Democracy as Alternation in Britain, France, the US and Brazil

Alternation—the relatively regular transition of executive and legislative power from one partisan grouping to another—is an essential feature of any healthy mature democracy. It not only forestalls the necessary stagnation of prolonged one-party rule, but also allows opposition parties to re-invent themselves and adapt better to the needs of a changing electorate as times change, ensuring that, although the ups and downs of the political process may be bumpy—perhaps very bumpy—the policies of the governing class broadly coincide with and represent the fluid and dynamic evolution of the popular will.
A brief look at the countries—the UK, the USA, France and Brazil—with whose political systems I am best acquainted, shows how well alternation or the lack of it has served these societies in recent decades.
In the UK, there is no real distinction between the executive and legislative branches of government, since the largest party in the lower house of Parliament automatically assumes an executive role and the head of state acts as a mere figurehead.
Since the end of the Second World War stints in government have alternated fairly regularly between Labour and the Conservatives, with four for each party. The overall average length of a party’s stay in power is about 8.75 years; 7.5 years for Labor, 10 for the Tories, suggesting that, at least until now, conservative elements of British society have tended to prevail, but only slightly.
In the US, we find a different picture. Here there is a stern division between executive and legislative powers. This means that alternation occurs not only over time, but also between different branches of government at any one point in time. Arguably this provides essential checks and balances in a highly multicultural federal multi-state nation, but it can also give rise to stagnation and political gridlock.
Since the end of World War Two, stints in executive power have averaged out at 7.2 years for the Democrats compared with nine years for the Republicans. The overall average length of a single party’s endurance in executive office over this time period is eight years, reflecting the success of a fixed-term system specifically designed to encourage both alternation and a degree of continuity.
Congress is much more complex. In House and Senate, since the end of the Second World War, periods of Democratic control have averaged out at 12.5 and 8.2 years respectively, compared to 5 and 4.2 years for Republicans. The mean period of dominance for either party is 8.75 years in the House and 6.4 years in the Senate.
Control of both houses of Congress simultaneously has averaged out at 8.8 years for Democrats and 2.25 years for Republicans, with an average of 4.25 years for a divided Congress. The figure is higher for the Democrats primarily because of a 26-year period of Democratic control of both houses between 1955 and 1980.
Interestingly, single party dominance of both executive and legislative branches of government is relatively rare in recent US political history. Of the 70 years since 1945, there has been a division of executive and legislative power in 41, approximately 60%. The Democrats have held both the presidency and both houses of congress for a total of 22 years; the GOP for only seven. The mean duration of a period of absolute control by either party is around 3.5 years, while that of a period of ‘cohabitation’ is nearly 6.
It would seem, therefore, that, in the most economically and militarily powerful nation the world has ever seen, no overall control has tended to prevail politically, despite often bitter micro-ideological differences. Three-dimensional two-party alternation—over time and between different geographical regions and levels of government—seems, at least till now, to have served the United States well.
Different from the UK and the US, which have seen no abrupt changes in their constitutions in over 200 years, the French political system has been beset by various upheavals and volte-faces since the revolution of 1789. Nevertheless, in the 55 years since Charles de Gaulle introduced the Fifth Republic in 1959, the polity has been fairly stable, despite signs, at the outset, that the general’s catch-all center-right alliance would become the only perennially viable party of government, candidates from it or breakaway right-wing groupings occupying the presidency continuously from 1959 to May 1981.
Overall, since 1959, the Elysée palace has been controlled by the right wing of the political spectrum for average periods of 19.5 years, compared with 9.5 for the left. The office of Prime Minister in France has been held by the right for 38 of the last 55 years, compared to 17 for the socialists. On average, periods of right wing dominance of both the presidency and the premiership have lasted 11.5 years, as opposed to four for the left and three for periods of cohabitation.
This would seem to suggest that the right is still the ‘natural party of government’ in France and that the political system is not entirely characterized by alternation. However, if we take 1981 as the starting point of a genuine two-party system in France, the pattern is much more balanced and very similar to that of Britain and the United States.
The period we can validly study in Brazil is much shorter, because presidents have only been elected by direct popular vote since 1989. Since then, presidents elected on a broadly right-leaning platform were in power for the first 12 years and the two presidents in the last 12 years have been backed by the left-leaning PT and its wide range of coalition partners.
This would seem to suggest, prima facie, that 1) right and left are in a perfect balance of alternation in Brazilian politics and 2) the 2014 election should naturally be an occasion for a switch back to right-wing government. The Brazilian Presidency alone, however, presents a deceptive picture.
