Brazilian Democratic Transition And Consolidation

Brazil, which is the largest country in South America and fifth largest country in the world, is also a political and economic leader in its continent. However, among the many nascent Latin American democracies, Brazil’s road to democracy was the most challenging (Linz and Stepan, 1996, p 166). Its democratization (1974-89) followed a cyclical pattern which alternated back and forth between quasi-democratic and authoritarian systems (Huntington, 1991, p 41). After a brief period of electoral democracy in the 1930s, military coups took control of the nation. The next three decades witnessed Brazil’s long authoritarian rule that was governed by a series of stable but harsh dictatorial regimes.

In the 20th century, Brazil embarked on the path to electoral democracy, which was led by Vargas, the elected President. However, his rule plagued Brazil with several rebellions caused by military officers, the spread of communism across the country, and brutal tortures by government agents. Thus, the short period of democracy ended and Vargas established a populist dictatorship. In 1945, military coup supported by the Brazilian oligarchy finally overthrew the ineffective and harsh leader. Brazil then plunged into a long authoritarian rule from 1964 to 1985, in which the military government held power and democratized Brazil through five major stages (Codato, 2006).

It was this period of uncertainty and unrest caused by violent prolonged military dictatorship that created the climate for political compromise and democratic obligation. Causes for the breakdown of authoritarianism such as splits in the military led to the demand for re-democratization in Brazil. Democratization finally occurred in 1974 and coincided with the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy. One will be surprised and wonder how Brazil’s long period of authoritarianism under the reign of three capable leaders, Branco, Silva, and Medici’s leadership sparked a possible shift to a democracy. What factors pressured each successive military leader to concede to democratization? After a long military dictatorship, what caused the next administration, Geisel, to democratize Brazil? Finally, to what extent has democracy been consolidated?

This paper will attempt to answer the above questions. I will first give a contextual knowledge about Brazil’s political transition which occurred in five stages, over the span of thirty years. Next, I will explain the reasons that caused the breakdown of authoritarianism in Brazil. Finally, I will evaluate the extent to which democracy in Brazil is consolidated based on its obstacles and threats, and suggest ways in which the democracy can be stabilized.

History of Brazil’s Political Transition
Establishing military dictatorship

The first stage of Brazil’s political transition corresponds to the Castello Branco and Costa e Silva administrations (March, 1964 – December, 1968). The military ceased its leadership in 1961 when vice president Joao Goulart resigned from presidency. He resigned with hopes of being reinstated again by popular demand, but was denied by the military’s fear of him being a communist. Following his resignation, the regime encountered difficulties in finding a new leader as no civilian politician was suitable for the existing revolutionary factions in governance. After fifteen days, Branco became the new president and managed to reform the political-economic system (Hudson, 1997). Being anti-Goulart and disapproving of his ruling methods, Branco rejected the extension of his presidency beyond Goulart’s term, or the institutionalization of the military’s power.

Despite the divides and instability in the military regime, Branco tried to instill a degree of democracy into his governance, but in the process, he had to accept the succession of Minister of Army, Costa as his next president. Under Costa’s reign, the military regime implemented and strengthened new diplomatic restrictions. Foreign relations with the U.S were maintained and highly valued as it was beneficial to Brazil’s development during that period. Thus, the process of constituting military dictatorship during the 1960s resulted in splits in the regime and increasing U.S role which paved the way for the initial democratic transition.

Consolidation of the military dictatorship

Unfortunately, the hard-liner Costa e Silva died unexpectedly in October 1969. Military officers took a vote among them and chose General Garrastazu Medici as the next president till 1974. Medici also represented the hard-line left side of politics and aimed to exert control to turn Brazil into a great authoritarian power (Hudson, 1997). He worked towards consolidating the dictatorship that was instituted by Branco and Silva. Under the unpopular Medici government, Brazil did not have a political party or a well-established set of institutions and laws. His rule marked the era of terrorist attacks in the cities, rampant kidnapping of diplomats, including the U.S ambassador, and a widespread antiguerrilla north of Brazil. Torture, corruption and denial of political rights were a common sight. As a result, conflicts with the Roman Catholic Church occurred and eroded relations with the U.S.

Transformation of the military dictatorship

In this atmosphere of the probable decline of long authoritarian rule, retired General Ernesto Geisel took up the next presidency term (1974-79), and announced the politics of regime transformation of the dictatorship (Codato, 2006). Part of his campaign involved the replacement of several military commanders with trusted liberal officers and the commencement of Brazil’s political opening, known as the return to democratic rule. Hard-liners rejected his move away from repression. In 1978, opposition demanded reinstatement of basic civil liberties, especially freedom of speech of the press, an end to torture and the release of political exiles. While the opposition successfully created a discussion of these concerns, the Geisel government took the initiative in tackling them (Mainwaring, 1986, p 155). President Geisel also sought to maintain high economic growth rates, while controlling the income inequality and satisfying the middle income class that Medici failed to achieve (Hudson, 1997). However, his inability to handle the 1973 oil crisis shock made it evident that military rule had to end.

Decomposition of the military regime

Joao Figueiredo’ office term marked the last few years of military regime. He attributed his acceptance of presidency after Geisel’s term to a sense of duty to complete the disintegration of the military regime, rather than political ambition (Hudson, 1997). He intended to make Brazil democratic, but was faced with resistance from the hard-liners. The latter reacted to the opening of the political system with a series of terrorist bombings causing instability. Authorities discovered that widespread terrorism in the country was directly linked to military involvement after an April 1981 bombing incident. However, Figueiredo was a soft-liner and could not bear to punish these offenders. Hence, the public saw a need to immediately end military rule as the regime’s inaction to terrorism proved its weakness in ensuring national safety. Moreover, Figueiredo’s leadership led Brazil to experience many serious problems such as hyperinflation, declining productivity and an escalating foreign debt, all of which resulted in Brazil’s moribund economy.

The government adopted several economic policies to address their mounting foreign debt, such as increasing exports, and developing Brazil’s petroleum exploration by foreign companies. Figueiredo also wanted to build stronger foreign ties with other countries, but his heart condition which required a bypass surgery, removed him from the situation. Consequently, political and economic stability in Brazil went downhill. I believe that one probable reason for the collapse of Brazil’s authoritarian regime was the frequent health problems in soft and hard-liner leaders, or their obsession with power that could not be fulfilled. Furthermore, the lack of a common established institution and party identity weakened the authoritarian governance with each successive regime.

Transition to a liberal democratic regime

In 1985, Brazil elected a new president, 74 year-old Tancredo Neves, who had been one of the important leaders of the opposition to the military regime which took power in 1964. Unfortunately, Neves died before assuming office, so the elected Vice-president elect, Jose Sarney, took over the Executive Office on March 15, 1985, bringing an end of 21 years of military rule (Mainwaring, 1986, p 149).

This final stage of Brazil’s road to democracy is a transition to a liberal-democratic regime under the Sarney administration, from 1985-90 (Dreiduss & Dulci, 1983, p 6). A new democratic constitution was created in October 1988, which restored civil and public rights such as equality between men and women, free speech, lifting of censorship and free and fair elections. Voting was made compulsory for all literate persons between 18 and 69 years of age. Scholars believe that Jose Sarney’s administration certainly represented a major development in the Brazil’s final road to democracy.

After a twenty-nine year gap, direct Presidential elections were resumed in Brazil in 1989. A new president, Fernando Collor de Mello was elected with 53% of the vote for a five-year term. He was determined to complete the transition from the 21-year military rule to civilian rule to civilian government (Codato, 2006). Thus, by the end of the 1980s, Brazil was on its journey to democratization. A new political system surfaced from a long and slow process of change. A comparatively open party structure and a civilian constitutional framework laid the base of the democratic rule.

Explaining Brazil’s Transition after a long authoritarian rule
Splits in military regime

Transitions from military rule often start with splits within the reigning military elite because military regimes possess roots for their own disintegration (Geddes, 1999). Geddes believes that splits are sparked by rivalries and clash of interests within the ruling entity of an authoritarian regime. In Brazil’s case, the regime changes in of 1889, 1930, 1945, and now 1964, along with the opposing political forces, caused splits in the military regime. One example which happened under the Branco administration was the conflicting demands that left Branco in an uncompromising situation. The military hard-liners wished for a complete removal of left-wing and populist influences and blamed Branco for not going left far enough. Whereas, civilian politicians blocked the progress of Branco’s reforms and condemned him for his dictatorial methods (Hudson, 1997). He successfully preserved presidential dominance over the military and imposed a tight rein on possible trouble-makers.

In addition, Brazil’s armed forces divided into two groups- the first believing they should confine themselves to their professional responsibilities, and the hard-liners who regarded politicians as scoundrels ready to betray Brazil to communism. The hard-liners won the conflict between both groups but were unable to institutionalize their political aims and did not attempt to remove liberal ideas within the military. Their fear of disapproval from the international community, and resistance from society resulted in their avoidance from personalist dictatorship (Hudson, 1997). Therefore, the splits and conflicts among military leaders and their concern for reputation threatened the breakdown of authoritarianism and aided in democratization.

U.S influence

To understand what pressured Costa e Silva to democratize Brazil, it is imperative to note one factor which Levitsky and Way (2003) used as a variable in determining if authoritarian regimes remained in power or were overthrown by democratic ones. It is the role of the western influence, which includes linkage to the West and Western leverage. Forging relations with the U.S. could bring unimagined benefits to Brazil, including the inflow of technology and internal security through U.S military personnel operating in Brazil. Their top concern was expanding its economic presence worldwide in order to transform its profile abroad, and required the help of the U.S. International influences are complex, but some forms such as military intervention are easily observable, as witnessed in the likelihood of Western governments in promoting democracy in neighbouring nations (Levitsky & Way, 2003). Hence, Brazil did not resist the U.S’s military intrusion in the country as they feared damaging their relationship with the latter. This endangers Brazil’s authoritarian entrenchment as accepting foreign democratic influence may lead to democratization in the near future.

Role of the Catholic Church

In many Latin American countries, a more persistent cause of the change to democracy is emergence of the Catholic Church. Churches used to be associated with the local organization, the land-owning oligarchy, and dictatorial government. In the 1960s, the church changed. It brought about a strong social institution to oppose authoritarian regimes, denied those regimes of any legitimacy they might claim from religion, and offered protection, support, resources, and leadership to pro-democratic opposition movements (Huntington, 1991, p 77).

Brazil saw the rapid increase in ecclesiastical base communities (CEBs) between the 1960s and 1970s, that amounted to a total of 40 000 by 1974. The CEBs strived to serve as a form of support for democratic political parties in Brazil, helping transform the country with the bottom-up approach through liberating policies, and to create a heightened awareness of political rights and duties in citizens (Hewitt, 1990, p 140). In comparison to the harsh and dangerous living conditions under the Medici administration, CEBs have garnered popular support through improving lives and transforming neighborhoods. For example, basic infrastructure and health care such as sewer connections and the number of walk-in-clinics have increased drastically (Hewitt, 1990, p 151). Therefore, the role of the Catholic Church and Christian communities should not be lightly dismissed as ineffectual agents of social change by the regime as they had both the power and ability to lead a military regime to its next political transition to democracy.

Reverse effects of the “economic miracle” in the early 1970s

Despite conflicts with the Roman Church, in the early 1970s, Brazil experienced its “economic miracle”. This was triggered by the soccer World Cup triumph in 1970. Its pride and fame led it to build the Trans-Amazonian Highway through the northern rain forests, and also constructed the world’s largest hydroelectric dam at Itaipu. The next five years saw how the military-civil technocratic alliance progressed and boosted the economy. Brazil’s GNP grew at an average rate of almost 10% a year, giving the country hopes of a successful complete industrialization and consolidation of military power.

However, the economic development led to the failure of Medici’s rule, the increase in income levels promoted democratization. Firstly, Huntington (1991) argues that the increased economic development promotes the expansion of the affluent middle working class, which makes up the majority of Brazil’s population. With higher levels of income, the middle-class, being bigger in size as compared to the industrial working class in Brazil, felt that they had a greater power to advance their interests through electoral politics. The former shifted their support away from coups and demanded democratic rule for more economic stability.

Additionally, the “economic miracle” in Brazil caused the high income inequality to worsen which increased sufferings for the poorer (Beghin, 2008). The strong pressures of rapid economic growth led to the failure of the military regime and aided the transformation of the dictatorship to a democracy. Under the ineffective leadership of President Medici and General Silva, social conflict intensified as the lower income class lost trust in the military government, and this paved the way for democracy.

