Brazil’s Broken Presidential System: An Extremist Like Bolsonaro Would Not Have Won in a Parliamentary Democracy

Jair Bolsonaro – a true extremist 

Asia woke up and Europe went to sleep with the news that South America’s largest nation had just elected Jair Bolsonaro as the new Brazilian President after round two of elections on the 28th of October. Bolsonaro had a commanding plurality of votes in the first round and in the second, he easily beat his left wing opponent Fernando Haddad. The campaign itself was always deeply controversial as the left-populist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led in all the major pre-election polls but could not participate in the election due to being jailed on corruption charges that are widely believed to be wholly politicised.

Because of this, although Bolsonaro had a small national profile compared to Lula prior to election season, Bolsonaro abrasive speaking style gained a great deal of media attention while Lula’s party struggled to field a candidate who could fill Lula’s shoes.

Ultimately, Bolsonaro won and now Brazil is run by a man who praised every far-right military dictatorship in Latin American from Brazil’s own military junta which ruled from 1964 to 1985 to Chile’s notorious military regime led by Augusto Pinochet. Brazil is also now run by a man who opposes the separation between church ans state, a man who thinks that Brazil should withdraw from the UN because it is a “meeting place for communists” and will almost certainly diminish Brazil’s relations with China, Russia, India and South Africa in the context of the BRICS, thus depriving Brazil of its most important trans-continental economic partnerships.

Bolsonaro was not, is not and never will be an ideas man. He never talked about how to create more jobs, how to attract investment or how to create new trade deals with the growing economies of Asia. Bolsonaro’s campaign was simply based on his hatred of various groups within Brazilian society and little more.

Bolsonaro could not have won in a parliamentary system 

In a parliamentary system ideas tend to win out over personality contests. Because of this, the jailing of Lula (unjust though it was) would not have so deeply effected the election outcome. This is the case because rather than to struggle with introducing a new personality to the electorate as a whole, Lula’s party and its possible party political allies could have simply campaigned on Lula’s own platform while pledging to work to free Lula in the event of their party’s victory.

By contrast, Bolsonaro is a man who has been a member of multiple Brazilian political parties during which time he tended to alienate the membership of all such parties. His status as a political dark-horse means that it is unlikely that in a parliamentary system he would have ever been able to win a leadership contest within an existing party. Beyond this, were he to start his own party, it would almost certainly be relegated to holding a small or medium amount of parliamentary seats. Thus, such a party could only ever get near governmental power if a more moderate party invited it into a coalition.

Therefore, in a typical parliamentary system Bolsonaro might at best hold a junior front bench position assuming a moderate/centre-right party invited his grouping into a new multiparty government but beyond this, the arrogant rhetorical brutality that Bolsonaro used to propel him in a presidential system would have served to alienate him from potential partners in a parliamentary system.

By contrast Duterte would have won bigger in a parliamentary system 

Former Daveo Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte campaigned for The Philippine presidency in 2016 on a platform to expand international partnerships across Asia and the wider world rather than retreat into ultra-nationalistic isolation. Duterte also campaigned to being more jobs to the country for the benefit of the poor, a fairer tax system that puts the working and middle class above the oligarchs, he campaigned for constitutional reforms to reduce central power and campaigned for better living conditions, better medical care, modernised infrastructure and a reduction in narco-terrorism throughout the country which itself is directly related to the peace and freedom of the Filipino people.

The specific promises Duterte made are more akin to those normally contained in a parliamentary manifesto than those of a more personality based presidential platform. Furthermore, as Duterte’s administration today commands extremely high numbers in public opinion polls, if those national statistics were transferred to the popularity of a Duterte led parliamentary party, it would mean that in a full parliamentary system, Duterte’s party would likely win a landslide number of seats as was typical of the People’s Action Party in Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew or likewise that which the Mahathir led BN coalition won in the 1982 parliamentary general election in Malaysia.

