Being President of Brazil​ Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

Brazil, then the Empire of Brazil, was a monarchy between 1822 and 1889. Two monarchs, D. Pedro I and D. P​edro II, both from the European royal family, ruled the country. D. Pedro II, the longest-ruling emperor of Brazil, reigned for 49 years, between 1840 and 1889.

The republic was installed by a coup d'Etat. Thus, it was natural that the President of the Republic inherited the authoritarian culture and character proper to the Royal tradition that created the State and Nation's identity.

Ernst Hambloch (1886-1970), an English diplomat and consul in Rio de Janeiro, published, in 1935, a book suggestively entitled "Your Majesty the President of Brazil - A Study of Constitutional Brazil (1889-1934)"

Hambloch defends that Brazilian presidentialism was marked by such an authoritarian style that it tended to continuously override or oppress the autonomy of popular representation, or of the Legislative Power.

In his book, Hambloch quotes Rui Barbosa (1849-1923), the most eminent Brazilian jurist of the beginning of the Twentieth century.

Rui Barbosa always criticized the dictatorial character of Brazilian presidentialism. He used to illustrate the subject by considering the impossibility, at the time, of adopting in Brazil his constitutional thesis of American Impeachment:

According to Rui Barbosa, "the measure aims at avoiding that the president's position degenerates into a permanent dictatorship. In fact, there are hardly any articles of the (Brazilian) constitution that have not been violated by Brazilian presidents. Some of them violated almost all of the articles. However, the higher the amount of constitutional violations by a President, the more unanimous will be the votes of political wisdom guaranteeing his irresponsibility; that is, the more thoroughly dictatorial the president is, the higher his immunity level to any sort of accountability".

According to Hambloch, "the Brazilian president is nothing more than a dictator in a chronic state, the general, consolidated and systematic lack of accountability of the Executive Power".

Thus, "it is not the election that matters. What matters is whether the president enjoys an overwhelming majority in the political caste. If he does have it, he can be expected to be able to rule in relative peace during his term of office ".

Brazilian presidentialism therefore has a strong authoritarian style. Such reality is usually taken for granted, or is desirable by politicians and society. In some measure, that is due to the difficulty in clearly distinguishing between the role played by a president of the republic and that of an autocratic monarch. It is hard to understand the logic of segregation of roles and independence of the powers of the republic.

Throughout the history, from many people's perspective, a "good government" is not based on observance of laws, but rather on the capacity to impose the President's power on Congress and the Courts of Justice, which translates into a hypertrophy of the Executive Power. Consequently, the deposition of the President of the Republic was frequently considered as the manifestation of rebellion against tyranny.

Rui Barbosa saw it as beneficial to Brazil if presidential power could be understood as limited by law or by other powers, which would make it democratic, rather than monarchic or autocratic.

The adoption of the impeachment procedure thus constitutes a recent phenomenon in Brazil.

The possibility that the president is deposed because of a "crime of responsibility", that is, for abuse of power, has become another novelty in the impetus to depose presidents, who are often seen, in extreme moments of their unpopularity, as failed sovereigns who deserve deposition.

As from 1988, Brazilian society has articulated two Impeachment procedures based on "crime of responsibility": Fernando Collor de Mello's, in 1992, and Dilma Roussef's, in 2016.

The realization of Rui Barbosa's dream of a democracy following the North-American model, in which the president plays the role of implementing laws, and where different powers are balanced, is maybe part of a growing tendency to adopt impeachment as a rule for deposing irresponsible presidents.

Still, the issue remains unresolved: did the president begin to be seen as a first mandatory, who is subject to laws, or is he considered an autocratic monarch, who can be both a savior and a tyrant?

Brazilian civil society is fragile. We are constantly in need of an empowering social political experience. At times, this experience views the president as an obstacle to be removed. Such removal becomes crucial in the political imaginary of Brazil for the implementation of a given project of nationality.

It must be reminded that there has never been a national revolution in Brazil, as the American or French ones. Thus, there remains, as a ghost haunting the national conscience, the need to reaffirm "the power of the people"

However, as Hambloch ponders, Brazil is constantly in search of a "providential man", a hero, a savior, even when the country rebels against the president.

The lack of a consolidated partisan politics, the constant disappointment with presidents lost in authoritarianism, and politicians' insistence on a private appropriation of public resources (chronic and immune corruption) reinforces the belief in a liberating dictator. The weight of this ambiguous view of the true role played by the Executive Power can be understood by considering the plebiscite carried out on 21st April 1993. At the occasion, there was a consultation for Brazilian society to ​choose their form of government: Republic or Monarchy. The results revealed interesting findings:

66,2% of the Brazilian population chose the Republic, 13,20% chose Monarchy. However, blank or void ballot papers reached 20,5%.

If we take into consideration the fact that Republic had then been in existence for over a hundred years, and there was thus a three-generation gap between the 1889 events and the voting episode, it seems striking that 13,20% of voters voted for the restoration of the Empire and 20,5% did not want or manage to form an opinion.

The same plebiscite was called for choosing the system of government, when 55,58% of voters chose presidentialism, 24,87% parlamentarism, and 20% voted blank or void.

Thus, we can conclude that there is a tendency in Brazil in favor of a strong presidentialism, with subtle nuances of monarchy or autocracy. As we have seen, this is opportune for the stability of the system when autocracy triumphs. However, it is also risky when the autocrat lacks the power or competence to implement his redemption work, both for lack of another really efficient power and the deep social instability that it provokes.

The history of republican Brazil is, in fact, a history marked by rare episodes of autocratic stability along a continuum of crises, dissatisfaction and collapse. Maybe the obsession for impeachment, and the consequent strengthening of the Legislative - and the Judiciary - in fact r​eveals some sort of change within this historical scenario.

That is mainly because it implies the belief that it is the law that has to set the boundaries to the president's responsibility. It remains unknown whether the belief in a savior/president is still dominant or whether society is also coming to understand that the main role in the making of a "good government" must above all be played by themselves.

Go to Edgard Leite biography >>​​