Published online by Cambridge University Press: 10 May 2018
If democracy is unthinkablewithout strong political parties (Schattschneider 1975), we all have good reason to worry. For decades, parties around the world have appeared to be in decline, with links of representation and accountability between voters and elected officials growing increasingly tenuous.After Brazil redemocratized in the 1980s, scholars quickly classified it as an important case study of partisan and party-system weakness: its political institutions, it was said, promoted individualism and undermined parties as agents of collective representation (Ames 2001), resulting in an “inchoate” party system (Mainwaring 1999). Most observers concluded that the weakness of Brazil's parties boded ill for the health of its nascent democracy (e.g., Lamounier 1989; Mainwaring 1992; Mainwaring & Scully 1995b; Weyland 1996; Kinzo 2004; D'Araújo 2009). Some scholars did see a glass half-full rather than half-empty, noting that Brazil's legislative parties were actually fairly cohesive, and that despite the party system's extreme fragmentation and relative ideological incoherence, democracy appeared to function about as well as in any other country in the region (Figueiredo … Limongi 1999; Melo … Pereira 2013; Montero 2014).
However, Brazil's recent political and economic crises – culminating in the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff – has brought renewed attention to party and party-system dysfunction. After the 2014 elections twenty-seven parties held at least one seat each in the lower house of Brazil's legislature (the Chamber of Deputies), and the largest party held only 11% of the seats (Câmara dos Deputados 2016). This is an extraordinary level of fragmentation, especially given Brazil's lack of ethnic, linguistic, or religious cleavages, as for example in India.
The political crisis that erupted following that year's election was so profound that by the mid-2010s Brazilian voters expressed the lowest level of confidence in political parties of any country in the region (Latinobarómetro 2016b). Furthermore, by 2016 72% of Brazilians stated they felt close to none of Brazil's parties, the lowest level since survey firms started asking a partisanship question in 1989 (Datafolha 2016). Disillusionment with parties also damaged popular faith in democracy: by 2016 only 32% of Brazilians agreed that “Democracy is preferable to all other forms of government,” a decline of twenty-two points from the previous year and ahead of only Guatemala across Latin America (Latinobarómetro 2016a).
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