Why Presidentialism Is Undesirable In A Newly

Founded Democracy: Brazil’s Struggle To Liberalize Essay, Research Paper

Brazil’s transformation from an authoritarian regime to a presidential democracy was a slow and

faltered attempt. From the early suggestions of democratic development, there were both

administrations that contributed to democratic growth, as well as administrations that opposed this

liberalization. This led to an instability in the Brazilian form of democratic government, their

economy, and their political parties. The people’s reactions to these instabilities confirm the fact that

the Brazilian democratic regime was not working effectively. Even though Brazil was governed

under a democratic system because the president was chosen by the people, the president rarely

acted in a democratic manner.

The first signs of a modern democratic government in Brazil appeared in 1945 when the military

deposed President Get?lio Vargas. Vargas had created a “semi-corporatist authoritarian regime (the

Estado N?vo) based largely on the military.”1 Once Vargas had been removed from power, Brazil

instituted a competitive multi-party system. Multi-party systems are not a requirement for

democracy, “but certainly the history of democratization has been associated with the development

of parties and their legitimation.”2

This step towards a true democratic government was negated in 1964 when the military forced a

reversion to an authoritarian form of rule. The president remained the top government official, but he

was merely a puppet to the military. The Army officer corps choose a general who the Congress

would elect for president for a set term.3

Castelo Branco managed to hold the hardliners? demands at bay with the enactment of concessions.

To make his successor’s transition to office easier, Castelo Branco and his advisers reformed the

constitution so that the next president could assume power in a “normal” constitutional regime.5

General Artur da Costa e Silva took over as President in 1967. He experienced an average

economic growth of eleven percent per year, which lasted from 1968 until 1974. However, the

political atmosphere was not fairing as well as the economy. There were many student

demonstrations and two major industrial strikes. To rectify this situation, the government reacted

with highly repressive police action. Costa e Silva then implemented the Fifth Institutional

Amendment. This amendment “authorized the suspension of normal civil rights, such as habeas

corpus, justifying the measure by the need to protect national security.”6 What made this

amendment even more undemocratic is that it had no expiration date; the effect of this would have

long term consequences. Costa e Silva was able to take this action because “in presidential systems,

the [elected president] winner takes all: He or she can form a government without including any

losers in the coalition.”7 Because he did not have any of his opposition in the government to contend

with, it made it possible for Costa e Silva to pass this amendment.

Shortly after instituting the Fifth Institutional Amendment, Costa e Silva died from a stroke. After

much debate among the Army officer corps, it is decided that General Em?lio Garrastaz? M?dici

would be the next president. He ruled the most authoritarian regime since 1964. “Although elections

were held and Congress continued to function (with a suspension in 1969-71, broken only to ratify

M?dici1s succession in early 1970), Brazil was in the grip of the security forces, which were locked

in battle with several small guerrilla movements.”8 Still, even after the guerrilla forces were

suppressed, arbitrary procedures and dictatorial practices continued. This is not a unique

occurrence in Latin American states. Linz reveals that “…in many [Latin American] countries the

periods of democratic rather than authoritarian presidentialism have been short. Most presidents

have been de facto governors deriving power from a coup rather than an election, or a dubious

election.”9 Brazilian presidents were chosen in much the same way: a dubious election where the

Army officer corps appoint a general who will become the next president. From there, the

legislature, who are comprised of military backers, elect the general. However, M?dici1s

administration was considered to be somewhat legitimate by the middle and upper class because of

Brazil’s continued economic growth and reign of “law and order.”10

After M?dici1s term was up, General Ernest Geisel was elected president. One of his Geisel’s main

concerns was the unequal income distribution; but this problem was compounded by the rapidly

growing external debt. Geisel decided to reform the welfare programs that the former governments

had left in disrepair. To minimize the negative effects of the new welfare programs, continued high

economic growth was imperative. However, continued growth was not quite as easy as it had been

in the past. In 1973, the OPEC oil price shock took its toll on Brazil, since Brazil imported nearly

80% of its oil. To cut back on oil importing would have slowed economic growth, thereby hindering

the plans for a more equal distribution of wealth. To counteract this problem, Brazil depended on its

oil reserve and also borrowed oil from abroad. This created even more of an external debt though.

Geisel expressed his hope for a gradual redemocratization, beginning with distens?o

(decompression), although he also warned that national security was indispensable to ensure

development.11 Before Geisel could begin any form of redemocratization, he needed support from

the officer corps. Hardliners could be expected to oppose or even sabotage any attempt at

liberalization. There was also widespread speculation as to how much control the president had

over the security apparatus.12

There were many incidents that show that liberalization was still far off. Innocent citizens were being

arrested and tortured at the hands of security forces. Federal censors imposed stricter rules on the

media. The Brazilian Bar Association spoke out against the government’s failure to account for

missing people that were believed to have been apprehended by security forces. In one specific

case, Fred Morris, a United States1 citizen and former Methodist missionary, was arrested and

tortured which created American interest in the liberalization of Brazil. Francisco Pinto, a prominent

radical MDB deputy from Bahia, was deprived of his congressional seat and stripped of his political

rights.13 These occurrences hardly seem that of those of a true democratic system.

One of the major factors in the democratization process was the elections of 1974. ARENA

governors dominated in their elections, which was not surprising since ARENA controlled the

legislature that elected the governors. These results may have led the presiding government’s political

strategists to underestimate the opposition. The government then gave all those running for Senate

and state legislatures free access to television. This may have led the public to believe that the

opposition party, the MDB, represented a viable alternative to the ARENA party. The outcome of

the direct election proved that the people wanted reform:

The MDB had almost doubled their representation in

the lower house, (the total number of seats had been

increased from 310 to 364), jumping from 87 to 165.

ARENA dropped from 223 to 199. The results in the Senate

were equally dramatic. The MDB delegation went from

seven to twenty, as ARENA dropped from fifty-nine to

forty-six. While ARENA had won by a small margin in the

total vote for federal deputies, the MDB won in the total

vote for senators, which was the best indicator of national

opinion. In addition, the MDB won control of the state

legislatures in key states where the urban electorate was

crucial: S?o Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro

(including the city of Rio), Paran?, Acre, and Amazonas.14

Because the MDB gained a stronghold in state legislatures, the ARENA candidates for the

upcoming gubernatorial elections face a much more difficult battle. “Even if indirect elections were

maintained, opposition control of the state legislatures in key states made the danger of government

defeat a quasi-certainty.”15 This had a major effect on government policy for liberalization. Since

ARENA rule was in jeopardy, the plans for gradual redemocrazation became more complicated.

Even though the MDB did not have any power in the executive branch and the Congress had long

since been stripped of their power to take any initiative, the MDB still had the power to block

constitutional amendments because they held more than one-third of the seats in the lower house.

As Linz explains, a presidential democracy is based on dual legitimacy and the idea that no

democratic principle can decide who represents the will of the people in principle.16 However, the

executive branch still had predominance over the legislature because even though the legislature

could stalemate decisions of legislation, they had no power to repeal the undemocratic amendments

from earlier administrations. Therefore, a dual legitimacy did not actually exist.

To give create a democratic facade, Geisel lifted censorship on a major newspaper. The Brazilian

people were still not satisfied though. There was still continuing protest over the torture of political

prisoners. Geisel also made it clear that the government had “no intention of giving up its exceptional

powers, as codified in Institutional Act No. 5.”17 After the deaths of two well-known public figures,

Geisel could make no more excuses. However, instead of terminating Institutional Act No. 5, Geisel

simply dismissed General Ednardo d1Avila Melo, who was a hardliner who gave local security

forces freedom to commit such atrocities to those who openly opposed the government.

Democratization still looked far off.

More incidents involving the persecution of innocent people, including military police, state

legislators, and federal deputies, took place, only this time the excuse was that these people were

Communists. When an MDB Congressman spoke out against these senseless acts, Geisel silenced

him by stripping him of his mandates. In defense of their Congressman, the MDB leadership issued

a statement attacking the government for its resort to “violence”.18 The direct relationship of a

president with a military background, in his capacity as commander in chief, to the armed forces can

generate a political climate of tension and fear on the part of his opponents.19 This was the case for

much of Geisel’s opposition. The ones who spoke out against him had to fear the consequences of

their actions.

Censorship of the media was re-implemented by Geisel. In remembering the past, the Geisel

administration recalled the MDB upset victories in the 1974 elections. Soon after, the government

pushed a bill known as the “Falc?o Law” through Congress, which severely limited radio and

television involvement in the 1976 municipal elections. The Geisel government resorted to these

measures when they realized the possibility of MDB victories in the upcoming elections. However,

even with these strict media regulations, the MDB still managed victories in the larger urban areas.

Geisel was forced to take decisive action since his party had lost two-thirds its seats in Congress.

Using the Fifth Institutional Amendment, Geisel instituted a series of major constitutional changes

known as the “April Package.” These changes were supposed to strengthen ARENA1s hand in

future elections.20 “Constitutional amendments would henceforth need only majority approval in

Congress; all state governors and a third of the federal senators would be elected indirectly by 1978

by electoral colleges (which would include municipal councilors, where ARENA

predominated),…and finally, the 1976 Lei Falc?o was extended to the Congressional elections.”21

This basically left the MDB congressmen powerless against the implementation of ARENA

amendments. Geisel1s changes in the constitution led to widespread protest at Brazilian universities.

In spite of the protests, the government banned any further demonstrations.

In late 1978, Geisel held true on his promise of phasing out some of the authoritarian aspects of

government. The Congress passed the reforms that Geisel had proposed in September; the most

important reform being the repeal of the Fifth Institutional Amendment. However, the MDB

boycotted the final vote because they said that the proposal did not go far enough. This may have

been because “new ?safeguard1 powers were given to the executive, including authority to declare a

limited state of emergency without Congressional approval.”22

The government also proposed a revision on the National Security Law, which gave the government

a great deal of arbitrary power. Even though the “number of possible crimes against State security

was reduced, and the penalties softened, the law still allowed for political prisoners to be held

incommunicado for eight days (instead of ten).”23 Human rights advocates rejected this because

torture of the prisoners was most likely to occur when they are first arrested and the definition of

violations was broad enough to include almost any oppositional activity.24 Since the security

apparatus basically remained unchanged, “opposition politicians thus had good reason to go on

considering politics a dangerous occupation.”25 Linz backs this reasoning by writing that this is likely

to “discourage strong-minded, independent people from making a commitment to politics.”26

The struggle between the hardliners and moderates intensified in 1977. General Sylvio Frota, an

Army Minister and hardline leader, posed a challenge to Geisel’s choice, General Jo?o Batista

Figueiredo, for successive presidential office. Geisel had made it clear that Figueiredo was his

candidate since he first entered office. Frota believed that the government was in danger of

Communist sabotage and liberalization was a cover for their plans.27 In response to this opposition

from within, Geisel dismissed Frota. This demonstrates Geisel1s superior presidential power

compared to earlier presidents and also that Geisel’s power within the army had not declined.28

Figueiredo was officially announced as Geisel1s choice for successor in early 1978 and in April the

National Convention of ARENA endorsed him. On October 14, 1978, Figueiredo was elected

president. A month later in the congressional elections, the “April Package” prevented the MDB

from winning a Congressional majority, even though the voters trend was towards the MDB. The

MDB won 52 precent and ARENA only won 34 percent.

In his first year in office, Figueiredo reorganized the political party system. Figueiredo decided to

implement a multi-party system which he hope would help ARENA in future elections by either

splitting the opposition vote or by forming a coalition with some of the more conservative parties.29

Another part to the new party system included changing the names of the existing parties and the

restriction that no party could use the word “party” in their new name. ARENA then became

Partido Democr?tico Social (PDS) and MDB became the Partido do Movimento Democr?tico

Brasileiro (PMDB). The MDB trick of preserving its name in recognition irritated the government.

Also, many new parties were borne out of this new system, which is exactly what Figueiredo was

hoping for.

Once the parties became clearly evident, it was time to start maneuvering for the 1982 municipal

elections. However, an unexpected incident occurred; PDS (ARENA) leadership suffered the loss

of one of their key figures, Justice Minister Petr?nio Portella. The elections were postponed until

1982, at the same time as the elections for the state governors, a third of the Senate, the Chamber

of Deputies, and the state legislatures.30 The postponement was needed by the PDS because they

feared government losses if the elections were so soon after that tragic incident. The PMDB also

favored the postponement because they thought that they needed more time to organize their party.

