Sarney's Presidency, 1985-90

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The government's strategy of controlling the election of the first civilian president in the 1985 electoral college almost received a mortal blow on April 25, 1984. On that day, the diretas já! constitutional amendment, which called for direct elections for president on November 15, 1984, came just twenty-two votes shy of the necessary two-thirds majority (320 votes). In late June 1984, the Liberal Front dissident group split from the military government's PDS (Democratic Social Party) and joined the PMDB led by Governor Tancredo Neves (Minas Gerais). In the second half of 1984, massive rallies engulfed Brazil, as the Tancredo Neves-Sarney ticket consolidated its 300-vote margin over Paulo Maluf (PDS-São Paulo) in the January 1985 electoral college.

Sarney got his start in politics in his home state of Maranhão in the late 1950s as federal deputy in the progressive wing of the National Democratic Union (União Democrática Nacional--UDN). A staunch supporter of the 1964 revolution, he was able to defeat the PSD (Social Democratic Party) political machine in direct elections for governor in 1965, and was elected senator by Arena (National Renewal Alliance) in 1970. The military government never quite accepted Sarney and vetoed his attempts to return to the governorship in 1974 and 1978. He was also passed over several times for the presidency of the Senate and for the post of minister of justice in 1980. As a consolation prize, he became president of the PDS. In 1984 Sarney was one of the dissident leaders of the schism in the PDS, and he became Tancredo Neves's running mate.

Tancredo Neves took ill on the eve of his inauguration on March 14, 1985, and died on April 21. Sarney was first sworn in as vice president and then acting president within a very loose interpretation of the constitutional norms for presidential succession.

Deputy Ulysses Guimarães had been elected president of the Chamber of Deputies on February 1 and by right should have assumed the presidency because neither Tancredo Neves nor Sarney had been inaugurated. On the death of Tancredo Neves, a new indirect election should have been called within ninety days. Guimarães, perhaps sensing that the military would not accept this scenario, graciously declined in favor of Sarney.

Sarney's first year was very difficult. He was unprepared to assume the presidency and was assisted immediately by General Ivan Souza Mendes, director of the National Intelligence Service (Serviço Nacional de Informações--SNI). In effect, Brazil's government was an informal parliamentary system during 1985, with Deputy Guimarães and PMDB Senate floor leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso acting as informal prime ministers. The Sarney administration moved to consolidate representative democracy in 1985: it legalized the two communist parties, the PCB and the PC do B, allowed illiterates to vote, and called for direct elections for mayors of all capital cities and "national security" municipalities.

The PMDB performed poorly in the November 15, 1985, mayoral elections, when former president Jânio Quadros of the PTB (Brazilian Labor Party) narrowly defeated Cardoso for mayor of São Paulo. However, Sarney recovered national prestige and high standing in the polls following the introduction of the Cruzado Plan on February 28, 1986, and began to consolidate his power as president. The PMDB became the great "umbrella" party in the 1986 elections, leading a broad coalition to victory in all states but Sergipe, and electing an absolute majority in the ANC (National Constituent Assembly).

Rapid consolidation of democracy in Brazil after 1985 was in part slowed by some of the concessions negotiated by Tancredo Neves with the military to ensure their support. Tancredo Neves agreed that members of the armed forces who had been expelled for subversion after 1964 would not receive amnesty and reinstatement; that there would be no independent, noncongressional Constituent Assembly; and that before the new constitution was finished and promulgated, none of the authoritarian decrees--National Security Law, antistrike law, repressive press law, and limitations on Congress--would be canceled or modified.

By October 1988, Sarney, who was still a nominal member of the PMDB, had grown very unpopular because of increasing inflation and allegations of corruption. As a result, the PMDB lost many cities in the November 15, 1988, municipal elections--of the 100 largest cities, the party dropped from seventy-seven to twenty mayors, but in 1992 elected twenty-nine; in 1996 the number fell back to only sixteen (see table 21, Appendix). In addition, impeachment proceedings were initiated against Sarney on charges of corruption. The CPI (Congressional Investigating Committee) reported in favor of impeachment, but the measure was not transmitted to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies for deliberation.

During Sarney's presidency, Brazil suffered four austerity shock plans and used three currencies. Thus, for the December 17, 1989, runoff, voters selected the two presidential candidates who most vociferously criticized the Sarney presidency--Collor (PRN) and Lula (Workers' Party).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress