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The Roots of Brazil's Weak Party System

Fernando Bizzarro, PhD Candidate in Government, Harvard University


Frances Hagopian, Jorge Paulo Lemann Senior Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Brazil's political parties have been historically weaker than in many other major democracies. Personalism runs deep in the country's politics and party-based political competition has been limited. Scholars highlight the unusual combination of a permissive electoral system with presidentialism and federalism as the cause of such weaknesses. Contrary to these institutional explanations, I offer a structural theory that explains how Brazil's deep-seated inequalities incentivize politicians to refrain from nurturing political parties and to choose personalist strategies instead. Capable of informing and mobilizing voters without the help of organized political parties, thanks to their personal access to private resources that are unequally distributed, politicians adopt personalist strategies as their mode of operation, weakening parties and party systems in the country. To isolate the effects of these structural factors, I explore subnational variation in the degree of personalism of local political systems using a novel dataset that covers election results across the country back to 1945. By relying on census data on land and economic inequality, I show that, ceteris paribus, contexts of lower inequality tend to have more party-based local politics. These effects are independent from party ideology or access to state and communication resources.

Apr 21, 2021 12:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada)

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