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Brazzil - Politics - June 2003

Brazil: Here, Vice-Presidents Count

The vice-presidency has helped shape Brazil's history. In 1992,
Vice-President Itamar Franco rose to the top in place of Fernando
Collor de Mello, who was forced to step down. In 1985,
Vice-President José Sarney took over when President
Tancredo Neves, became ill and died before being inaugurated.

John Fitzpatrick


The ongoing controversy in Brazil over comments made by Vice-President José Alencar on interest rates, has sparked a debate on the vice-presidency itself. Columnists have been bombarding us with their opinions, and few of them seem to think that, as mere Vice-President, Alencar has the right to so much as open his mouth.

Perhaps eight years of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, during which the Vice-President, Marco Maciel, was virtually invisible and inaudible, have implanted this idea. One senator is even trying to get support for a constitutional amendment to scrap the position entirely. This may be a legitimate issue to raise, but the timing is fishy and it seems a bit extreme to abolish the second highest constitutional post in the land, which goes back to 1891 when the Republic was established, simply because José Alencar has been calling for lower interest rates.

In a previous article, I supported Alencar's right to comment on issues since, in the event of anything happening to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, it is Alencar who would succeed him. If this were to happen, then at least the public would know what to expect from the person who would be in command. It should also not be forgotten that the vice-president is directly elected to that post. When people go to the polls, they know they are voting for a vice-president as well as a president.

It has been suggested that instead of a vice-president taking power when the sitting president is away at times, the president of the Lower House of Congress should step in.  But this would be undemocratic, since his electoral legitimacy stems from his election to the legislature, and not the executive branch of power.

Another important point is that, under the Brazilian Constitution, when the president is abroad the vice become acting president, and Alencar has already exercised this function. This gives vice-presidents a "feel" for the job. And so far, Alencar has made no attempt to misuse this power.

This is not the case in the United States for example, where the vice-president only takes power when the president is incapable of giving orders. This happened under the Reagan administration, when the president underwent surgery.

Wider Political Reform Needed

Taking an important constitutional step like abolishing the vice-presidency should be done in a rational way, as part of a process, not as a hasty response to a topical issue. Any such change should also consider wider political reform to end, for example, the scandalous party-swapping as successful candidates switch allegiances for greater favours, or the existence of "supplementary" candidates who take over the seats of members of the Senate who lose their posts for whatever reason.

The best example of this misuse of power in recent years was the simple replacement of the disgraced Senate President Antonio Carlos Magalhães by none other than Antonio Carlos Magalhães Junior, his son. This happened because Magalhães senior appointed his son as his eventual replacement prior to the election itself. All Senate candidates must appoint someone, and most end up submitting the names of close relatives.

In a country like Brazil, with almost no truly national political party, choosing a running mate is usually an attempt to broaden a presidential candidate's support. As a result, it is not unusual to have opponents on the same ticket. For example, in the latest elections, presidential candidate José Serra's running mate, Rita Camata, came from the PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro—Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement) and had voted against many of the main reforms supported by Serra's PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira—Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy). Another presidential candidate, Ciro Gomes, chose as a running mate a trade union leader who one would normally have expected to support Lula.

President Lula himself faced great opposition within his party, the PT, when he announced his alliance with the right-wing evangelical PL (Liberal Party), led by Alencar. On top of that, Alencar is a millionaire businessman. Lula squared this circle by saying he was forming an alliance between labour and capital. In some ways, Alencar is like Lula. He has had a relatively short political career, like Lula who never held any important executive position, such as mayor or state governor, but preferred to be a free agent. Both men are still learning on the job.  

