The Political Party System

Brazil Table of Contents

Shortly after Brazil's independence, the first political groups emerged with either pro-Brazilian or pro-Portuguese factions. During the second empire period (1831-89), the Conservative and Liberal parties alternated in power, and an embryonic Republican Party appeared in 1870. During the Old Republic (1889-1930), sections of the Republican Party in the larger states held political power. During the brief opening of representative politics between 1934 and 1937, attempts were made to organize national parties.

After 1945, when parties and elections again were permitted, local factions in the interior that had been allied with the Vargas government since 1930 organized the Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrático--PSD); the pro-Vargas groups in urban areas organized the PTB (Brazilian Labor Party); and all those opposed to Vargas initially formed the UDN (National Democratic Union). The PSD elected the president and an absolute majority to the 1946 Constituent Assembly. The Brazilian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Brasileiro--PCB), led by Luis Carlos Prestes, operated freely from 1945 through 1947, but the STF (Federal Supreme Court) canceled its registry in early 1948.

By 1960 Congress had thirteen parties. Confronted with adverse results in the direct gubernatorial elections of October 1965, President Castelo Branco (1964-67) decreed the end of this multiparty system and imposed a two-party system. His objective was to organize a strong majority support party and a loyal opposition. Thus, the National Renewal Alliance (Aliança Renovadora Nacional--Arena) and the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) were born.

About 90 percent of the UDN, 50 percent of the PSD, and 15 percent of the PTB joined Arena. Although it held an absolute majority in Congress until its demise in 1979, Arena was plagued with regional and former party factionalism. The MDB suffered from ideological factionalism regarding the military government; the factions divided among the authentics (those most strongly opposed to the military government), the neo-authentics, and the moderates.

As a result of the voting trends of the 1974, 1976, and 1978 elections, which channeled protest votes to the MDB, General Golbery do Couto e Silva, the architect of much of the regime's political evolution from 1964 until his retirement in August 1981, called for a party realignment to achieve broader political maneuvering space for the government. A survey conducted among members of Congress in March 1979 showed that nearly three-fourths of Arena and two-thirds of the MDB desired a multiparty system. In December 1979, Congress approved government-sponsored legislation abolishing Arena and the MDB and permitting moderate party pluralism.

Initially, the realignment strategy was successful. The MDB became the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) but with half its 1979 size. Arena became the PDS (Democratic Social Party), and retained its majority position. MDB moderates and Arena liberals organized the government auxiliary Popular Party (Partido Popular--PP) led by Senator Tancredo Neves and Deputy Magalhães Pinto. Former deputy Ivette Vargas and former governor Leonel Brizola resurrected the PTB; and the new, more militant labor unions organized the Workers' Party.

In May 1980, this pluralism became less moderate when, in a highly political decision, the TSE (Superior Electoral Court) decided to give the PTB label to Ivette Vargas instead of Brizola, who had much broader organizational support within the party. Undaunted, Brizola immediately organized the PDT (Democratic Labor Party) and, in 1982, was elected governor of Rio de Janeiro, with twenty-three deputies versus Ivette Vargas's thirteen (see table 19, Appendix). Because of the harsh 1982 election rules imposed by the Figueiredo government, the Popular Party decided to dissolve itself and reincorporate with the PMDB, which greatly strengthened the latter in many states, especially in Minas Gerais and Paraná.

In 1985 Congress passed legislation easing the requirements for organizing new parties; thus, the ANC (National Constituent Assembly) seated eleven parties in 1987, nineteen in 1991, and eighteen in 1995. With the exception of the Workers' Party, traditionally all Brazilian political parties have been organized from the top down, with a compact group of professional politicians making major decisions. The party system suffered considerable fragmentation during the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially because of an exodus from the largest parties--PMDB and PFL (Liberal Front Party)--after 1988, similar to the factionalization in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1987 the five largest parties accounted for 92.8 percent of the Chamber of Deputies. In 1989 this figure fell to 70.1 percent, and in 1992 it fell further to 61.4 percent. However, after the 1994 elections a "reconcentration" occurred, and by 1997 the five largest parties accounted for 83.6 percent.

In addition to strong internal cleavages, parties differ regionally. The Popular Party was almost totally concentrated in Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. Initially, Brizola's PDT was concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul--the two states that had elected him in the 1947-64 period--but later expanded to more states and elected three governors in 1990 (see table 20, Appendix). The Workers' Party remains concentrated in São Paulo but has expanded to other states in the South and North. The PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) is highly concentrated in Ceará and São Paulo. The PFL has always been concentrated in the Northeast. In Rio Grande do Sul, the PFL and the PSDB have very limited penetration.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress