Go Back

Brazzil - History - April 2004

The Day Democracy Lost in Brazil

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1984, the constitutional
amendment for direct elections, in Brazil, went to a vote. The
final vote was 298 in favor, 65 against. The amendment
failed by 22 votes. The defeat created an enormous feeling of
disappointment, but spurred the opposition to carry on its struggle.

Deigma Turazi


Picture On April 25,1984, thousands of demonstrators poured into the Esplanada dos Ministérios in Brasília demanding direct elections for president. Even though the police were out in force, the crowd took up positions everywhere.

There were people on the broad avenues and on the vast green lawns that lead to the heart of political power in Brazil: the Plaza of the Three Powers (where the Brazilian Congress, White House (Palácio do Planalto) and Supreme Court are all located).

The Brasília demonstration followed on the heels of gigantic protests all over the country. Between January 12 and April 16, over thirty demonstrations took place. In Rio de Janeiro, around 300,000 people protested in favor of direct elections on April 10, and in São Paulo, there were over one million protestors at a mass rally on April 16.

On April 25, 1984, the President of Brazil was general João Baptista Figueiredo and the country was still being governed by a military dictatorship, twenty years after they had taken over the government back in 1964 by overthrowing the João Goulart administration.

In Congress, on April 25, 1984, a bill for direct elections for president was up for a vote (the bill was a constitutional amendment authored by Dante de Oliveira from Mato Grosso do Sul's MDB party (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro—Brazilian Democratic Movement). On the floor, rounding up votes for the amendment, was the man known as Mr. Direct Elections, deputy Ulysses Guimarães from São Paulo's MDB.

Appropriately, he was wearing a yellow tie—yellow was the color of the "direct-election movement." In a speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Guimarães was interrupted no less than 23 times by applause. Outside, all over Brasília, people were honking car horns in favor of direct elections.

"The fatherland is the people and the people will prevail. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But they will prevail. That is inevitable and it will not take long," he declared.

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1984, after 17 hours of rancorous debate, the constitutional amendment for direct elections went to a vote. A total of 320 votes were necessary to approve it. The final vote was 298 in favor, 65 against. The amendment had failed by 22 votes.

Outside the Congress, a surreal scene: riding a white horse, the military commander of Brasilia, general Newton Cruz, used his riding whip on cars that were blowing their horns in favor of direct elections and threatened to arrest everybody wearing yellow.

The defeat of the Dante de Oliveira amendment by such a small margin of votes created an enormous feeling of disappointment nationwide, but it also carried in it a small taste of almost-victory that spurred the opposition to carry on its struggle.

That struggle was largely led by Ulysses Guimarães and a young labor leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their struggle resulted in the victory of the opposition in the indirect elections for president in January 1985. Tancredo Neves, a former governor of Minas Gerais, defeated the military's candidate, Paulo Maluf.

But tragedy was to strike before Tancredo Neves could take office. On the eve of his inauguration, March 15, 1985, the president elect underwent emergency surgery. His health was failing. He was transported to a hospital in São Paulo where he died on April 21.

His vice president, José Sarney (today he is president of the Congress and a senator from Amapá), became the President of Brazil, the last of the presidents to be elected indirectly. During Sarney's term of office, a new constitution, the Constitution of 1988, went into effect. The new constitution consolidates Brazil's democracy, rescuing it from the dictatorship. The new constitution calls for direct elections.

And so, finally, five years after April 25, 1984, in 1989, Brazil had its first direct elections for president in almost 30 years (the last direct elections had been won by Jânio Quadros in 1960. Quadros was succeeded by his vice president, João Goulart, when he resigned in August 1961).

Deigma Turazi works for Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government. Comments are welcome at lia@radiobras.gov.br
Translated by David Silberstein

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

Anything to say about Brazil or Brazilians? Brazzil
wishes to publish your material. See what to do.