By having all of the elections at once, the government was chancing that its party and not the

opposition would benefit from the linkages.31

The government also devised a new formula for calculating annual wage adjustments. Not all

Brazilians were pleased with this though, and so some of these people went on strike. The

government replied to the strikes with police, arresting hundreds of strikers. The government took

over the unions and placed strict regulations on the operation of the unions. After forty-one days,

the strikers returned to work with their demands unmet.32 Once again, it was evident that

government repression was not defunct.

Congress passed an amendment that reinstated direct election of state governors and Senators in

November of 1980. This somewhat dismantled Geisel1s “April Package” which allowed ARENA

to survive the 1978 elections with majorities in both the upper and lower houses.

Still, not everyone was in favor of liberalization. Some of the opponents of the abertura mounted a

campaign of violence against those in support of it. Bombings were prevalent among newsstand

vendors who sold leftist publications. One of the even larger bombings occurred at a leftist benefit

concert, however, the bomb exploded early and killed the two political police delivering it. The

military, who had ties to the bombings, tried to cover up the incident.

Just before the elections of 1982 were scheduled to take place, the government created the

“November Package” and pass it through Congress. This prohibited electoral coalitions and also

required voters to vote a straight ticket in hopes that the PDS would benefit. Even closer to election

time, the government issued another rule; the names of the candidates had to be written in instead of

being checked off. This would benefit the PDS in that they were the only party with “sufficient local

organization to ensure that its voters would learn to fill out their ballots correctly.”33

The results of the elections were that although opposition won 59 percent of the popular vote, it did

not gain a majority in Congress or the electoral college, which would choose Figueiredo1s

successor. However, the PDS lost absolute majority in the lower house of Congress. That meant

that “if the opposition voted together it could block any government legislation.”34

With the opposition in control of key states, the governors of these states found themselves in need

of financial support. The Figueiredo government did not have the funds to give though, because a

great deal of money was tied up in reducing the foreign debt. With the state and local government

working against each other, the local government and governors were in trouble. Soon, the

governors’ approval began to decline because of the unmet needs of their people.

Even though attempts at restructuring the constitution were taken, they proved to be futile. The

Brazilian government was always more focused on retaining their party1s power in the legislature

than on the actual legitimate governing of the state. In regard to this, Linz states:

The fear of discontinuity in policies and distrust of a

potential successor encourages a sense of urgency, …that

might lead to ill-designed policies, rapid implementation,

impatience with the opposition, and expenditures that

otherwise would be distributed over a longer period of time

or policies that might contribute to political tension and

sometimes inefficiency. 35

It seemed that neither Figueiredo nor the PDS leadership had any long-term plans for Brazil; their

main objective was to win the 1985 presidential election. The people wanted democratic reform

and the rate of abertura was just too slow for them. Rallies cried out for direct nationwide election

of the president. The congressional vote fell short, but there were 55 PDS deputies in favor of the

nationwide direct presidential elections. This showed an alarmingly weak government and the

problems of establishing a presidential democracy. Linz also points out that:

Presidential systems can have strong parties, but the

parties are likely to be ideological rather than government

oriented. More often than not, presidentialism is associated

with weak, fractioned, and clientelistic or personalistic

parties. We have only to think of the parties in Brazil…

Presidentialism might lead to the emergence of leaders, but

it is unlikely to lead to party leaders able to govern with

sufficient support in the congress… 36

In conclusion, the Brazilian presidential democracy was not a legitimate one. Most of the

general-presidents used the “winner take all” approach and ruled in a dictatorial manner. The

president committed authoritarian acts that were widely protested among the people. Furthermore,

these government did not represent a true continual dual legitimacy between the executive and

legislature. Perhaps most importantly was the fact that the people did not actually choose the

president. Since the government’s main concern seemed to be retaining their party1s power, they

kept the people from making a real difference in choosing the president. These circumstances

collectively confirm the fact that the Brazilian government was far from a true democratic

presidential regime.


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