Introduction to Brazilian Politics and Government

Written by Lindsey Barrett

Edited By Nakul Karnik, Andrew Bihl, Mariana Calvo, and Anthony Russo

Brazilian National Congress (

In the oceans of coverage announcing the impending arrival of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, much has been made of the politics contextualizing the sportsmanship; and rightfully so.  In a country with a racial, socioeconomic, and political history as complex as Brazil’s, a basic understanding of the politics and history of the country is essential to understanding how the competition is going to function, and the considerable issues it will bring.  Hopefully this will serve to elucidate the historical and political underpinnings of the host nation; and to shed light on the history of Brazil generally.


Colonial Beginnings

The earliest roots of Brazilian governance lie with the hereditary captaincies.  Upon Brazil’s ‘discovery’ in 1530 by Martim Afonso de Sousa, the Portuguese government divided the country into 15 regions and gave each of them to a different captain-general, who was then enabled to pass the land down to his progeny.  These captaincies were the precursors of the first large Brazilian estates; the project was colonial, the goal to spur self-governing units within the larger territory –the ‘divide-and-conquer’ ethos to a tee.  Yet hardly any of these captains managed it successfully; few of them explored it fully, and most were financially ruined or murdered by natives.  19 years later, the project was officially declared a failure, and the Portuguese government replaced these separate, self-governing federations with a central Brazilian government. 


Map of Colonial Brazil ( )


Federalization, Centralization

Literary critic Wilson Martins writes in his article “Brazilian Politics,” that “all of Brazil’s political history is made up of two different choices, opposed, but at the same time complementary: federation, and unity.  That is the central theme of Brazilian politics, and of our existence as a nation.”[1] Here, we have an initial failure of federalism, and an ultimately successful attempt at unity. The Government General of 1549, supplemented by the Imperial Constitution of 1823, would last until the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1889.


Independence: First Steps

The Imperial Constitution of 1824 was an intermediate, but important step towards a democratic Brazil, and its first step as an independent nation.  Brazil was granted independence by Portuguese crown prince Dom Pedro I, following a series of disputes with his father Dom Joao VI[2]. It was through Pedro that Brazil broke with Portugal to become a separate, independent nation, and it was Pedro who suggested a constitutional convention, though his intentions for Brazil were a stark contrast with the intentions of many Brazilians for it.  The prince supported a constitutional monarchy, as opposed to the democratic model popular with the Convention (looking to the American style of government in particular). In 1824, the Convention presented the fruits of its efforts to Prince Pedro, who promptly overrode them, established the Imperial Constitution of 1824 (which made constitutional monarchy the law of the land) and declared himself to be the emperor of Brazil[3].  This was the first of what would ultimately be 7 Brazilian constitutions.


Dom Pedro I (


Inflection: Constitutional Beginnings

1889 was a pivotal year in Brazil’s history. It was the beginning of the period that would later be called The Old Republic, and would last until the military coup in 1930 that would establish Gétulio Vargas as dictator. Moreover, it was the first (though far from the last) of instances in Brazilian history of the reins of power changing hands.  Marshal Deodoro de Fonseca deposed Emperor Dom Pedro II, Dom Pedro I’s son; Brazil was declared a republic, and the government reorganized, top to bottom.  The country was nominally a constitutional democracy; but the pattern of corruption that Brazilian government would come to be known for (and that we cover fully in a separate section) began here, with rigged elections and voting pressures common. 1889 also saw a swing back to federalism; key political leaders such as Joaquim Nabuco and Rui Barboso saw the administrative and bureaucratic failures of Brazilian government to be a failure of centralization, not failure within a viable ideology. Rui Barbosa, looking to the United States Constitution, began drawing up a Brazilian counterpart.  Guided by what he perceived as the triumph of federalism, Barbosa strove to emulate the great American federalists; Hamilton, Jay, Madison. But, as Wilson Martins points out in “Brazilian Politics,” the success of federalism in the United States was ultimately due to the triumph of unity, not the triumph of factionalism; the attempts at emulation for that reason were thus ultimately misguided.


To visually underline the extent to which Brazil’s leaders looked to the United States for leadership during this time of transition, here’s the flag, designed by Rui Barbosa, used during November of 1889:


Brazilian Flag 1889 (





Partly due to the waxing influence of federalism, a system of machine politics rose to the fore in the void of leadership it left behind. The system, known as coronelismo, entailed patronage centralized under a regional leader (coronel) who controlled state and local politics.[4]  The system was exacerbated by the weakness of the centralized governmental structures, and was a dominant force behind Brazilian politics throughout the period of the Old Republic (1889-1930).  This kind of ostensible democracy with distinct flaws laid a foundation for Brazil’s later tradition of well-intentioned, but deeply imperfect governance.


