Collective Candidacies and Mandates in Brazil: Challenges and Pitfalls of a Gambiarra
Brazil is famous for its long history of democratic innovations. Participatory Budgeting, Policy Councils and National Conferences are some examples that led the country to be seen as an inventive laboratory for democracy (Gaventa, 2004). These experiences were strongly rooted in civil society, and social movements played a key role in their establishment (Avritzer, 2017). Despite the empowerment of these participatory institutions, however, they also had flaws and weaknesses.
Social movements soon realised they had to enhance their capacity to “occupy” parliaments, resulting in a different type of democratic innovation (Almeida and Lüchmann, 2022). Collective candidacies emerged in the Brazilian political landscape, challenging established electoral rules and patterns. In essence, a collective candidacy can be defined as a group formed within a party list to run together for one seat in parliament. In the 2020 local elections, there were 313 collective candidacies in Brazil. More than 20 of these groups were elected to office, developing collective arrangements to exert their mandates (Secchi and Leal 2020). These collective mandates constitute attempts by citizens to shape new institutions through practices derived from previous mobilisation processes.
On the one hand, these experiences are relevant innovations, addressing some of the gaps inherent to the crises of representation. They are reshaping not only campaigns but also conceptions about how representation is exerted. On the other hand, they are fragile structures which lack full institutional status from a legal point of view. Several collective mandates are facing huge challenges. This paper seeks to discuss this democratic innovation in contemporary Brazilian politics. It introduces the notion of gambiarra (which can be translated as a kludge, workaround or stopgap), arguing that it can shed light on these practices, which reinvent electoral politics through improvisation. We argue that collective mandates present themselves as a practical and creative solution to the crisis of legitimacy of representative institutions, fostering experimentation in an area not particularly open to innovation. Challenged both by the constraints of electoral politics and by the fragilities of other participatory innovations in times of democratic erosion, many collective actors innovated in the attempt to amplify their capacity to exert political influence. These experiments generate ruptures in politics as usual, and such ruptures can lead to short-circuits, meaning that they may create other political problems and instabilities in the political system.
The paper is structured in three sections. First, we briefly introduce the context of the Brazilian political system; we define collective candidacies and mandates and explore some elements of this democratic innovation. In the second section, we mobilise the notion of gambiarra to examine the innovative nature of collective mandates. We argue that institutional innovations, such as this one, often emerge as quick-fixes to respond to situations spontaneously, evolving in different directions. Finally, in the third section, we focus on some of the key challenges and problems involving these innovative attempts to exert political representation through collective practices.