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.

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