Economic Crisis

Exogenous shocks exhibited the military’s incapability to handle economic crisis. During the oil crisis, rise of U.S interest rates forced the economy into uncertainties. The resultant trade disequilibrium increased foreign debt and Brazil resorted to the borrowing in huge sums and the dependence on international financial resources. The Geisel government decided to increase investments and import substitution. As a result, Brazil’s internal production grew slightly, but there were other problems such as a high foreign debt, rising internal interest rates and negative trade balances. The economic crisis further worsened preexisting divides in the military and significantly enhanced popular dissent against Brazil’s regime (Geddes, 1999). This illustrated the military government, particularly, Geisel’s incompetence to cope with effects of exogenous shocks and signaled a return to democratic rule for more economic stability.

To sum up, Brazil’s gradual and slow transition to a democracy that spread across 5 different administrations was caused largely by internal conflicts and differences in the military, the role of the Catholic Church, and its economic development in the early 1970s. Exogenous causes do also have an effect in the breakdown of a country’s authoritarianism, such as the role of the U.S and the 1973 oil crisis. In the next section, I will briefly describe the steps taken in the transition, before which I evaluate Brazil’s democratic consolidation.

How did Brazil transit to democracy after the coup?

Brazil’s transition after the coup occurred through maintaining low levels of violence, holding free and fair elections, and through negotiations and compromise. Having prior experience of dealing with civil violence during the Figueiredo administration reminded Brazil of the need to eliminate extremist radical opposition. Events such as the election of a first civilian president in 1985, Neves, the adoption of a new constitution in 1988 and the popular election a president in 1989, Collor de Mello, showed evidence of creeping democratization, as direct and fair voting is an important in eradication authoritarian features (Huntington, 1991, p 126). Lastly, transitions in Brazil were characterized by “tentative understandings”, instead of violence and overthrowing previous regimes. Disagreements and conflicts were peacefully worked out through negotiations and compromise, regardless of whether it was done so explicitly or implicitly. Political elites, especially the Brazilians, recognized the significance of cooperating with the opposition to prevent any form of violence.

Having seen the successful establishment of a democratic country that took 16 years to change from an authoritarian regime, how much has democracy been consolidated in Brazil?

Assessing the consolidation of democracy

Studying the consolidation of Brazil’s democracy after its transition from a stable authoritarian rule has proved not to be an easy task. Brazil has been democratic since 1985 when President Neves was elected through direct elections. However, there are doubts about the quality and stability of democracy as several challenges have emerged.

A major reason preventing the country from fully consolidating is that the Brazilian public has not been the most supportive of the change in government to a democracy. According to a poll in 1988 gathering information on citizens’ attitudes toward democracy, efficacy and legitimacy of the government were found to be low. Citizens lack faith in the democratic rule and see the return of the military as a desired future alternative (Linz and Stepan, 1996). Their ambivalence is due to Brazil’s weak rule of law, a fragmented party system and presidentialism, and conflicts in the civil society.

Firstly, Citizens believe that the justice system was biased towards protecting the powerful instead of defending the vulnerable. The police were inefficient in ensuring safety in the neighbourhoods. In 1990, violence and gun fights involving the police increased in Brazil’s urban city. Another evidence of Brazil’s undeveloped rule of law is the high rate of state officials breaking the law. For example President Collor was impeached for monetary corruption. Hence, the inability of state officials to impose a fair administration of justice, as perceived by the citizens, obstructs Brazil’s democratic future.

Secondly, Brazil’s combination of fragmented party systems and presidentialism makes it hard for enduring democracy (Mainwaring, 1993). Similar to an argument by Przeworski (1996), he claims that parliamentary institutions are more favourable for democracies to persist. In 1992, Brazil only had 8.5 parties in the lower house, resulting in more fragmented party system than any other presidentialism in the world. Parliamentarianism produced a strong motivation for party discipline and coalition-building that would push Brazil’s political society to aggregate interests and work towards sustaining a democracy. Thus, Brazil’s defeat of parliamentarianism in April 1993 proved to have affected its freedom to a strong democratic system.

Lastly, Brazil’s democracy is challenged with much social conflict in its civil society. Racial discrimination and violation of human rights remain prevalent in Brazil. Though changes have been made to protect human rights, inhumane conditions in prison cells and police killings are still a common sight in the streets of Brazil. The judicial branch of government has failed as an institution to protect rights of the minority. Equal punishment was not enforced; black criminals received stricter sentences than their white peers (Pinherio, 2002, p 117). High income inequality caused uneven political rights in Brazil. The poor are unable to effectively voice their demands either because their demands are usually ignored or they do not have access to channels to articulate them (Linz and Stepan, 1996). Exclusion of the minority groups such as the poor or the smallest racial groups pose a huge constraint in the government’s efforts in consolidating democracy.

Demilitarization of the public space has not been successful even after the transition, and poses a danger to Brazil’s democracy. By treating crime as a military problem instead of a social problem, Brazil is reinforcing the military’s presence in the political sphere, and making it tougher to address crime through structural changes. With the increase of social conflicts such as high levels of corruption, racial discrimination and high rates of internal gun fights with the police, it highlights the government’s inability to control crime and the fragility of certain institutions to protect human rights. Therefore the police have become the problem rather than the solution. Under pressure, governors have no choice but to ask the military for help without considering the long term consequences (Zaverucha, 2000, p 26). Governing elites do not support the military’s direct presence in its political arena; however Brazil has proven to be in a state of chaos after the fall of the regime, and does not want to be deprived of strong military protection (Zaverucha, 2000, p 27). Thus, the state’s acceptance of limited military power in ensuring safety in Brazil hinders its democratic consolidation and increases the possibility of a lapse into authoritarianism.

On the contrary, the road ahead for Brazil’s democracy does look rather promising with recent advancements showing the population’s apparent ‘democratic awareness and responsiveness’. Over the last few years, the percentage of voter turn-out in local elections has risen from 77.45% in the 1970s to 83.27% in 2006 (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2009). The state has been actively cooperating with the citizens to increase political participation and engagement in the affairs of the state. Furthermore, several non-governmental organizations have dedicated their time to protect human rights and improve civil liberties and political rights. The Brazilian constitution of 1988 encompasses an authentic bill of rights that corrected all international human rights conventions and criminalized torture and racial discrimination. Tools have been put in place to protect democratic rights and prepare the fight for justice and democracy in the future. In 1996, the government launched the National Human Rights Program, with the aim of controlling all violence against the poor, and solve hunger and unemployment issues (Pinheiro, 2000). Thus the progress Brazil has made in counteracting effects of the authoritarian regime and protecting political rights is enough to consolidate its democracy.

The stable and continual emergence of a judiciary is another symbol of hope for Brazil’s future democracy. In March 2007, the Supreme Court in Brazil upheld a ruling by electoral tribunal which outlawed party switching (The Economist, 2007). Over the past 16 years, switching of loyalties between the lower house and other houses was a frequent sight. In order to prevent this, the court ruled that votes belong to parties and not individual representatives. As a result, the law increased the voters’ accountability and prevented party switching. Brazil’s corruption scandal in September 2007 resulted in the Supreme Court accusing the top 40 people in the Lula government for illegal vote-buying (BBC News, 2007). This case signified the first time Brazil’s Court has ever brought criminal charges against politicians, and proves the court’s righteousness in upholding law and order.


Brazil has come a long way from initiating the transition process, to changing its political system from an authoritarian regime to a democratic system and lastly, to consolidating its democracy. It has encountered many problems in its transition and also faces many challenges in trying to stabilise its democracy to prevent a regression back to authoritarianism. Despite the many socio-economic and political problems, Brazil has established itself as the world’s eighth largest economy, with a GDP of $1.58 trillion, which ranks in the top ten globally (Juan, 2008). The country has also successfully enforced the protection of human and political rights and tackled major health issues such as AIDS.

However, Brazil still has an important task of completely eliminating the military presence in the state and maintaining competitive political leadership. Demilitarization to prevent democratic erosion can be done by increasing funding to train and equip the police forces to efficiently bring safety to Brazilians. Further efforts to increase literacy levels through educational programmes can promote political awareness and encourage involvement in state affairs. Hence, the demise of Brazil’s democracy is nowhere near, as long as it maintains its Freedom House rating of a free country through high political rights and civil liberties, and work towards strengthening all aspects of society that threaten the consolidation to democracy.