The Contradiction of Brazilian Democratization
In November of last year, the Universidade de Pernambuco (UPE) held an election to select the next Director of the Petrolina campus. The position had been held for the last 16 years by the outgoing Director Maria Socorro Ribeiro Nunes and her sister, who had been trading the post back and forth to meet the term limit requirements.
This election was different for two reasons. Primarily, it would be the first election after a 2011 decision that changed a critical part of university electoral law. In both the previous and new policies, school administrators control a third (33%) of the vote, faculty control another third, and the student body controls the final third. Under the old law, the final percentages for each candidate were calculated out of the total number of eligible voters. By virtue of the university’s structure, there is always a low voter turnout in the student body because eligible voters include literally all enrolled students, not only those who take classes or frequent the campus. In other words, even if all the students who appeared to vote all voted for one candidate, that candidate’s percentage of the student vote would still be significantly diminished because of the inevitable greater number of students who missed the election.
Secondly, outgoing Director Socorro had chosen a successor other than her sister: Carlos Eduardo Pinho Romeiro, then the Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies. His opponent was Moisés Diniz de Almeida, a History professor at the campus who was extremely popular with the student body.
For almost two months, Moisés’ supporters manned a tent set up outside the main campus building, passing out literature and stickers daily, hosting open-mic performances, and maintaining a constant presence of fliers, posters, and banners around the university. Around every corner was a Moisés campaign logo. Still, his team was anxious: even with the new electoral law, each administrator and faculty vote received more “weight” than each student vote because the student population, so much larger than either of the two former groups, was nevertheless given an equal percentage value. In other words, one administrator’s vote could overpower dozens of student votes for a different candidate. Moreover, about half the administrator positions are appointed by the Director in power, so those individuals would be highly likely to vote for the incumbent as a job retention strategy.
This election characterizes so well the pattern that democratization has taken in Brazil. In some ways, the country is exceptionally transparent and formulaic, favoring public campaigning, painstaking inclusion of all parties, and neat math combined with the most sophisticated voting technology in the world. In others, it contradictorily manages to maintain inequality in the face of such transparency, creating pockets of extremely concentrated power. Ultimately, given these contradictions, the government fails to completely eradicate the major faults in its own system, and the voters—still faced with vast disparities in education and income inequality—struggle to utilize effectively the rights and powers that their government has provided.