The Old Republic

The period between 1889 and 1930, known as the Old Republic, was largely a time of political and economic stabilization for Brazil, though institutional fear of the return of the monarchy and of the power of the military was prevalent.[5] But 1930 saw another revolution, impelled by forces both political and economic.  Recognizing the precariousness of the Brazilian economy’s heavy dependency on the coffee industry, the president of the time, Dr. Washingto Luis Pereira de Sousa attempted to stabilize coffee prices.  While an admirable effort, de Sousa’s attempts were ultimately misguided; the resulting fall in prices, coinciding with the 1929 stock market crash, brought the Brazilian economy to its knees. With this disaster came the twin evil of regional dissatisfaction with the way in which the presidency had long been out of reach for Brazil’s smaller states.  With the impetus of political and economic forces, the military, under General Gétulio Vargas, overthrew the standing government to establish the Estado Novo, or New State.[6] 



Gértulio Vargas (

New State

The New State period was a time of profound change for Brazil¾ the previous dominance of governing elites was replaced by a powerfully resurgent middle class.  The government was solidified and centralized by Vargas’s attempts to streamline the civil service, and to rid Brazilian bureaucracy of a culture of corruption that was already deeply ingrained.  The creation of DASP (Departamento Administrativo do Serviço Públicom or Public Service Administration Department) was a notable step in that direction; yet it failed its ultimate goal of creating a meritocratic, professional bureaucracy.  By 1958, there were 300,000 civil servants, but only 28,406 were admitted through examinations;[7] the rest were admitted through various forms of nepotism and quid pro quo.  Vargas was deposed in a bloodless military coup in 1946, ending the New State and bringing Brazil to the period of what would be come to known as the Republic of 46.


Republic of ‘46

This period, too, wouldn’t last very long; moreover, the Republic of ‘46 was marked by political instability provoked by a three-party system (two pro-Vargas parties, the leftist Brazilian Labour Party and the centrist Social Democratic Party, and one anti-Vargas party, the rightist National Democratic Union.) Nevertheless, the Constitution of 1946 was both an important part of establishing a democratic tradition that would outlast the document itself.[8]  The Constitution was first and foremost marked by a clear commitment to the ethos of separation of powers.  It established Executive, Legislative and Judiciary branches; it also created an Electoral Judiciary to oversee fair elections.[9] This particularly was an important step towards a transparently democratic Brazil, and a massive improvement from the corrupt elections of the past (formerly overseen by the Executive branch, and thus subject to partisan machinations).


Military Dictatorship

1964 was yet another inflection point in Brazilian politics; the military overthrew the government and established an authoritarian regime that would remain in power until 1985.[10] The government persecuted any and all threats to the regime, and abolished political parties. Despite the political repression (and popular dissatisfaction with the regime) this period was marked by cultural and economic vigor.  Brazilian economic success at this juncture was particularly striking; the period from 1969-1974 was known as “The Brazilian Miracle,” as the economy saw growth rates of over 10%.[11] But it was during this time too that the striking socioeconomic inequality that still stratifies Brazilian society began to take root. Amidst pressures for reform, the military constructed a new constitution in 1967; it was amended again in 1969.  The new document, however, did not conform to the popular demands of increased transparency and restoration of the rights withheld by the junta.  Instead, it exerted far more repressive measures against the Brazilian people, withholding even the most basic of rights, habeas corpus amongst them.   But the late 70’s saw a steep economic downturn; the regime decided to re-democratize, adding back basic rights, lifting censorship, and allowing exiles to return.  The popular desire for governmental reform steamrolled the junta, and in response to massive protests, a presidential election was held in 1984; Tancredo Neves, the opposition candidate, was elected by the National Congress.  He sadly died of a heart attack; his vice-president, José Sarney, assumed the role, and ruled until 1990[12].



