Government and Politics

Brazil Table of Contents

BRAZIL'S POLITICAL EVOLUTION from monarchy to de-mocracy has not been smooth. Following independence in 1822, Brazil, unlike its South American neighbors, adopted constitutional monarchy as its form of government. The new nation retained a slave-based, plantation economy, and political participation remained very limited. After the coronation of Dom Pedro II (emperor, 1840-89) in 1840, a two-party system based on the British model--with conservative and liberal parties and frequent cabinet turnovers--evolved. Within this centralized unitary system, the emperor appointed the governors, using his prerogatives under the moderating power (poder moderador--see Glossary) granted by the 1824 constitution, and legislative elections were indirect. Brazil enjoyed considerable political stability until the 1880s, when the system proved incapable of accommodating military demands and pressure to emancipate slaves.

Brazil patterned the constitution of what is now called the Old Republic (1889-1930) on the United States constitution. However, colonelism (coronelismo --see Glossary), a political system based on economic power by large landowners in rural areas, persisted. Under the new constitution of February 24, 1891, the president, National Congress (Congresso Nacional; hereafter, Congress), state governors and legislatures, and local officials were chosen through direct elections.

Following World War I, when Brazil began to undergo rural-urban and agricultural-industrial transformations, its political system again was unable to cope with the demands of the urban middle classes and especially the working classes. The 1929 stock market crash further exacerbated the volatile situation, and elites from the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais staged a preemptive revolution and deposed the old regime. As a result of the revolts of 1930, Getúlio Dorneles Vargas became president (1930-1945, 1951- 54).

Violent clashes over conflicting ideologies of the left and the right erupted in the streets of Brazil's major cities in the 1930s. Vargas tried to strike a balance between the demands of labor and capital following Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's Carta di Lavoro (see Glossary) model established in the 1920s. The 1934 constitution incorporated this model and thus began the politics of corporatism (see Glossary) in Brazil. In close cooperation with the military, Vargas pushed for import-substitution industrialization (see Glossary) and a reduction of military forces under the command of state governments, in favor of the Brazilian Armed Forces (Forças Armadas Brasileiras). President Vargas closed Congress in 1937 and ruled as a dictator until 1945.

The 1945-64 period is known for its multiparty democratic politics, and four presidents were elected freely in 1945, 1950, 1955, and 1960. In the early 1960s, an explosive combination of slower economic growth, rising inflation, populism, and nationalism produced political instability and popular discontent. The major political parties lost their hegemony, and labor unions accumulated great political influence over the government of João Goulart (president, 1961-64).

The military seized power in April 1964 and began twenty-one years of rule. Under its model of "relative democracy," Congress remained open, but with greatly reduced powers. Regular elections were held for Congress, state assemblies, and local offices. However, presidential, gubernatorial, and some mayoral elections became indirect. Political parties were allowed to operate, but with two forced realignments. These were the replacement of the old multiparty system with a two-party system in 1965 and a system of moderate pluralism, with six (and later five) parties in 1980. The military regime employed massive repression from 1969 through 1974.

After the "economic miracle" period (1967-74), Brazil entered a "stagflation" phase concurrent with political liberalization. During the military period, Brazilian society had become 70 percent urban; the economy had become industrialized, and more manufactured goods than primary goods were exported; and about 55 percent of the population had registered to vote. Foreign policy oscillated between alignment with the United States and pragmatic independence. A transition to a civilian president took place in 1985. From 1985 to 1997, Brazil experienced four distinct political models: a return to the pre-1964 tradition of political bargaining, clientelism (see Glossary), and economic nationalism under José Sarney (president, 1985-90); neosocial liberalism with economic modernization under Fernando Collor de Mello (president, 1990-92); an erratic personal style of social nationalism under Itamar Franco (president, 1992-94); and a consensus-style social-democratic and neoliberal coalition under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (president, 1995- ).

Under heavy accusations of corruption, President Collor was impeached in 1992. His vice president, Franco, used a pragmatic policy of "muddling through," but in mid-1994 achieved great popularity with the Real Plan (for value of the real (R$)--see Glossary), a stabilization program authored by then Minister of Finance Cardoso. In the 1994 election, Cardoso and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira--PSDB) expounded a social-democratic model of modernization, while Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores--PT) supported a reworked model of corporatist or syndicalist socialism. The Real Plan was instrumental in the election of Cardoso as president.

Cardoso was inaugurated as president on January 1, 1995. The transition to the new government was nearly perfect. Cardoso had won an outright victory in the first-round election. He had potentially strong support blocs in the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados) and Federal Senate (Senado Federal; hereafter, Senate). He had strong support from a majority of the newly elected governors, including those from the important states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, which elected governors from the president's own PSDB. Moreover, the December 1994 inflation rate was less than 1 percent; unemployment was low; and popular expectations were extremely high.

Perhaps the most important task of the Cardoso government in 1995 was to promote the reform of key sections of the 1988 constitution in order to reduce the role of the state in the economy, reform the federal bureaucracy, reorganize the social security system, rework federalist relationships, overhaul the complicated tax system, and effect electoral and party reforms to strengthen the representation of political parties. The new Cardoso government initiated constitutional reform (which requires a three-fifths majority of each house), but soon met with stiff congressional resistance. Because of the 1996 municipal elections and other political impediments, the other reforms--administrative, social security, and fiscal--were stalled in Congress, awaiting passage in 1997.

Political Culture
Constitutional Framework
Structure of Government
The Executive
The Legislature
The Judiciary
State and Local Governments
The Political Party System
Major Parties in Congress
Minor Parties in Congress
Regional Strength of the Parties
Party Legislation
Sarney's Presidency, 1985-90
Collor de Mello's Presidency, 1990-92
Franco's Presidency, 1992-94
Cardoso's Presidency, 1995
Women in Politics
The Electoral System
The Presidential Election of 1989
Congressional and State Elections, 1990
General Elections, 1994
Interest Group Politics

For more information about the government, see Facts about Brazil.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress