Activist Caucus: Occupying institutional politics in Brazil

Amid a deep political crisis in Brasil, the goal is to develop a collaborative, pedagogical, supra-partisan and effective format of civic campaign to elect activists, that can be replicated and improved on future occasions Español Português

Pedro Telles
16 August 2016
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People shout slogans during a protest against the fare hike on public transportation in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine) It is not hard to see that Brazil, close to consummating a presidential impeachment, is going through a difficult political moment. At the same time, the relationship of Brazilian civil society with democracy and institutional politics also faces a turbulent phase, marked by tensions and conflicts, but also a phase that opens space for valuable experiments in the search for ways out of the crisis.

Three decades after the redemocratization of the country, the coalition government model based on the exchange of favors between parties and politicians who make up the executive and legislative powers has reached its limit. Commitments made by actors of the political class with their peers, and with the companies that legally and illegally fund their activities, got to a level of depth and complexity that makes it virtually impossible to govern for the people. To get to power and stay there, one must rule in favor of the interests of the political class and of those who invest millions in it.

Not by chance, this happens at the same time that policies that improve the living conditions of the poor without directly affecting the interests of the rich reach their limits too. We have seen the success of the important, but limited, economic and social policies that reduced poverty and inequality without tinkering much with the elites – such as the Bolsa Família cash transfer program and the universal public health system. Now it is time for measures such as quotas and reforms in the unfair tax structure that takes more from those with lower income. So tougher disputes – and frustrations – arise in society and in the political life.

Citizens did not take long to realize this, and the reaction comes in two ways. On the one hand, growing disbelief in institutional politics, easily noticeable in everyday conversations and measured, for example, by the increasing number of blank votes, null votes and abstentions in elections. On the other hand, massive protests motivated by discontent with the lack of a real democracy, led by movements and organizations from both the left and the right - a trend that is observed not only in Brazil but worldwide. For a long time the population has seen politicians as the least trustworthy professionals in the country, and today this perception may be stronger than ever.

There is no easy way out for this situation. However, given that institutional politics will remain crucial for life in society, we must find ways to change things.

An important part of the solution involves electing people truly committed to fair and democratic solutions, who have legitimacy to represent the voices of the streets, are not tied to the old habits of institutional politics, and are able to act with a reasonably high level degree of independence and autonomy. In other words, we need to occupy institutional politics with people who have a solid track record defending multiple causes, proven commitment to certain principles and practices, and get elected with campaigns that escape the traditional vices of elections.

With this in mind, a large and diverse group of people created the Activist Caucus, a supra-partisan movement that seeks to help elect activists to the legislature of the city of São Paulo in the 2016 elections. It is not a simple task – after all, in addition to the crisis context described above, São Paulo it is the largest city in Latin America, and its electoral game is among the toughest. At the same time, the transformative potential is crystal clear, and brings motivation amid the bad news.

The Activist Caucus has three objectives. The first, and most obvious, is to attract votes for candidates committed to a set of principles and practices, who have the trust of the movement for their history in civil society and political life, and who show real potential to renew the political landscape of the city. This is done by voluntary work of many people who act independently of the political parties to which candidates are affiliated, constituting a form of electoral campaign that does not go through traditional party structures (currently viewed with skepticism by many Brazilians, despite the importance of parties). The Activist Caucus also mobilizes technical support for the candidatures, and offers social and emotional support in an electoral journey that is not easy to anyone.

The second objective is to build relationships of cooperation and mutual learning with supported candidates, their teams, and several other organizations and movements that seek for solutions to the problems we see in politics. The challenges we face can only be overcome with lots of minds thinking together, and lots of hands working together. Several other initiatives that were created recently with motivations similar to those of the Activist Caucus can be highlighted – among them Muitxs, a movement that aims to elect activists in the city of Belo Horizonte, and Voto Legal, an app that facilitates donations from citizens to the candidates they support (important as donations from businesses have recently been prohibited). It is also worth highlighting that political parties remain as key actors, of course, despite their limitations – and dialogue with people who are in parties is also crucial.

The third objective is to ensure that the whole process is duly registered and brings learnings not only to those involved, but to a wider group of people interested in politics and democracy. The Activists Caucus is, before anything else, an experiment being constantly shaped and reshaped. We explore uncharted territories in Brazilian politics, considering that the figure of a civic committee for electoral campaigning like ours is not even prescribed by law, and this puts us in an interesting (and often risky) position to innovate and learn.

If we achieve significant success regarding these three objectives, they will lead us to the broader goal of developing a collaborative, pedagogical, supra-partisan and effective format of civic campaign for elections that could be replicated and improved on future occasions. In a reality where campaigns are shaped by processes and structures seen as anachronistic and corrupt, this can help not only to elect candidates capable of changing things, but also to (re)gain the interest of many people who keep away from politics, contributing to the strengthening of democracy. The journey will obviously be long, but positive reactions to the activities of the Activist Caucus in social networks and in new and traditional media outlets show that it is possible to dream big.

In Brazil and around the world, there is an increasingly strong call for political systems capable of delivering real and deep democracy. The need for a political system that delivers social and environmental justice, reducing inequality, eliminating poverty, and fostering a model of development that preserves and regenerates nature, is as strong as ever. The Activist Caucus will not solve all of our problems. Nevertheless, alongside several other experiments that have been popping up, it can make a difference. Not to mention it would be amazing to see activists who march by our side occupying institutional politics.

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