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In Brazil, Women Candidates Find Strength in Numbers
On Nov. 15, Brazilians will head to the polls for the first round of municipal elections. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, voters who choose the candidate identified by the number 18,777 will see Erian Ozório’s face on the ballot. If she wins, however, the person who sits on the city council could be any one of seven women.
That’s because Ozório, a 53-year-old economist and environmentalist, is running on a women-only group nomination called Collective Community. While she officially represents the candidacy, if elected, she will share the four-year mandate—and the decision-making responsibilities—with her running mates or, as they refer to themselves, co-candidates.
Ozório has long been an active member of a local group dedicated to fostering women’s participation in politics. Many women in Brazil decided to run for office after the assassination of Rio’s Black feminist councilwoman Marielle Franco in March 2018. For Ozório, too, the human rights activist’s death served both as a catalyst and a cautionary tale. “Marielle was a powerful woman, and she has left many seeds behind, but she went to the front alone,” Ozório says. “Now, they can kill one of us, but what will they do about seven? So, I thought, let’s go together.”
When Ozório first approached potential co-candidates earlier this year, most hadn’t heard of collective candidacies, which are not officially recognized under Brazilian law. Some thought it was a joke, while others figured it was an invitation to play a supporting role in her campaign. But by June, through word-of-mouth and despite the fact that many of the candidates had never met before, Ozório had gathered seven women, most of whom are Black, around a progressive platform focused on issues such as anti-racism education, maternal health, women in the workplace, and digital inclusion. In Rio, where women make up less than 15% of the city council, the women hope to boost representation by “hacking” traditional politics.
“When seven women occupy a space that is so oppressive to female bodies, we’re overwriting the system,” artist and co-candidate Renata Di Carmo says.
The Collective Community campaign is not alone in Brazil’s 2020 elections. At least five similar initiatives have been registered in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, in addition to more than 35 in São Paulo alone and 123 nationwide, according to an ongoing data collection effort by Leonardo Secchi, a public administration professor at Santa Catarina State University who researches collective candidacies and mandates. This year, 41% of these joint candidacies, or 51, are led by women, more than double the number for the entire period from 1994 to 2018.
For women and other underrepresented groups at the forefront of these efforts—which are not limited to one side of the political spectrum—the goal is to clear the way for non-career candidates to burst the bubble of allegiance to a single politician, instead highlighting policies and causes and drawing in disillusioned voters.
“The main backdrop for this movement is the idealism of doing politics differently and the rescue of representation and democracy,” Secchi says. “But there is also a hint of pragmatism as some people might look at it as just a strategy to gain more votes.”
“It can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff,” he adds.
In Brazil, collective or shared candidacies and mandates have been around in some form since the mid-1990s. They can range from a handful of members who know each other and share the physical space of an office, to hundreds of participants debating and voting on legislative proposals online, as suggested by internet-based efforts in Sweden and Argentina to hold representatives more accountable to the population. But it wasn’t until the last decade that such experiments started to gain traction in the Brazil, reaching a peak between 2016 and 2018, when 98 groups ran and 22 were elected for legislative seats on the local, state, and federal levels, according to a 2019 study led by Secchi and the nonpartisan organization Political Action Network for Sustainability. Overall, group candidacies have obtained more than 1.2 million votes across 17 states in past elections.
One of the most successful examples to date is that of Bancada Ativista, or “activist coalition,” a nine-person collective that won a state representative seat in 2018 with almost 150,000 votes. As the spokesperson for the group, journalist Monica Seixas brought along with her activists representing different political parties and grassroots movements, both men and women, as well as Indigenous and transgender people. “We don’t want to just be ‘many representatives’, but that the seat represents many,” Seixas says. “It’s not about the form, it’s about the why.”
Because the current law only allows a single person to officially take office, the eight co-deputies had to be hired as advisers. Although the salaries vary widely on paper, the group decided to match compensations by sharing a bank account and investing Seixas’ extra earnings towards paying for office supplies and covering travel expenses.
