Politics of Brazil

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The politics of Brazil take place in a framework of a federal presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. The political and administrative organization of Brazil comprises the federal government, the states, the federal district and the municipalities.

The federal government exercises control over the central government and is divided into three independent branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Executive power is exercised by the President, advised by a cabinet. Legislative power is vested upon the National Congress, a two-chamber legislature comprising the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Judicial power is exercised by the judiciary, consisting of the Supreme Federal Court, the Superior Court of Justice and other Superior Courts, the National Justice Council and the Regional Federal Courts.

The states are autonomous sub-national entities with their own governments that, together with the other federal units, form the Federative Republic of Brazil. Currently, Brazil is divided politically and administratively into 27 federal units, being 26 states and one federal district. The executive power is exercised by a governor elected to a four-year term. The judiciary is exercised by courts of first and second instance addressing the common justice. Each State has a unicameral legislature with deputies who vote state laws. The Constitution of Brazil knows also two elements of direct democracy, stated in Article 14.[1] The legislative assemblies supervise the activities of the Executive power of the states and municipalities.

The municipalities are minor federal units of the Federative Republic of Brazil. Each municipality has an autonomous local government, comprising a mayor, directly elected by the people to a four-year term, and a legislative body, also directly elected by the people.

Due to a mix of proportional voting (the only first-past-the-post elections are for the 1/3 of senate seats every 8 years and for mayors in small and medium-sized cities every 4 years), the lack of election threshold and the cultural aspects of Latin American caudillismo-coronelismo, party politics in Brazil tends to be highly fragmented.


Brazil has had seven constitutions:

Political parties and elections

National Congress of Brazil, the national legislature and the only in bicameral format.

According to sociologist Marcelo Ridenti, Brazilian politics is divided between internationalist liberals and statist nationalists.[2] The first group consists of politicians arguing that internationalization of the economy is essential for the development of the country, while the latter rely on interventionism, and protection of state enterprises.[2] According to Ridenti, who cites the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration as an example of the first group and the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration as an example of the second, "we have it cyclically".[2]

Lula's Workers' Party tended to the statist nationalist side, although there are privatizing forces within his party and government, while Cardoso's Social Democratic Party tended to favor the international private market side by taking neoliberal policies.[2] Lula compares himself with Getúlio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitscheck and João Goulart, presidents seen as statist nationalists.[3]

As of November 2010, 13.8 million Brazilians were affiliated with a political party.[4] That accounts for 7.3% of the country's population and 10.2% of voters.[4] The largest parties are PMDB (which accounts for 16.6% of affiliated voters), the Workers' Party (10.0% of affiliated voters), and PP (9.8% of affiliated voters).[4]

2010 general election results

Presidential candidate Running mate 1st Round
October 3
2nd Round
October 31
Popular vote
Absolute Percentage Absolute Percentage
Dilma Rousseff (PT) Michel Temer (PMDB) 47,651,434 46.91% 55,752,529 56.05%
José Serra (PSDB) Indio da Costa (DEM) 33,132,283 32.61% 43,711,388 43.95%
Marina Silva (PV) Guilherme Leal (PV) 19,636,359 19.33%
Plínio de Arruda Sampaio (PSOL) Hamilton Assis (PSOL) 886,816 0.87%
José Maria Eymael (PSDC) José Paulo da Silva Neto (PSDC) 89,350 0.09%
José Maria de Almeida (PSTU) Cláudia Durans (PSTU) 84,609 0.08%
Levy Fidélix (PRTB) Luiz Eduardo Ayres Duarte (PRTB) 57,960 0.06%
Ivan Pinheiro (PCB) Edmilson Costa (PCB) 39,136 0.04%
Rui Costa Pimenta (PCO) Edson Dorta Silva (PCO) 12,206 0.01%
Valid votes 101,590,153 91.36% 99,463,917 93.30%
→ Blank votes 3,479,340 3.13% 2,452,597 2.30%
→ Null votes 6,124,254 5.51% 4,689,428 4.40%
Total votes 111,193,747 81.88% 106,606,214 78.50%
→ Abstention 24,610,296 18.12% 29,197,152 21.50%
Electorate 135,804,433 100.00% 135,804,433 100.00%

