Brazil: The numbers of a vigorous democracy

Antonio F Da Costa e Silva

Saturday, October 13, 2012    

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Last Sunday, October 7, Brazil held elections for mayors and city councils in its 5,568 municipalities. On this occasion, 501,923 simple and easily storable and transportable electronic voting machines ensured a speedy processing of results: on the same day, by 8:00 pm, results had already come from 90 per cent of the polling stations and a few hours later Brazilians knew, with trusted and transparent results, who would run their cities for the next four years in cities with fewer than 200,000 voters. There will be a second round of voting in cities with more than 200,000. The latter will take place in 50 cities on October 28 and will allow over 31 million voters to demonstrate their commitment to the democracy shared by all Brazilians.

The turnout remained particularly high with over 83 per cent of registered voters (or 138 million) participating in the elections, a six per cent increase in relation to the previous similar elections. Registering to vote, and voting is mandatory in Brazil for citizens between 18 and 70 years, while citizens between 16 and 18, or older than 70, can do it on a voluntary basis.

These elections were a testimony to the diversity of the political opportunities in Brazil, as representatives from 26 parties were elected mayors or city councillors. They also confirmed the continuous progress in women political empowerment in Brazil, under the government of President Dilma Rousseff, our first woman head of state: women won 7,647 of the 57,434 seats in city councils, and 673 of them were elected mayors or will contest the coming run-off elections.

Elections - particularly local elections - are not a recent experience in Brazil. They were instituted after their arrival by the Portuguese colonisers in the early 16th century, to decide on who would rule over their new villages and towns in the Americas. The free exercise of voting became a permanent feature of Brazilian Government with independence in 1822. Even during periods of restricted democratic liberties - between 1930 and 1945 and again between 1964 and 1980 - periodic elections were held at the federal, state and municipal levels.

Currently, Brazilians vote directly for all elective offices: for president, state governors, federal senators and municipal mayors, on a majority system; for federal, state and municipal representatives, on a proportional basis. Elections are held every four years (the next ones will take place in 2014 at the federal and state levels and in 2016 at the municipal level). Elections are organised and supervised by the Superior Electoral Tribunal, to which Regional Electoral Tribunals - one for each of the 26 federal states, as well as one for the federal district - are subordinated.

Initiated in the early 1990s, the use of electronic ballot boxes was implemented in the entire country in 2000, at the most remote localities, as well as abroad (where citizens voluntarily registered can vote for the resident). Security, durability and handling easiness are some of the characteristics of the Brazilian electronic ballot box, which makes possible the nearly immediate counting of votes.

Balloting security being one of the pillars of a truly democratic system, the Brazilian electoral justice has remained committed to the continued improvement of electoral processes and technologies. For instance, biometric ballot boxes were introduced for over seven million registered voters during the municipal elections. This feature should be extended to the entire country by 2018, an ambitious objective, bearing in mind the always increasing number of registered voters.

The challenge for a developing country of carrying out the most computerised elections in the world in a territory of continental dimensions has attracted the attention of the international community. The Brazilian Superior Electoral Tribunal has a long and solid tradition in offering international cooperation on electronic balloting and electoral systems. Dozens of nations in different continents are already familiar with the Brazilian electronic voting system. Some of them have even used the ballot boxes developed by Brazil in their own elections.

These municipal elections were held under a new important legislation, promoted by civil society organisations and adopted by the Brazilian Federal Congress in 2010: the "Clean Record" Law, which disqualifies from political office for eight years those convicted of a serious crime (fraud, vote-buying, money laundering, administrative misconduct, among others), as well as those whose resignation was motivated by a desire to avoid impeachment, as determined by the electoral tribunals. Last Sunday, 317 were barred from being candidates for mayor, while an even greater number suffered the same fate in their ambitions for a seat in the city councils.

Numbers do not always tell the whole story, but they showcase the strength of Brazil's democracy, as seen in the strong citizen's participation in free multiparty elections. This is an indispensable foundation of contemporary Brazil, as our development efforts can only be sustained by deepening the political democratisation: making our institutions stronger and more transparent, increasing our social capital, ensuring that our democratic system effectively contributes to changing our people's lives for the better by fully empowering them.

Antonio F Da Costa e Silva is Ambassador of Brazil to Jamaica.



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