The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, negotiated an amendment to the Constitution for Brazil to abandon presidentialism and adopt the semi-presidential system of government. Such a measure is supported by politicians and lawyers and would serve to please the parliamentary majority, reducing the pressure for the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro.
We have seen this movie before. Although semi-presidentialism is a legitimate system of government and has been championed by many academics, it is necessary to understand the Brazilian context in which various traditional and clientelist sectors of national politics have long specifically promoted it. .
The reason: in semi-presidentialism, the president is elected by direct suffrage, but who actually governs is not him, but a prime minister supported by the majority of parliamentarians. As in pure parliamentarism (where there is no popular vote for the president).
How does semi-presidentialism work?
The president’s degree of power varies: in some countries, such as France, Russia and African nations, his influence is considerable or decisive. In the model defended by the president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, the president chosen by the people would have the power of political intervention of a queen of England.
Today, the quarrel for the presidency tends to polarize between a left-wing and a right-wing candidacy, with other parties forming the coalition with the winning group. This dynamic would be changed if the government no longer depended on the presidential race.
Both pure parliamentarism and semi-presidentialism, when there are many parties, as in Brazil, tend to the crisis of ungovernability. More serious than that, for the concern of this text: such governments are formed only by negotiation between parliamentarians, leaving the voters and their votes outside the decision of who is the prime minister, that is to say the governor.
In this way, the feeling that the vote is unnecessary and that the representatives are far from the population would increase. The political groups that have been in every government, in the cabinet and have influenced politics, could finally lead directly, by appointing the prime minister. They would not need a presidential candidacy to convince the population. The maneuver is old. Semi-presidentialism / parliamentarism seems, in Brazil, to be those horror films in which the monster or the serial killer always returns.
Semi-presidentialism in Brazilian history
It is common knowledge that the military, who again failed to fulfill their constitutional role by repeatedly threatening representative institutions, staged a coup in 1964, motivated by anti-Communist hysteria. However, we forget that they also violated democracy three years earlier.
In the reasonably democratic period that began with the end of Getúlio Vargas’ dictatorship in 1945, the president and vice-president were elected directly by the people, but on different lists. Thus, in 1960, it was possible to choose a vice candidate not aligned with the one who had voted to preside over the country. Conservative Jânio Quadros won with the speech of “large-scale” corruption (the campaign symbol was a broom), but the vice-president would be João Goulart, leftist and defender of grassroots reforms. Quadros resigned from the presidency in 1961 after eight months in office.
By associating Goulart with communism, in the same neurotic Cold War litany produced in the United States, the military did not want to allow its possession. They only gave in on one condition: that the system of government be changed. Goulart would assume the presidency, but not under the presidential regime.
Tancredo Neves, a traditional politician, became Prime Minister, while Goulart would not have the same powers envisioned when he and Quadros received their votes at the polls. This is generally treated as a slight instability, but it was an obvious democratic violation: the adoption of semi-presidentialism was deliberately aimed at weakening the president and took place under military threat. Let’s call it the 1961 “coup” to differentiate it from the 1964 coup.
In 1963, the population decided in a plebiscite whether Brazil would maintain the “parliamentary” system (it was in fact semi-presidential, since the president had been elected directly). The response was resounding: 83% of valid votes said NO to parliamentarism. Fought over with Goulart’s return to his rightful role, the army began a dictatorship.
In 1989, Brazil directly elected a president for the first time in 29 years. In the climate of Fernando Collor’s impeachment, an amendment to the Constitution was approved in 1992 to hold another referendum on the system of government in 1993. As well as choosing between presidentialism and parliamentarism, there was also the unusual option of returning to the monarchy, which ended in 1889.
Today there is a reactionary wave in Brazil, with some support for the anachronistic return of the monarchy. While the experiences of D. Pedro I and D. Pedro II are idealized, their heirs gain space to present their positions in the “line of succession” as if relevant. But in 1993, the royalist campaign on television was not taken seriously. Its slogan was “Vote for the King” and affirmed that the rich countries were monarchical: England, Japan, Sweden… Even with 69% of valid votes rejecting parliamentarism and 87% opposing royalist delirium, the question was not buried.
Who defends semi-presidentialism today?
The defense of semi-presidentialism / parliamentarism has grown stronger during the 13 years of the Lula Workers’ Party government. The absence of any prospect of electoral victory for the right has reinforced the idea that it should not be up to the people to choose the head of government.
Arguments often distorted the characteristics of government systems and idealized parliamentarism. There was even the fallacious argument that the president would only be weak in semi-presidentialism if his political group did not have a majority. However, this would obviously happen, because of the dispersion of parliamentarians between the different parties and the fact that the left won the presidential elections, but holds less than 20% of the parliamentary seats.
The solution to remove the left from power turned out to be more drastic: the coup d’état of 2016, with the dismissal of President Dilma Rousseff without any real legal reason, and the political imprisonment of Lula, favorite for the following elections. Now, with Lula again eligible and leading the polls, with Bolsonaro in second place, without a viable “third way” candidacy appearing, the theme of semi-presidentialism returns, with a very particular defense objective. of its establishment in Brazil.
Brazilian democracy has been weakened by the lack of respect for the will of the ballot box. It is not with more distance of the population from the center of political decision-making, as in this semi-presidential film, that the situation will improve. Nor with more judicialization, with the consecration of the great-great-grandchildren of the former emperor, or with authoritarian soldiers. Brazil will only resume days of hope, well-being and prosperity with more democracy.
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