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Volume 61 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: BRAZIL


ANDY BAKER, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Northeastern University


BRAZILIAN DEMOCRACY HAS TAKEN ROOT, although the transition has not been without challenges. Any lingering doubts about the regime's sustainability were dispelled with the ascendance of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) to the presidency in 2003. While few expected an illegal coup by conservative forces, the fact that most observers took for granted the peaceful and celebratory atmosphere of Lula's inauguration is a tribute to democratic stability in Brazil. This stability is especially credible when considered alongside the concurrent political turmoil of many of Brazil's neighbors. Having passed yet another crucial test, it seems safe to declare that democracy in Brazil is here to stay.

However, optimism about Brazil's political system is tempered by unremitting obstacles. Institutional gridlock, voter apathy and confusion, fiscal deficits, corruption, clientelism, persistent income inequality, a stagnant economy, and widespread social violence all point to a low-quality democracy and one that lacks the capacity to address pressing problems. With the transition from authoritarian rule clearly over, political scientists are discovering that such issues are a part of "normal politics" in democratic Brazil. Researchers now treat them not as the transitory growing pains of a democratizing system but rather as stubborn traits of the New Republic.

Initial studies of Brazil's democratic malaise, many reviewed in previous editions of HLAS, heaped blame on the electoral system, weak political parties, and the resulting inability of presidents to get proposals through the National Congress. Several works reviewed here reiterate and further develop this line of thought (items #bi2004000864#, #bi 97012326#, and #bi2004001006#), but they are not without their critics. Most notably, Figueiredo and Limongi present data indicating that presidential success is the overwhelming rule, not the exception (item #bi2004000869#), while an important work by Melo adds nuance to these issues by explaining how and why presidential success varies across different policy areas (item #bi2004000879#). These examinations and disputes over institutions are especially important because political scientists have helped structure the debate among politicians for various (and, perhaps tellingly, yet unapproved) "political reforms" of the rules of the game. (See items #bi2001001727#, #bi2001003424#, and #bi2002003873# for summaries and proposals on this debate.)

The most active and innovative recent research on political institutions has brought to the forefront another problematic aspect of Brazil's political institutions: federalism. Abrucio (item #bi2002003847#) and Samuels (items #bi2004001016# and #bi2004001009#) have offered the most noteworthy advances in this research area. While the fiscal pull and discretion granted to governors is well-documented, these works illuminate the mechanisms through which governors control national legislators and retard attempts at national-level reforms. Governors, far more than presidents, control access to important careers, fiscal resources, and votes; thus, naturally, national legislators cater to state and gubernatorial demands.

It is not too early to begin considering Fernando Henrique Cardoso's legacy. Future years will undoubtedly bring more studies, but there have already been some useful reviews and interpretations of the Cardoso presidency. It is not surprising that some of these sources are ideologically charged (items #bi2002003879# and #bi2002003816#). The most useful to date is the edited volume by Lamounier and Figueiredo, which brings together numerous essays by journalists and scholars on the most crucial aspects of the Cardoso years (item #bi2004001000#). This source contains a wealth of new data and some innovative analyses of the outgoing president. Finally, the successes and failures of Cardoso's attempted reforms, a topic that overlaps with the institutional literature mentioned above, have been the focus of several scholarly works (see, for example, items #bi2002003876# and #bi2001000996#).

Free, fair, and even high-technology elections were a major conquest of Brazil's transition to democracy and remain a crucial aspect of its "normal politics." This notion is reflected in the large, vibrant, and eclectic literature on mass politics. Studies on topics such as voting behavior, public opinion, mass media, and political participation employ a wide range of methodologies, most notably survey research (items #bi 00002214#, #bi2004001004#, and #bi2004000872#) but also aggregate data analysis (item #bi2004000866#), in-depth interviews (item #bi2004001011#), and media content analysis (items #bi2002004713# and #bi2002005237#). Of particular note is the ambitious work by Weyland, which, among other things, explains mass beliefs about neoliberal reforms and candidates using a powerful theory of microbehavior (item #bi2004001012#). Freitas' content analysis of the political coverage of selected television stations and newspapers provides a useful service by empirically demonstrating the biases of the country's most-used media sources (item #bi2001003425#). Finally, a debate about the impact of the Participatory Budget (Orçamento Participativo) on political participation has emerged, as scholars currently disagree regarding the extent to which OP mobilizes and empowers the disengaged (items #bi2004000862# and #bi2003003830#).

Suggestions for lines of future research point to obvious topics. Given the importance of Lula's victory and Brazilianists' propensity to study left-leaning movements and parties, the next wave of research will no doubt contain many analyses of the petista's presidency. More retrospectives on the Cardoso years will also be forthcoming; scholars should focus more attention on the consequences, and not just the causes, of the Cardoso reforms. Finally, the burgeoning literature on mass political behavior likely will continue to flourish, since scholarly understanding of Brazil's institutions currently outdistances knowledge of crucial topics like voting behavior (and especially clientelism), mass media, and civil society.


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