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The political game starts in Parlasur

Venezuela''s President Nicolás Maduro presents a framed image of Hugo Chávez to Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff during a press conference at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, in this file photo from May 2013.
By Julio Burdman
Observatorio Electoral

The emergence of regional parties would change South American politics

The Parliament of MERCOSUR, also known as PARLASUR, has been strongly criticized in its electoral debut. Influential journalist Jorge Lanata demolished the novel institution, calling it ‘Parlaverso‘ (Parla-drivel, in a loose English translation). In his TV show, Lanata noticed that the regional parliament does not legislate; it just produces projects, statements and recommendations. But it pays wages to its elected legislators anyway. Some political analysts joined the wave of criticisms. They say half-truths: yes, Parlasur is still at an early stage, and its level of institutionalization is low. But it’s also true that it is a young institution and that it might become even more important in the future than what we are foreseeing today. What if, thanks to Parlasur, South America begins to have regional political parties? That would be a real change in the way of doing politics here.

Sceptics say two things: that the work of Parlasur is irrelevant and that its composition is still illegitimate, because most of its six member countries have not yet started to elect their legislators by direct popular vote. But beware: the latter is beginning to change, gradually, and when all MERCOSUR inhabitants vote their representatives, the institutional products of Parlasur will be more relevant.

To date, of the six countries that belong to the ‘deliberative organ of MERCOSUR,‘ only Argentina and Paraguay have begun to elect their representatives by popular vote. In Argentina, that election will be held on October 25, but the recent PASO gave us an idea of what could happen in the general election. If the results are the same, of the 43 seats at stake, 27 (62.8 percent) will end up in the hands of the Victory Front, nine (20.9 percent) will go to Let’s Change, six (13.9 percent) to UNA, and one (2.3 percent) to the party of the Rodríguez Saá brothers. This is thanks to the mixed electoral system adopted by our country: according to the law, 44 percent of the seats (19) are selected through a single national district, and the remaining 56 percent (24) through uninominal districts, giving one per province. For the Victory Front, this means eight of the 19 national seats and 19 of the 24 provincial seats, while Let’s Change gets seven national seats and only two provincial ones.

Meanwhile, Paraguay has 18 mercodiputados elected since 2013 and whose term ends in 2018; 10 of them (55.5 percent) belong to the Colorado Party, six (33.3 percent) to the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, one (5.5 percent) to UNACE and one (5.5 percent) to the Tekojaja Movement. Paraguayans apply a proportional electoral system (D’Hont) to elect their representatives to Parlasur, but nonetheless Colorados grabbed most of them. Until 2020, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia have time to catch up and regulate their Parlasur direct elections, and when that happens their current caretaker (and smaller) delegations, composed of national parliamentarians, will be replaced by definitive delegations, according to the blocs established by the Council of the Common Market: 75 Brazilians, 33 Venezuelans, 18 Uruguayans, and 18 Bolivians.

Given the emerging political trends in Argentina and Paraguay, it seems that, from 2020 on, governmental blocs will be, at first, the majority groups within each national delegation, and this could lead to something that already happened in the first years of the European Parliament, to which some mistaken analysts try to compare the Parlasur: governmental majority groups start to talk to each other, expressing the inertia of executive diplomacy, and the Assembly is divided between governments and oppositions. But after that first stage, ideological and partisan politics will soon appear.

Let’s imagine, on the basis of politics today, a Parlasur of the next few years. Fully composed of legislators elected by popular vote, it increasingly gets new functions, including the power of binding legislation. And the various party blocs by country begin to interact with each other, creating international blocs. Will Argentine Peronism, the Brazilian PT, Venezuela’s Chavism, Bolivian Moralism and Uruguay’s Big Front form a unified block? Will the representatives of Argentina’s Let’s Change, Brazilian ‘toucans‘, Uruguayan Whites and Reds, and Bolivian and Venezuelan oppositions form another block? Which side will then Paraguayans be on? What about smaller blocks of ‘provincial,‘ ‘localist‘ or leftist parliamentarians?

This scenario of newly reorganized politics, taking regional alignments as reference, can occur, and is much more interesting than the whole discussion about the regulatory powers or the alleged costly bureaucracies of Parlasur. In South America, as in Europe before the consolidation of its regional parliament, there are dialogues and rapports between the parties, according to perceptions of affinity and closeness. Many of them belong to international party organizations created in Europe (Social Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, etc), or to their South American counterparts. What’s more, with the progressive-populist wave of the recent years, these relationships got more intense. Something new and very specific of this period was the direct support lent by presidents such as Lula or Chávez to some presidential candidates of other countries. But, without doubt, whatever the relationship is today, it will become more intense when the different ‘equivalent‘ parties begin to belong to the same parliamentary bloc. New commitments arise, ideologies and political identities get together, and all of this will have an impact on domestic politics. This is how Parlasur, with its low operating costs, could transform South American politics.

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