A 2017 bill to regulate collective candidacies has been stalled in the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. In the absence of fixed norms, each initiative has defined its own rules. In the case of Seixas and Bancada Ativista, all the members of the collective have the autonomy to write and propose bills or budget amendments, but because Seixas is the one who gives speeches and votes in sessions of the city council, she often has to learn how to publicly address issues outside of her expertise or experience, such as women’s health or veganism. When the members of the group can’t reach a consensus, they consult outside experts and organizations and hold public forums.
“We are our own experiment and still discovering what the right formula is,” she says. “What we have is a pact between us and the voters, and that’s enough.”
While plurality is one of the strengths of this model, it can also be a drawback. Differences and disagreements have led the “We’re Five, We’re Many” feminist campaign in the capital of Goiás state to fall apart even before the elections. Also in Goiás, the pioneering shared mandate of Alto Paraíso decided not to pursue reelection, choosing instead to support one member’s shot at the mayoral race and other up-and-coming joint candidacies. “It’s normal to have friction, some people stepped away more or got less involved and we started having separate meetings,” councilwoman with the collective Laryssa Galantini says. “We had to change our way of dealing with internal decisions without weakening the mandate.”
Because those agreements are political and not legal in nature, political scientist Fabio Kerche says, “nothing prevents a candidate from changing their mind and deciding not to listen to anyone once elected.” If the spokesperson abandons the collective or chooses to run for a different office, he explains, they would be replaced on the ticket by an alternate candidate, and not by a member of the collective. “It’s all very precarious.”
Operating in this gray area also leaves room for outside interference. In recent months, public prosecutors in some states have attempted to block collective campaigns, arguing they could mislead voters, while in at least one case, a regional electoral court has ruled that the name of the candidate on the ballot shouldn’t make any reference to the collective. In October, five co-deputies in the northeastern state of Pernambuco of the feminist mandate Juntas (“together”) issued a manifesto condemning the decisions as retaliation against a method that has been validated by popular demand.
“It’s not because of the name or our bodies coming together in those spaces,” says co-deputy Kátia Cunha, “but because our example shows another form of politics can exist, and that scares those who have been there for decades.”
Juntas won a state representative seat in 2018 with almost 40,000 votes, becoming the first feminist, anti-racist, anti-LGBTQ-phobic collective to take office in Pernambuco. At first, they said, other legislators made a bet that the mandate wouldn’t last six months, and on at least one occasion, Robeyoncé Lima, the first trans woman elected state representative in Pernambuco as part of the group, was asked to leave a committee meeting after another lawmaker argued that as co-representative she hadn’t been officially elected. Juntas has successfully proposed bills to guarantee the rights of LGBTQ couples to enroll as family units in public housing programs, and the group has filed a draft resolution to implement an anti-racism training program inside the legislature.
These mandates, sociologist Andréa Franco Lima says, disturb the White, masculine, patriarchal order that excludes women from the political arena. For the women of Juntas, sharing a mandate and an office is a form of historical reparation. Despite recent changes in legislation aimed at addressing the gender gap and a record number of female candidates running this year, Brazil still ranks near the bottom among Latin American countries when it comes to women’s political rights and participation.
Whether this trend will prove to be sustainable and effective in increasing representation and promoting a political reeducation, without backsliding to traditional ways, remains to be seen. But if it’s up to some of the candidacies popping up around the country, the elections won’t be the end. “Whether we win or we lose, we’ll continue to do the work and be back on the streets on Nov. 25, the international day for the elimination of violence against women,” says Natália Trindade, one of four young female candidates behind the Campanha Delas collective.
As for Erian Ozório, she hopes the dream she and six other women started nourishing turns into a truly collective one. “We want for Collective Community to exist as a political startup, a platform for other women to feel comfortable running for office,” she says. “That’s our hope for the future.”
Isabela Dias is an independent journalist based between Brazil and the U.S. She writes about immigration, human rights, and Latin America and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, Texas Monthly, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.