Category Archives: Brazil

Was Brazil ever semi-presidential?

There are various strategies for identifying long-gone semi-presidential countries. There is an Italian website that posts a lot of very old constitutions, none of which have yet turned out to be semi-presidential. The main source, though, is references in secondary literature that can be followed up. One example is Jose Cheibub’s classification of countries as ‘mixed’. This classification is not exactly the same as semi-presidentialism as it is understood here, but often there is overlap.

One of the countries he classifies as ‘mixed’ is Brazil from 1961-63. This led me to explore this case and I would like to thank Jose for sending me the text of the constitutional amendments. (I take sole responsibility for the chronology that follows!)

In 1961 Brazil was governed by the 1946 constitution (in Portuguese here). In 1960 Jânio Quadros was elected president, but in August 1961 he resigned. The Vice-President, João Goulart, was the next in line. Goulart was a member of the Labour Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro, PTB) and he was considered to be too left-wing by the military and by much of Congress.

The ratification of Goulart as president was agreed only on the basis that there would be a constitutional amendment creating a parliamentary regime. Accordingly, the constitution was amended to create a president who would be elected by parliament (Art 2 of the amendment bill). The Council of Ministers was made collectively responsible to the legislature (Art 6) and subject to confidence motions (Art 10) etc.

Goulart was never elected by the Congress, but a prime minister (or president of the council of ministers) was appointed, consistent with the new constitution. However, there was considerable governmental instability and a plebiscite to approve or reject parliamentarism was held in January 1963. It was rejected and in same month a constitutional amendment restored the presidential system. In 1964 Goulart was overthrown by a coup.

So, from August 1961 to January 1963 Brazil had a prime minister who was responsible to the legislature and a president who had come to power by way of a direct election – even if he was the vice-presidential candidate at that election. Does this make Brazil semi-presidential during this period.

For me, the answer is ‘no’, because Brazil never had a semi-presidential constitution. It had a presidential constitution that was punctuated by a short period where there was a parliamentary constitution. So, there was never semi-presidentialism.

In a previous post I alluded to the semi-presidential equivalent of this situation. For example, Turkey now has a semi-presidential constitution, but the current president was elected by the legislature – the constitution being amended after his election. I count Turkey as semi-presidential because of its constitutional structure, even though there has yet to be a direct semi-presidential election.

However, the Brazilian example is really interesting. The manoeuverings, the debates, the intrigues are palpable and the constitutional situation, which is quite difficult to piece together on-line and without access to some fairly specific literature, is unusual.

When should we start to consider a country as semi-presidential?

One issue that comes up quite a bit in my research is when to begin counting a country as semi-presidential. I already alluded to this point in the posting on Turkey. Is Turkey now semi-presidential even though the current president was elected by parliament and even though he may be in office for five, or even seven years, until the first direct election takes place? I think we should count Turkey as semi-presidential now because the constitution has been changed and the definition used here relies solely on constitutional provisions. However, doing so means that we can have cases of semi-presidentialism where there has never been a direct presidential election.

Take Austria. In December 1928 Wilhelm Miklas was elected as president by parliament. In December 1929 the constitution was amended to include the direct election of the president. In 1934, the constitution was amended again and the direct election of the president was removed. In the meantime, democracy collapsed. For Polity, the last full year of democracy was 1932. So, the Austrian constitution was semi-presidential from 1929-34, but there was no direct presidential election in this period.

Another case is Burkina Faso. In 1970, a new semi-presidential constitution was adopted for the then Upper Volta. As far as I can tell, this system lasted until 1974. In this period there was no presidential election.

Another interesting example is Brazil from 1961-63. I will do a much fuller post about Brazil at some future date. For now, though, the presidential system was changed to a pure parliamentary system by a constitutional amendment in September 1961 only for the presidential system to be restored in January 1963. In this period there was no presidential election under the new system. So, for a short time Brazil had a directly elected president operating in a parliamentary constitution.

I count Brazil as parliamentary in this period in the same way that I count Austria and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) as semi-presidential from 1929-34 and 1970-74 respectively. However, if one were to decide that a country only became semi-presidential at the point when the first direct presidential election occurred, then Austria and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) would not be classed as semi-presidential and Brazil would be semi-presidential from 1961-63.