Summary of the 1 September 23 National Congress election results

Coalition Parties Chamber Senate
Seats % of seats +/– Elected seats Total seats % of seats +/–
Lulista PT 88 17.1 +5 12 15 18.5 +7
PMDB 79 15.3 −10 16 20 24.6 +3
PR 41 7.9 +16 3 4 4.9
PSB 34 6.6 +7 3 3 3.7
PDT 28 5.4 +4 2 4 4.9 −2
PSC 17 3.3 +8 1 1 1.2
PCdoB 15 2.9 +2 1 2 2.4 +1
PRB 8 1.5 +7 1 1 1.2 −1
PTC 1 0.1 −2 0 0 0.0
PTN 0 0.0 0 0 0.0
Total 311 60.6 +37 39 50 61.7 +8
PSDB 53 10.3 −13 5 11 13.5 −5
DEM 43 8.3 −22 2 6 7.4 −7
PTB 21 4.0 −2 1 6 7.4 −1
PPS 12 2.3 −10 1 1 1.2 +1
PMN 4 0.7 +1 1 1 1.2 +1
PTdoB 3 0.5 +2 0 0 0.0
Total 136 26.5 –44 10 25 30.8 –11
Out of coalition
PP 41 7.9 3 4 4.9 +3
Out of coalition
PV 15 2.9 +2 0 0 0.0 −1
Out of coalition
PSOL 3 0.5 2 2 2.4 +1
Out of coalition
PHS 2 0.3 0 0 0.0
Out of coalition
PRP 2 0.3 +2 0 0 0.0
Out of coalition
PRTB 2 0.3 +2 0 0 0.0
Out of coalition
PSL 1 0.1 +1 0 0 0.0

Political pressure groups and leaders

The left wing of the Catholic Church, the Landless Workers' Movement, and labor unions pressure the government for more intense reforms on taxation and landed property, while the rightist DEM party is critical of the government's social and economic policies.


Federal government

Brazil is a federal presidential constitutional republic, based on representative democracy. The federal government has three independent branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Executive power is exercised by the executive branch, headed by the President, advised by a Cabinet. The President is both the head of state and the head of government. Legislative power is vested upon the National Congress, a two-chamber legislature comprising the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Judicial power is exercised by the judiciary, consisting of the Supreme Federal Court, the Superior Court of Justice and other Superior Courts, the National Justice Council and the Regional Federal Courts.


Main article: States of Brazil
The Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro holds the legislature of Rio de Janeiro state.
Palácio Tiradentes holds the executive power of Minas Gerais state.

The 26 Brazilian states are semi-autonomous self-governing entities organized with complete administration branches, relative financial independence and their own set of symbols, similar to those owned by the country itself. Despite their relative autonomy they all have the same model of administration, as set by the Federal Constitution.

States hold elections every four years and exercise a considerable amount of power. The 1988 constitution allows states to keep their own taxes, set up State Houses, and mandates regular allocation of a share of the taxes collected locally by the federal government.

The Executive role is held by the Governador (Governor) and his appointed Secretários (Secretaries); the Legislative role is held by the Assembléia Legislativa (Legislative Assembly); and the Judiciary role, by the Tribunal de Justiça (Justice Tribunal). The governors and the members of the assemblies are elected, but the members of the Judiciary are appointed by the governor from a list provided by the current members of the State Law Court containing only judges (these are chosen by merit in exams open to anyone with a Law degree). The name chosen by the governor must be approved by the Assembly before inauguration. The 1988 Constitution has granted the states the greatest amount of autonomy since the Old Republic.

Each of the 26 state governors must achieve more than 50% of the vote, including a second round run-off between the top two candidates if necessary. In contrast to the federal level, state legislatures are unicameral, although the deputies are elected through similar means, involving an open-list system in which the state serves as one constituency. State level elections occur at the same time as those for the presidency and Congress. In 2002, candidates from eight different parties won the gubernatorial contest while 28 parties are represented in the country's state legislatures. The last set of elections took place in 2006.

The most important Brazilian states (in terms of population and economic power) are São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, Bahia, Pernambuco and Santa Catarina.


The Municipal Chamber of São Paulo, the municipal legislature of São Paulo city.
Palácio do Anhangabaú holds the municipal executive power of São Paulo.

Brazil has no clear distinction between towns and cities (in effect, the Portuguese word cidade means both). The only possible difference is regarding the municipalities that have a court of first instance and those that do not. The former are called Sedes de Comarca (seats of a comarca, which is the territory under the rule of that court). Other than that, only size and importance differs one from another.

The municipality (município) is a territory comprising one urban area, the sede (seat), from which it takes the name, and several other minor urban or rural areas, the distritos (districts). The seat of a municipality must be the most populous urban area within it; when another urban area grows too much it usually splits from the original municipality to form another one.

