found in the dilemmas of this period, dilemmas arising from the protracted character of the transition itself. More so than in the Argentine or even the Spanish transition, Brazil's "slow and gradual" process was characterized by an erosion of confidence in elected civilian authorities before the military allowed them to assume full power at the center, and thus before they could undertake any serious measure...


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