Learning from History

This discussion is not an academic point, since the vice-presidency has helped shape Brazil's history over the last century. Let us look at some incidents in recent history, in which the vice-president has ended up in the president's chair:

- In 1992, Vice-President Itamar Franco rose to the top in place of Fernando Collor de Mello, who stood down as impeachment proceedings began in Congress over allegations of corruption;

- In 1985, Vice-President José Sarney took over when President Tancredo Neves, selected by an electoral college of congressional members, became ill on the eve of his inauguration. Neves eventually died without taking office, and Sarney served the entire four-year term;

- In 1961, Vice-President João Goulart stepped in when Jânio Quadros suddenly and mysteriously resigned after only seven months in office;

- In 1954, it was Vice-President João Café Filho who moved up after Getúlio Vargas committed suicide.

In each of these cases, the results were lamentable for Brazil and, with the exception of the Juscelino Kubitschek era (1956-1960), no president served a full term until Cardoso took office in 1995. Considering the odds, it is almost a miracle that Cardoso managed to govern for two unbroken terms.

Before Cardoso, Presidents Sarney and Franco were unable to cope with the economic crises and hyperinflation that marked the years that followed the end of military rule. The repercussions in the earlier cases where vice-presidents reached power were more serious, in that they effectively led to the imposition of military rule in 1964.

For instance, despite being Vargas' deputy, Café Filho was actually opposed to many of the president's policies. Once in power, he reshuffled the cabinet, bringing in his own supporters to key positions. Just before the end of his term in November 1955, after Kubitschek had been elected to replace him in the following year—with João Goulart as his deputy—Café Filho had health problems and turned over power to the President of the Lower House of Congress, Carlos Luz, a political opponent of both Kubitschek and Goulart.

Café Filho is believed to have thought that allowing Luz to step up, he might prevent the Kubitschek-Goulart duo from actually taking office. But that ploy, if it ever existed, failed. However, when Goulart returned as Vice-President under Jânio Quadros, it was not long before history repeated itself and the deputy found himself in charge. Goulart held the post from September 1961 until April 1964, when he was overthrown in a military coup that saw the armed forces stay in charge in Brazil for the following two decades.

Military Machinations

It is impossible, in a short article, to describe all of the machinations, the wheels within wheels, the coups within coups and the strange symbiotic relationships that caused this chaotic historical interlude. Yet, with the exception of João Goulart, who initially had to share power with Congress*, the role of the vice-president went unquestioned.

Strangely enough, it was during the 21-year period of military rule, from 1964 to 1985, that the vice-presidential position was ignored. When Marshall Arthur da Costa e Silva, who took office in 1967, suffered a stroke in August of 1969, a three-man military junta took control instead of the vice-president, Pedro Aleixo. This junta then appointed General Emilio Garrastazu Medici as President, a move that was rubberstamped by a tame Congress, ignoring the fact that the country had a vice-president standing by. Medici (1969-1974) and his successors, generals Ernesto Geisel (1974-78) and João Batista Figueiredo (1979-1984), served out their terms without interruption**.

Going back even further, we find that the vice-presidency has been a crucial factor several times. In fact, the rise of Getúlio Vargas as a dictator was the result of the assassination, in July of 1930, of João Pessoa, who had been his running mate in the election held in March of that year, which saw Vargas defeated by Julio Prestes.

Vargas and his supporters regarded this as a political attack, and military uprisings took place in several states. The army overthrew the sitting government of Washingon Luis before Prestes could assume office, and appointed Vargas as head of a provisional administration.

Finally, it is worth noting that Brazil's first President, Deodoro da Fonseca, resigned in 1891 after only a short period in office when he unsuccessfully tried to dissolve Congress and assume dictatorial powers. Guess who replaced him? Yes, that's right—Vice-President Floriano Peixoto, who became known as the "consolidator of the Republic" after suppressing an uprising in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Getúlio Vargas had been born eight years earlier in 1883.

The circle keeps turning.

* To weaken Goulart, Congress introduced a parliamentary system when he reached power. However, in a January 1963 plebiscite, Brazilians voted overwhelmingly to restore Goulart's presidential powers guaranteed by the 1946 Constitution.

** Dates are approximate since presidential inaugurations did not happen until the following year.


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—  www.celt.com.br, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

This article appeared originally in Infobrazil, at www.infobrazil.com


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