A municipality is relatively autonomous: it enacts its own "constitution", which is called organic law (Lei Orgânica), and it is allowed to collect taxes and fees, to maintain a municipal police force (albeit with very restricted powers), to pass laws on any matter that do not contradict either the state or the national constitutions, and to create symbols for itself (like a flag, an anthem and a coat-of-arms). However, not all municipalities exercise all of this autonomy. For instance, only a few municipalities keep local police forces, some of them do not collect some taxes (to attract investors or residents) and many of them do not have a flag (although they are all required to have a coat-of-arms).

Municipalities are governed by an elected prefeito (Mayor) and a unicameral Câmara de Vereadores (Councillors' Chamber). In municipalities with more than 200,000 voters, the Mayor must be elected by more than 50% of the valid vote. The executive power is called Prefeitura.

Brazilian municipalities can vary widely in area and population. The municipality of Altamira, in the State of Pará, with 161,445.9 square kilometres of area, is larger than many countries in the world. Several Brazilian municipalities have over 1,000,000 inhabitants, with São Paulo, at more than 9,000,000, being the most populous.

Until 1974 Brazil had one state-level municipality, the State of Guanabara, now merged with the State of Rio de Janeiro, which comprised the city of Rio de Janeiro solely.

The Federal District

Legislative Chamber of the Federal District.

The Federal District is an anomalous unit of the federation, as it is not organized in the same manner as a municipality, does not possess the same autonomy as a state (though usually ranked among them), and is closely related to the central power.

It is considered a single and indivisible entity, constituted by the seat, Brasília and some of the satellite cities. Brasília and the satellite cities are governed by the Regional Administrators individually and as a whole are governed by the Governor of the Federal District.


Throughout its history, Brazil has struggled to build a democratic and egalitarian society because of its origins as a plantation colony and the strong influence of slavery.


Main article: Empire of Brazil

In 1822 the Prince Pedro de Alcântara, son of King John VI of Portugal, proclaimed the independence. He was the first Emperor (Pedro I) until his abdication in 1831 in favor of his elder son. Due to his young age (five years) a regency was established and the country had its first elections, though vote was still restricted to a minority of the population.

Old Republic (1889–1930)

In 1889, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca declared the republic, by a coup d'état. Until 1930, Brazilian republic was formally a democracy, although the power was concentrated in the hands of powerful land owners.

Vargas years (1930–1945)

Main article: Vargas Era

In 1930, a bloodless coup led Getúlio Vargas to power. For about 15 years, he controlled the country's politics, with a brief three-year constitutional interregnum from 1934 to 1937. A longer, heavier regime, the Estado Novo had loose ties with European fascism and spanned the years 1938 to 1945.

Populist years (1946–1964)

Like most of Latin America, Brazil experienced times of political instability after the Second World War. When Vargas was ousted from the presidency in another bloodless coup d'état, in 1945, a new and modern constitution was passed and the country had its first experience with an effective and widespread democracy. But the mounting tension between populist politicians (like Vargas himself and, later, Jânio Quadros) and the right led to a crisis that ultimately brought up the military coup d'état in 1964, now known, through declassified documents, to have been supported by the American Central Intelligence Agency.[5]

Military dictatorship (1964–1985)

In 1964 a military-led coup d'état deposed the democratically-elected president of Brazil, João Goulart. Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil was governed by the military, with a two-party system, with a pro-government National Renewal Alliance Party (ARENA) and an opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). Thousands of politicians (including former president Juscelino Kubitschek) had their political rights suspended, and military-sanctioned indirect elections were held for most elected positions until political liberalization during the government of João Figueiredo.

New Republic (1985–1990)

In 1985, the military were defeated in an election according to the scheme they had set up as a consequence of the loss of political support among the elites. The opposition candidate, Tancredo Neves, was elected President, but died of natural causes before he was able to take office. Fearing a political vacuum that might stifle the democratic effort, Neves' supporters urged vice-president, José Sarney to take the oath and govern the country. Tancredo Neves had said that his election and the demise of military régime would create a "New Republic" and Sarney's term of government is often referred to by this name.

