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Presidentialism and the Crisis of Governance in Brazil

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth entry in our symposium on the “30th Anniversary of the Brazilian Constitution.” The introduction to the symposium is available here.]

Luiz Guilherme Arcaro ConciPontifical University of Sao Paulo

Brazil was the only American country that, once independent (1822), established a national monarchy that reigned for almost eighty years[1]. From the late 1840’s until the proclamation of the Republic (1889), there was also a parliamentary system in a unitarian country. Abruptly, with the proclamation of the republic in 1889, our leaders decided to replace the system of government to presidentialism and the unitary form of state by the federal one. All these changes in only one political transition.

The presidential system, then wrapped in high expectations, became more of the same. Too much personalism, little institutional resistance to the authoritarian impulses of the rulers, fragility of the institutions to control the presidential power (and the governors, at the state level). Alongside this reality, this first phase of the Brazilian Republic (1889-1930) was marked by a standardized set of electoral frauds[2] throughout the territory that only reinforced the same regional oligarchies in power, with little porosity to substitution and popular participation, in spite of the increase of the contingent of voters occurred with the end of the census vote existing during the Empire (1822-1889) and abolished with the Constitution of 1891.

In the course of the 20th century, there were long periods of deepening authoritarianism (1937-1945 / 1964-1985), followed by other short terms of re-democratization (1946-1964 / 1985 onwards), indicating a dynamic pendulum that made it difficult to consolidate a true democratic environment settled by constant free electoral processes ruled by the law and not by the expectation of the powerful groups fighting for the maintenance of power.

With our last Constituent Assembly (1987-1988) the expansive impetus of presidential personalism was maintained and, paradoxically, increased. Some centralizing features established by the military dictatorship[3] were maintained in the constituent debates for the ”new” presidentialism. The President of the Republic, with the new Constitution, gained more power, as we will see, even for the role of defining the political agenda of the National Congress.[4]

But the paradox is that this system, despite the high rate of approval of the great majority of government’s projects in Congress[5], has to coexist with the instability of a hyper-fragmented party system[6] that generates several political instabilities, like the two processes of impeachment of Presidents Collor de Mello in 1992 and Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

Among the key presidential attributions, we can cite[7] exclusive initiative of the budgetary law; the expedition of Provisional Measures (Decrees) with the same legal force of statutes; the power to propose constitutional amendments; the power to make laws by delegation of Congress; the imposition of urgency for the legislative process; the imposition of restrictions on legislative amendments having financial content; the possibility of partially vetoing bills passed by Congress; and the filing of an unconstitutional complaint before the Supreme Court to request annulment of laws.

On the other hand, even if the government rates of success and dominance of the Parliament are very high[8], which demonstrates the ascendency of the Government over Congress, the hyper-fragmented party system balances that power.[9] Every government is in a constant bargain with non-ideological parties in a system where almost 30 or 40 parties in total are represented in Congress. These deals are not only to establish a majority for the new government but also for the maintenance of unstable majorities, which is an arduous and continuous task for all governments.

To make the situation worse: while political parties have reasonable party discipline,[10] which could help to stabilize the majority coalitions, this happens mainly because of a deficit of democracy inside the political parties. The parties are strongly dominated by leaders who decide without listening to their members or to those who exercise their mandates. Even the selection of potential candidates inside political parties are usually not defined by their members but by the leaders without any consultation.

Consequently, the excessive number of parties represented in the National Congress hinders the stability of government projects. In such a scenario, the President of the Republic, who has the power to largely define the political agenda of the National Congress,[11] is forced to negotiate with a wide range of political parties, most of them unrelated to any specific political ideology and strategically positioned to negotiate administrative positions in exchange for government support. This reality means that the difficulties in the formation of majorities at the beginning of government continue to be repeated during the exercise of the presidential mandate. Political negotiation is essentially based on budget amendments for individual deputies and senators[12] and on positions in the administrative structure, so parties that are more committed to giving support to the Government and with greater number of federal deputies and senators normally receive benefits. No wonder that there were governments with more than 30 ministries.[13]

The traditional personalistic vision of politics is another question. It is reflected in the electoral system whereby partisan membership is required to run for any political office and, as already noted, candidates are chosen by leaders and not by members of the political parties in a democratic process. It is forbidden to run as an independent candidate for any political mandate in Brazil.[14] Even proportional elections, such as those for the House of Deputies, are highly personalistic, since the use of open lists favors the vote for candidates and not for parties. In the same direction, the lack of ideological transparency of political parties tends to weaken the identity between voters and parties, eventually strengthening personalism.[15]

In conclusion, the political instability of the Brazilian presidential system lies, on the one hand, in the President’s expanded range of powers in the constitutional plan, which is a tradition and was paradoxically increased by the 1988 Constitution.  On the other hand,  a hyper-fragmented party system, without internal democracy inside political parties, and a personalistic view of politics makes the system more fragile and increases the instability in a still unstable democracy.

Suggested citation: Luiz Guilherme Arcaro Conci, Presidentialism and the Crisis of Governance in Brazil, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 13, 2018, at:

[1] Besides Mexico, which lasted for 5 years over two periods.

[2] Victor Nunes Leal. Coronelismo, enxada e voto – O município e o regime representativo no Brasil. 248. Alfa-Omega, (1976). This system of electoral fraud deepened the political dominance of regional oligarchies without allowing the emergence of new leaders or the alternation of  power, strengthening their influence also at the national level in view of the need of the federal government to have them as supporters for its own political survival.

[3] Octavio Amorim Neto, El presidencialismo moderno em Brasil. 103. In Presidencialismo u Parlamentarismo -América Latina y Europa Meridional (Jorge Lanzaro ed., 2012).

[4] Fernando Limongi, A democracia no Brasil: presidencialismo, coalizão partidária e processo decisório, Novos estudos – CEBRAP,  n. 76, p. 17-41,  Nov.  2006, 20.

[5] Limongi, id., at 23. With dominance and success rates between 80 and 90 percent, it approaches parliamentary systems like those of the British government or Finland and much more high if compared with Italy or Portugal.

[6] Russell Dalton at al., Political parties and democratic linkage. 42 (Oxford University Press,2011).

[7] Amorim Neto, supra, 216.

[8] And can be compared with parliamentarian systems, as defined by LIMONGI, Supra, p. 25.

[9] We can see this reality from the number of ministerial reforms that each government has since the new Constitution the 90’s, which means changing the composition of positions and ministries to those who support the government. Collor (4), Franco (5), FHC – 1st term (2), FHC – 2nd term (4), Lula da Silva – 1st term (6), Lula da Silva – 2nd term (6).

[10] LIMONGI, SUPRA, 22.

[11] Argelina Figueiredo & Fernando Limongi, Instituições políticas e gobernabildiade: desempenho do Governo e apoio legislativo na democracia brasileira.155(Carlos Melo & Manuel Alcantara Saez eds. , 2007).

[12] Another presidential competence used in a personalistic way.

[13] The actual one has 28.

[14] Luiz Guilherme Arcaro Conci & Marelo Peregrino. Tratado de Direito Eleitoral. 71-84 (FUX, Luiz et al eds. , 2018)

[15] It is true that the current political polarization process can change this route by strengthening party identity, but this is a process in development. For more information, see André Borges & Robert Vidigal, Do Lulismo ao Antipetismo? Polarização, partidarismo e voto nas eleições presidenciais brasileiras. Opinião Pública, vol. 24, n. 1, 2018.

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Published on October 14, 2018
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