Democracy Returns to Brazil

As a result of corrosive economic and political conditions, the military regime in Brazil that had begun in 1964 ended in 1985. Amid a swirl of long-repressed ideological and political currents, the first civilian president since 1964 took office in 1985 through an indirect electoral college process. The following year, a national constituent assembly was elected.

Summary of Event

Throughout the twentieth century, various types of authoritarian government dominated the Brazilian republic. There were military or agrarian patriarchal presidents from 1889 to 1930 and a semifascist regime from 1930 to 1945. In 1964, a military coup overthrew a nascent democratic government that had been constituted in 1946. The coup inaugurated a military regime that endured until 1985. During the regime, five army generals occupied the presidency without direct, popular elections. Democracy;Brazil
[kw]Democracy Returns to Brazil (Mar. 15, 1985)
[kw]Brazil, Democracy Returns to (Mar. 15, 1985)
[g]South America;Mar. 15, 1985: Democracy Returns to Brazil[05710]
[g]Brazil;Mar. 15, 1985: Democracy Returns to Brazil[05710]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 15, 1985: Democracy Returns to Brazil[05710]
Figueiredo, João Baptista de Oliveira
Neves, Tancredo
Sarney, José
Guimarães, Ulysses

The last of these military presidents was General João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, who faced a mounting public fury against the regime. Years of rising oil prices and international bank interest rates had embedded steadily massing inflation into the country’s economy. Conditions increasingly teetered on the brink of hyperinflation. Economic instability generated social tensions that were magnified by repression of political expression.

To address this dissatisfaction, the Figueiredo government announced at its inception that it would adopt a policy for an “opening” (abertura) of the regime. This implied a gradual relinquishing of sociopolitical controls and an eventual (but unspecified) return to direct, civilian presidential elections. Rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, however, with accelerated inflation, stagnation, and unemployment, forced the regime to confront a chilling reality: It was losing its hold not only on a gradual transition but also on any internal controls.

Popular acclamation for change erupted in 1983 as mass assemblies gathered in support of the “Direct Presidential Elections Now!” (Diretas Já!) movement. Nonetheless, a constitutional amendment to this effect was rejected in the government-controlled congress the following year. However, for the presidential election to be held on January 15, 1985, it was determined that although the candidates would still compete under the regimen of an electoral college, they would be civilians. The military backed Paulo Maluf, one of the most prominent politicians in the powerful state of São Paulo. Maluf beat the longtime leader of the government party, José Sarney. He resolved to join the opposition party. The opposition selected as its candidate Tancredo Neves, a senior, moderate politician who had been prime minister before the military coup.

The electoral college selected Neves as president and Sarney as vice president. Scheduled to take office on March 15, Neves, however, fell ill from appendicitis. After several debilitating surgeries, he died on April 21. His death throes became the birth pangs of the revival of Brazilian democracy. Sarney, having been sworn in as acting president the month before, now became president. Figueiredo left the presidency asking that people “forget me.”

To address the immediate economic problem of hyperinflation, the Sarney government introduced a monetary plan that created a new currency. Redemocratization of the country was addressed with elections on November 15, 1985, for the national congress, which would also serve as a constituent assembly. This body assembled at the beginning of the following year and continued its deliberations until promulgating a new constitution in October, 1988. Its work was directed by a veteran centrist politician from São Paulo, Ulysses Guimarães, with four decades of experience in negotiating civilian and military political environments.

As of 1985, the electoral franchise was considerably enlarged. For the first time in Brazilian history, literacy was abolished as a prerequisite for voting. Moreover, there was computerized updating of the electoral rolls in the country, with nearly seventy million voters becoming registered. The new constitution also expanded the electoral rolls by granting the vote to those in their late teens. It limited a presidential mandate to one four-year term (later changed to a maximum of two successive four-year terms). If a candidate did not win a majority of the vote, then within a month a second round of elections would be held between the two leading finalists of the first round. This measure ensured that any future president would always have a majority mandate.

The election of the next president took place on November 15, 1989. Inauguration was scheduled for January 15, 1990, for a term ending on January 15, 1994. No candidate won the first round in November. However, in the second, Fernando Collor de Mello, Collor de Mello, Fernando former governor of a small state in the northeast with a youthful populist appeal, won with 53 percent of the vote. The electorate had swelled to more than eighty million registered voters. With the presidential succession of 1989, for the first time in almost thirty years a direct, civilian presidential election had taken place. With this event, the transition to democracy in Brazil was completed.


The most significant element in the democratic transition was the writing of the constitution of 1988. It replaced the military constitution of 1967, which had not only restricted but also severely violated political, civil, and human rights. In reaction to the repression of the military charter, the new constitution was extraordinarily liberal, delimiting not only rights of belief, speech, and assembly but also guarantees of how these rights would be protected. It became known as the “Citizen Constitution.” Because of its concern for defining and guaranteeing rights, the document was quite detailed and extensive, eventually becoming somewhat cumbersome in application.

The new constitution was written and promulgated as major changes transpired around the world regarding the role of market-driven as opposed to state-controlled economies. The constitution assumed that state control of basic economic activities protected citizens against predatory capitalist practices. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global thrust of neoliberal policies originating with the governments of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States, the economic policies of the 1988 charter were amended throughout the decade of the 1990’s. More free market and privatization policies were sought in order to address the stagnation and inequality caused by rampant inflation. A balancing feature of the new constitution was that while it was a liberalizing document, it was not the product of a radical body. The constituent assembly included many participants who had supported the old regime. Indeed, a key figure of that regime, José Sarney, was now president, having headed the political party of the military government.

In this respect, therefore, the new constitution has been significant in its capacity to adapt, producing amendments compatible with changing perspectives and circumstances. It has sustained Brazil as a functioning democracy under civilian control for nearly two decades. Power alternates between government and opposition parties at the national, state, and local levels according to constitutional electoral procedures. Furthermore, the socioeconomic basis for democratic political participation has expanded to a broadening segment of the population holding an economic stake in society. The head of the Workers’ Party, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, the most bitter and most well-organized opponent of the military, was elected to the presidency in 2002 and 2006. Democracy;Brazil

Further Reading

  • Kinzo, Maria D’Alva G., and James Dunkerley, eds. Brazil Since 1985: Politics, Economy, and Society. London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2003. Collection of scholarly articles on topics of politics, economics, society, the judiciary, race, and education in Brazil since the restoration of democracy.
  • Luna, Francisco Vidal, and Herbert S. Klein. Brazil Since 1980. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Concentrated narrative of events in Brazil from 1964 to 2002, focusing on political, economic, commercial, and social issues, including demographic data and trends. Includes a bibliography.
  • Mainwaring, Scott. “The Transition to Democracy in Brazil.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 28, no. 1 (Spring, 1986): 149-179. Detailed yet concise narrative of political events leading to the inauguration of the first civilian president in Brazil since the military coup of 1964. Written in the immediate aftermath yet preceding the deliberations of the constituent assembly.
  • Martínez-Lara, Javier. Building Democracy in Brazil: The Politics of Constitutional Change, 1985-95. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Traces political and ideological currents for the election of the Brazilian national constituent assembly (1986), writing and promulgation of the constitution (1987-1988), and subsequent amendments in the following decade.
  • Skidmore, Thomas E. The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Integrated political, economic, and social analysis by a leading Brazilianist of factors in the rise and dissolution of the military regime in Brazil. Includes bibliography.

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