Sarney's government was disastrous in almost every field. The ongoing recession and the soaring external debt drained the country's assets while ravaging inflation (which later turned into hyperinflation) demonetized the currency and prevented any stability. In an attempt to revolutionize the economy and defeat inflation, Sarney carried on an ambitious "heterodox" economic plan (Cruzado) in 1986, which included price controls, default on the external debts and reduction of salaries. The plan seemed successful for some months, but it soon caused wholesale shortages of consumer goods (especially of easily exportable goods like meat, milk, automobiles, grains, sugar and alcohol) and the appearance of a black market in which such goods were sold for higher prices. Buoyed by the ensuing popularity from the apparent success of the plan, Sarney secured the largest electoral win in Brazilian history; the party he had just joined, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), won in 26 out of 27 states and in more than 3,000 municipalities. Just after the elections, Sarney's "corrections" to the economy failed to control inflation and the public perception that he had used an artificial control of inflation to win the elections proved to be his undoing. His popularity never recovered and he was plagued by vehement criticism from most sectors of society until the end of his term. Despite popular rejection, Sarney managed to extend his term from four to five years, and exerted pressure on the Constitutional Assembly that was drafting the new constitution to abort the adoption of Parliamentarism.

Collor government (1990–1992)

In 1989 Fernando Collor de Mello was elected president for the term from 1990–1994. The elections were marked by unanimous condemnation of José Sarney, with all candidates trying to keep distance from him.

Collor made some very bold statements, like saying that the Brazilian industry (of which the Brazilians used to be very proud) was mostly obsolete and polluting or that defaulting the debt was equal to not paying the rent. He also took quite revolutionary measures, like reducing the number of ministries to only 12 and naming Zélia Cardoso de Mello Minister of Economy or removing existing barriers to importing of goods.

His inflation control plan was based on an attempt to control prices and a complicated currency conversion process that prevented people from cashing their bank accounts for 18 months.

All of this made him quite unpopular and denied him support in the parliament that he needed since his own party held few seats. At the beginning of his third year in office, he resigned as a result of in a huge corruption scandal. The charges against him would later be dropped, some on mere technicalities, some for actually being irrelevant or false.

Collor desperately tried to resist impeachment by rallying the support of the youth and of the lower classes, but his call for help was answered by massive popular demonstrations, led mostly by students, demanding his resignation.

Itamar government (1992–1994)

Main article: Itamar Franco

In 1992, the vice-president, Itamar Franco, took office as president and managed to evade the most feared consequences of Collor's downfall. He had to face a country with hyper-inflation, high levels of misery and unemployment. Far-left organizations were trying to turn the anti-Collor campaign into a wider revolutionary fight to overthrow the regime. Itamar finally granted full powers to his Minister of Economy, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, so the minister could launch the Plano Real, a new economic plan that seemed to be just the same as the many unsuccessful plans launched by Sarney, Collor and their military predecessor. But the Real was a success, and terminated inflation in a few months.

FHC government (1995–2003)

In 1994, Cardoso launched his Plano Real, a successful economic reform that managed to permanently rid the country of the excessive inflation that had plagued it for more than forty years. The plan consisted of replacing the discredited old currency (cruzeiro and cruzeiro real) and pegging its value temporarily to the United States dollar. Inflation – which had become a fact of Brazilian life – was cut dramatically, a change that the Brazilians took years to get used to. Because of the success of Plano Real, Cardoso was chosen by his party to run for president and, with the strong support of Franco, eventually won, beating Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had emerged as the favorite only one year earlier.

Cardoso's term was marked by other major changes in Brazilian politics and economy. Public services and state-owned companies were privatized (some for values supposedly too cheap according to his adversaries), the strong real made it easy to import goods, forcing Brazilian industry to modernize and compete (which had the side effect of causing many of them to be bought by foreign companies). During his first term, a constitutional amendment was passed to enable a sitting Executive chief to run for re-election, after which he again beat Lula in 1998.

Lula government (2003–2011)

Meeting of the Cabinet of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oval Room, Palácio do Planalto, 2007

In 2002, at his fourth attempt, Lula was elected president. In part his victory was derived from the considerable unpopularity of Cardoso's second term, which failed to decrease the economic inequality, and in part from a softening of his and the party's radical stance, including a vice-presidential candidate from the Liberal Party, acceptance of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) accord agreed to by the previous government and a line of discourse friendly to the financial markets.

Despite some achievements in solving part of the country's biggest problems, his term was plagued by multiple corruption scandals that rocked his cabinet, forcing some members to resign their posts.

In 2006 Lula regained part of his popularity and ran for re-election. After almost winning on the first round, he won the run-off against Geraldo Alckmin from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), by a margin of 20 million votes.

In 2010, Lula's handpicked successor, Dilma, was elected to the Presidency.

International organization participation


Further reading

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