Since the beginning of the PT presidency in January 2003, the Brazilian federal government has enjoyed a slight majority in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, although only by way of alliances with other parties, some of which cannot reasonably be described as left-wing or even left-leaning and because politicians tend to and easily can switch allegiance to the ruling party for opportunistic reasons. The PT is at present the largest party in the Chamber, but with a total of 88 out of 513 deputies, this is can hardly be argued to be a resounding factor in enabling the government (still less the party) to control Congress or the country as a whole. In the Senate, the PT has only 13 out of 81 senators, although again through strategic—often unholy—alliances, it has managed to cobble together a majority coalition since 2003.
This pattern is obviously very different from that of British, US or French politics, where an entrenched alternating two-party system clearly prevails. The combined strength of the two principal parties in these three countries vastly outweighs that of any other party and, if necessary, can be harnessed—despite their differences—to counter a threat to the status quo from a potential third force. This occurred in France in 2002, when the racist National Front got through to the second round of the presidential election, and is occurring now in Britain in opposition to Scottish independence.
In Brazil, however, the two main parties of the center left and center right (the PT and the PSDB respectively)—the parties that put up the two main presidential candidates—combined only represent 141/513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 25/81 in the Senate. The majority, in Brazilian politics, therefore, is the middle: a group of parties that are better described as opportunistic than strictly-speaking centrist, principal among them the PMDB.
Furthermore, no party in Brazil, with the exception perhaps of the PT, enjoys the kind of solid, albeit flagging, loyalty among voters that Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Tories, Gaullists and Socialists can still garner, in the US, Britain and France, from either side of a relatively well-balanced political spectrum.
It is therefore quite wrong to argue, in the Brazilian context, that a system of alternation has been fully established and that it is time for a change of government. It would be more accurate to say that the PT administrations of the past 12 years have done a fairly good job of playing a miserable electoral hand, but need to do more to establish themselves as a party as one pole of a truly alternating democratic system.
This is more likely to be achievable if the PT remains in power than if it is pushed back into opposition. On the other side of the equation, the PSDB shows no signs whatsoever of being able to establish itself as a permanent national democratic institution with a firm popular base, as the right-leaning parties in the other three countries covered here clearly are.
Still less reasonable is the argument—much vaunted recently in the emotive wake of the tragic death of third-party candidate Eduardo Campos and subsequent rise to prominence of his maverick running-mate Marina da Silva—that a third force is needed to break a sclerotic two-party status quo.
The exact opposite is true. The ‘third force’—the opportunistic, fickle, dithering, corrupt center—has always been the main driving force behind political power in Brazil. It has always been a force that has tended towards inertia rather than momentum and, as such, essentially conservative and backward-looking. No center-party, or third party candidate, however sympathetic, enthusiastic or charismatic, can escape this cold historical logic, and may even, if elected, unwittingly exacerbate it. Campos, astute politician that he was, knew this; I am not sure Silva does.
The PT certainly has a host of failings, as any political party does; but these now are more internal than external. This is the opposite of what was happening with the party when I first became interested in it over twenty years ago. At that time, it was internally solid and building firm roots in the community, but was failing to reach out to a still largely conservative society at large, even though the prevailing political system in Brasília and local governments was clearly bankrupt.
The PT eventually reached out, reformed, and got elected, but, as a result, increasingly lost touch with its roots and core values and stopped trying to build itself internally. This was probably inevitable; and, were the Brazilian polity one in which healthy alternation prevailed, would justify the PT being cast onto the back benches for a short period of introspection by the forthcoming election. But not into the wilderness of fragmentation that defeat in the upcoming election would probably entail.
Were there a viable alternative and had the PT not, through a combination of good luck, sound judgment and guile, brought about a mini economic miracle in Brazil, I would understand, although not necessarily support, the urge to vote for an alternative party of government in October 2014.
However, since there is no viable alternative, since the PT have generally done a good job under the most trying of circumstances, and since Brazilians have little to gain and much to lose from the PT spending a stint on the opposition benches, I do not see any good reason for citizens of this increasingly great country not to continue to cast their votes for PT candidates at local, regional and federal level. If they cannot stomach that—and I fully understand why—I hope that they will vote for the PSDB and try to build a genuine party of opposition—free of wishful thinking and the dead center—that at least some people can lastingly believe in.
The PT will probably win the presidency in Brazil for the next four years. But this will be no more than a Pyrrhic victory, if it does not consolidate itself as a dominant party in Congress and in local politics in all parts of the country. And, perhaps more crucially, if the opposition does not more firmly place itself on the other side of the see-saw, rather than crowd droolingly around the fulcrum of a largely imaginary opportunistic center ground.