The surprising first-round approval of Brazil’s pension reform by a margin of 71 votes above the 308 needed to take the constitutional amendment to the second and final vote at the Lower House has left many analysts scratching their heads. How is it that a controversial and usually unpopular reform everywhere in the world wound up with significant support both in the Brazilian Congress and among the population at large, including by stirring street demonstrations in its favor? There are a few competing theories out there, but I posit that the Brazilian outcome was mainly the result of political dysfunction and extreme polarization within society.
Under normal circumstances, pension reforms are very difficult to pass. They entail a combination of redistribution, reduction of benefits, and changes to the retirement age as well as other parameters that are very difficult for people to stomach. For every “winner” there is a clear “loser,” heating up the political debate around the reform, often to a point where it becomes untenable for the government. Former President Michel Temer, a wily political operative with decades of experience in Congress, was ultimately unable to get approval for his proposed pension reform because it lacked popular support. That was a little over a year ago. Why then does pension reform enjoy popular support now?
I reckon that there are only two circumstances under which deeply controversial reforms can receive the popular and political backing needed for approval: In a nearly ideal scenario where a country has a highly functional political system and the government enjoys an ample majority in Congress; and when a country has a deeply dysfunctional political system and society is extremely polarized. Brazil falls under the second category, particularly after the 2018 elections.
Although the country has been experiencing a rise in political polarization for several years, last year’s elections and the victory of ultra-right wing president Jair Bolsonaro substantially deepened the divide. Bolsonaro and his supporters are known for labeling their opponents as “leftists” whether they have political views that would be associated with the left or not. Moreover, “leftism” has become synonymous with corruption and economic mismanagement for many Brazilians who blame the Workers’ Party (PT) for the crisis that has been afflicting Brazil over the past four years. The country is therefore currently split into two camps: the “left” and the “anti-left.” The anti-left camp is made up of both Bolsonaro supporters, as well as a significant number of people who may have voted for him in repudiation of the PT and what it has come to represent. Currently, the anti-left camp is predominant in Brazil, as recent polls and opinion surveys have shown.
In this highly-charged environment, any policy that is supported by the left will be rejected by the anti-left. It follows that any policy that is opposed by the left will likely be supported by the anti-left, even if it is at odds with the personal circumstances of its potential supporters. In this sense, deep polarization redefines the principle of the primacy of politics, making the defeat of the left more important than individual goals and objectives. Therefore, for an anti-leftist it matters less if he or she is adversely affected by pension reform if their actions lead to the left’s defeat.
The Brazilian pension reform has become a defining issue for the left and the anti-left. For leftists, or those identified by the anti-left as members of that camp, Bolsonaro and any policy proposed by members of his government are the target of attacks and rejection. Facts and hard evidence have become just as irrelevant for this group of society as they are for Bolsonaro supporters and others. The left has staged a visceral campaign against pension reform in Brazil, often citing half-truths or unverified information to back up their arguments, mirroring the approach of Bolsonaro and his die-hard base of supporters on other highly-charged themes such as gender and climate issues. The left’s fight against pension reform has thus served to rally anti-leftists in support of pension reform, leading to street demonstrations and unrelenting pro-reform posts on social media. Add to the mix the fact that the current Congress leans conservative and has all the ingredients to deliver a seemingly shocking vote in favor of the reform, which even claimed support from moderate deputies who did not associate themselves with the positions of their left or center-left parties.
Thus head scratch no more. Brazil’s pension reform vote is only surprising if one analyzes it from the viewpoint of relatively normal political conditions. Brazil today, not unlike much of the world, is anything but normal.