Like Lee and Mahathir, Duterte is a forward looking centrist whose loyalty is neither to leftist nor far fight causes but to the best practical solutions to modernise the economic and society of The Philippines in order for the next generation to have a better life than previous generations. Duterte is the opposite of an ideological extremist as was Lee Kuan Yew and as Mahathir still is now that he is back as Malaysia’s Prime Minister. In each case, the ideas of Lee, Mahathir and Duterte represent a problem solving approach to the most pressing issues facing each respective country and in each case, these problem solving techniques worked. The only difference is that Duterte would be able to make more comprehensive reforms and pass legislation more efficiently if he had the parliamentary system that Lee had and Mahathir continues to operate within.

South America’s politics is broken by presidential systems 

In many ways, south east Asian politics remains a matter of competing forms of centrism as both the far left and far right tend to be unpopular in the major parliamentary democracies of south east Asia while in the technically communist nation of Vietnam, the leadership has shown tendencies towards economic modernisation rather than rigid ideological adherence to the kinds of command economies abandoned most famously by China in 1978 and by Vietnam beginning in the 1990s.

The social atmosphere across south east Asia makes parliamentary systems a very good fit for the ASEAN nations as this allows for a more complex competition of ideas to dominate the political landscape as opposed to a simplistic and outdated “left vs. right” showdown. Indeed, not since 1960s Indonesia has a left vs. right struggle been so overtly apparent in south east Asia and even then, the shift from Sukarno to Suharto in Indonesia was far more multi-layered (e.g ethnic issues, territorial issues, issues of geopolitical alignment) that the right vs. left totems of Latin American politics.

In Latin America by contrast, the existence of strong presidential systems has allowed campaigns to become little more than personality contests where instead of presenting pragmatic ideas to solve the problems of the day, a left vs. right ideological feud plays out during which the most audacious spokesperson for simplistic notions of leftest or right wing politics tends to win. The result is that many Latin American governments go from a system of far-left  late 1980s Soviet style economic stagnation to right right military regimes that rule at gunpoint and rely on concentration camps to discard their opponents.

This ping pong cycle is bad for both the economy and for genuine democracy. This is why although it is clear that the south east Asian political mentality is far better suited to multi-party parliamentary democracy than any kind of presidential system, because presidential systems have disallowed modern political forces to break the far-left/far-right cycles of Latin America, it is Latin American nations that need parliamentary reforms more desperately than any group of nations in the world.

Rather than have to choose between competing extremes, a parliamentary system in Brazil for example could have led to a victory of a leftest party that would have to coalesce with the centre right or otherwise a right wing party that would have to coalesce with moderate progressive forces. In either case, the dynamics of such a parliamentary system would have likely moderated the impact of a man like Bolsonaro.

Presidential systems leading to military coups 

In a parliamentary system, the numbers of MPs (members of parliament) speak for themselves and correspond with how powerful or weak any ruling government is. By contrast, the deadlock present in many Presidential systems in which branches of the Congress are controlled by a different faction than the one supported by the president have historically lead to the military acting as a tiebreaker.

By contrast, in the Germany parliamentary system, it has just been announced that due to still leading the largest party but one which is consistently losing its number of seats in both national and regional elections across the federal units of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that she will not seek re-election within her own party, thus paving the way for a new leader of Germany’s ruling CDU party and a new Chancellor. Such a smooth transition contrasts sharply with the model of military rule advocated by Brazil’s new president. In Germany, investors and international partners do not fear instability where in Brazil the opposite is now the case.


The winner-take all presidential system allows for extremists of all varieties to polarise the nation, worry international partners and make investors think twice about long term commitments to invest capital into an economy functioning under a president rather than a parliament. Brazil’s election is not only domestically polarising but it puts many of Brazil’s international commitments including the BRICS into question.

The Philippines got lucky in that a man tailor made to be a Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir style prime minister won a presidential election. But unless reforms are made soon, there is no guaranteeing that someone supportive of Duterte’s policies will win in the 2022 presidential election. The simple solution is to convert The Philippines to a presidential system. If the choice is between the moderate reformism of Singapore and Malasyia versus the extremism that has taken power in Brazil, the choice should be absolutely clear. As a bonus, it will also mean that simple minded people will stop comparing The Philippines to corrupt South American political systems and will instead start to compare and contrast The Philippines with its parliamentary ASEAN colleagues.

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