Tancredo Vargas (

Return To Democracy

José Sarney’s administration was plagued by a flailing economy and massive inflation; moreover, most of the civil servant staffing the government were from the old regime, and incompetent.   As inflation skyrocketed, so too did social inequality; the crime rate rose exponentially.  Sarney faced issues that would’ve stymied even a great politician and leader, and he was neither.  As these problems unfolded, however, the Brazilian Congress was drafting a Constitution to replace the authoritarian framework that was the legacy of the junta.   The document approved by Congress in 1988 reversed the repression of the dictatorship, with shifts like reducing the power of the executive, the voting age, and the length of the presidential term.[13] The new Constitution, in use today, laid the framework for a free and democratic Brazil, no small work amidst the difficulty of its Latin American neighbors to do the same during this period.


Present Day — 2014

The steps taken in 1988 to preserve the autonomy and sovereignty of the Brazilian people were largely successful; the federal Constitution is inviolable, separation of powers absolute, and the republic strong.  Nevertheless, serious weaknesses remain that threaten the stability of Brazilian life. Social inequality and corruption endure as the legacy of Brazil’s authoritarian past, and massive protests this past summer ago in response to the lack of social safety net, as well as basic services (education and public transportation paramount) have shed light on how far Brazil still has yet to go.  Protestors marched in the tens of thousands, all over Brazil,[14] from students to middle-aged professionals, demanding increased transparency in government, better access to social services, and that the money being lavished on soccer stadia for the 2014 World Cup be at least in part redirected towards the fundamental needs of Brazilians (and not just its athletes). The government addressed many of the demands of the protestors with either legislation or ‘national pacts’ to further investigate the issues in question; the Congress made substantial strides in educational, infrastructural, and political reforms[15].  The stability of the Cup, and of the government is by no means assured; but neither is chaos.

Brazil 2014 World Cup (


 Post 2014 World Cup 

 After the 2014 World Cup, tensions that arose before tournament continued. The massive expenditures to host the tournament and the empty stadiums that were built for the tournament have left many Brazilians furious at the country’s decision to host the World Cup. Three of the stadiums built for the World Cup located in the northeastern states of Recife, Natal, and Salvador have only attracted an average of 15,000 fans per season, approximately a third of their capacity or less. The situation is similar in other major Brazilian cities such as Brasilia, Cuiaba, and Manaus. Many experts such as Marinalva Ferraira da Silva have argued that Brazil made a mistake in hosting the World Cup in 12 cities because it required costs that could have been avoided [16]. The economic costs associated with the World Cup have furthered discontent in Brazil at a time when the economy is struggling due to falling oil prices. Furthermore, Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest company is facing allegation of corruption that has resulted in the resignation of five members of its board of directors and his also implicated President Dilma Rousseff, which has led to a strong decline in her approval ratings. Rousseff faces even more political pressure and discontent as Sao Paolo, one of Brazil’s major cities faces an unprecedented water crisis caused by the depletion of the city’s reservoir system due to a drought. [17]  Many analysts have predicted tough times for Brazil not only economically, but socially and politically. It remains unclear if the protest from 2014 and the social unrest staring to grip the nation in 2015, will lead to political, economic, and social change in Brazil. Only time will tell if Brazil made the right choice in hosting the World Cup of 2014.

[1] Wilson Martins, “Brazilian Politics”

Luso-Brazilian Review , Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter, 1964), pp. 29-40

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Article Stable URL:


[2] “Brazilian Independence.” Brazilian Independence. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. <>.

[3] “GUIDE TO THE LEGAL HISTORY OF BRAZIL.” History of Brazil Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

[4] “Coronelismo and Clientelism.” Welcome to Project Ceará. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013.

[5] “The Old Republic (1889 – 1930).” SoulBrasileiro. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

[6] Baaklini, Abdo I. The Brazilian Legislature and Political System. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992. Print.

[7] Baaklini, 16.

[8] “Vargas, JK, Quadros and Jango (1930 – 1964).” SoulBrasileiro. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <>.

[9] Baaklini, 9.

[10] “Military Dictatorship (1964 – 1985).” SoulBrasileiro. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <>.

[11] ibid

[12] Page, Joseph A. The Brazilians. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995. Print.

[13] Page, 23.

[14] Romero, Simon. “Thousands Gather For Protests in Brazil’s Largest Cities.” The New York Times, 17 June 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <>.

[15] Lyons, John, and Paul Trevisani. “Brazil Tries to Calm Protests With Laws.” The Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <>.

[16] Young, James. “Brazil World Cup stadiums languish, adding insult to injury for some .” Al Jazeera America. Al Jazeera , 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 2 Mar. 2015. <>.

[17] “Brazil.” The New York Times, 17 February 2015. Web. 2 March 2015. <>.


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