American-Style Presidentialism Has Been a Recipe for Disaster in Brazil

General João Batista Figueiredo, the last president during Brazil's most recent dictatorship (1964-1985)Due to long-lasting problems with populism and clientelism, one might say that the presidential system adopted in Brazil may not contribute to the realization of democratic government under law. While presidentialism may work in the United States, it does not mean that it works in Latin American countries such as Brazil.

In reality, as the political theorist Giovanni Sartori noted: “The American system works (in its peculiar and unique manner) [only] because Americans are determined to make it work. For Americans do have a constitutional machine made for gridlock, a defect that shows in all its might when their presidentialism is exported to other countries.”

In most other countries, however, presidentialism has led to political instability and institutional disruptions. In a paper published in 1988, political science professor Fred W. Riggs commented that most of the developing countries that adopted this system have “endured disruptive catastrophes usually in the form of one or more coups d’état, whereby conspiratorial groups… seize power, suspend the constitution, displace elected officials, impose martial law and promote authoritarian rule”. In contrast, Riggs asserts, those which adopted the parliamentary system have generally “maintained their regimes and avoided the disruptions typical of all American-type systems”.

The experience of presidentialism in Latin America has certainly not been successful. The substantial failure of the presidential system to bring about democracy and the rule of law in the region is amplified when one considers the great number of revolutions, coups d’état, instances of authoritarianism, and factional strife that have so often characterized the political life of the sub-continent. The presidential systems of Latin America, it can be said, “have been in perennial, unsteady oscillation between power abuse and power deficiency”.

When captured by an authoritarian leader, presidential power can easily exist unchecked by the counterbalancing institutions. But if the president in question happens to lose popularity and support in the parliament, he/she still has the constitutional right to stay in power and enact executive decrees carrying the force of law.

Of course, the government can always try to ‘fix’ the problem with parliamentary support by resorting to military support for the arbitrary dissolution of the parliament, or merely by bribing the parliamentarians, as the Lula administration has done recently in Brazil.

In contrast to presidentialism, the parliamentary system entails a mutual dependence between the executive and the legislature. Parliamentarianism brings, in this sense, more accountability to the government. And since the prime-minister is not directly chosen by the people, the officeholder appears less prone to aggravating populism. According to Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach:

“The essence of pure parliamentarianism is mutual dependence. From this defining condition a series of incentives and decision rules for creating and maintaining single-party or coalition majorities, minimizing legislative impasses, inhibiting the executive from flouting the constitution, and discouraging political society’s support for military coups predictably flows.”

Brazilians could then pass an amendment to introduce a parliamentary system, but other laws would need to accompany this amendment to make it work. A small number of disciplined parties are regarded as essential to the normal workings of a parliamentary system. Brazil, however, has too many parties, most of which are undisciplined.

An important measure for combating political corruption and clientelism is the establishment of new legislation requiring party fidelity as well as the reduction in the number of parties.

This can be done by the adoption of the simple-majority single-ballot system. Proportional representation provokes the multiplication of political parties, whereas, in the words of the late political scientist Maurice Duverger, one can find a “complete correlation” between the simple-majority single-ballot system and the reduction of political parties. According to Duverger, “in no country in the world has proportional representation given rise to a two-party system or kept one in existence”.

Unfortunately, change to the system of government in Brazil is unlikely to occur because many voters in Brazil hold a ‘mystical belief’ in what the political leader can provide for them.

The tradition of the personification of power makes many Brazilian voters somehow to consider more ‘democratic’ to directly elect the chief executive. Furthermore, because of the issue of clientelism, and especially the tradition of populism (and statism), some of them even support a ‘stronger’ form of presidential government, concentrated around the person of the executive leader.

Brazilian Roberto Mangabeira Unger, advocating for this view, argues, for instance, that only a strong president could “provide the route to power less susceptible to plutocratic management and more open to national and structural concerns”.

According to Unger, “a decentralized [i.e.; less authoritarian] parliamentary context” does not satisfy the aspirations of Brazilian “progressives” like him. He believes that this liberal-democratic tradition, as well as the tradition of checks and balances that the American-style presidential system entails, must be rejected by “progressives” in Brazil, because it serves “only” to “secure property rights against populism”.

Thus, in an effort to reorganize the state, politics and civil society, Professor Unger maintains that only a “strong president” can “break the power” of so-called “conservative forces” in the Brazilian legislature, guiding “the masses” toward a revolutionary process in which the power of the state finally becomes “an agent of economic rebellion and reconstruction”. As Unger himself states:

“The presidential regime introduced… with nationalizing and subversive effect… can be a source of unpredictability and a lever of change in a society where everything conspires to prevent surprise.

“However, in its traditional form,” Unger contends “the presidential system suffers from a crucial flaw. The people may elect a captain who promises them the world. In office, however, he soon faces the concerted opposition of the elite interests in the other branches of government [i.e., the courts and elected politicians] as well as in the major stations of civil society [i.e., the citizen]. The solution is to preserve the plebiscitarian potency of the presidential system while purging that system of its bias towards politics-slowing impasse”.

If such ‘strong’ model of presidentialism were adopted within the Brazilian Constitution, the result would be catastrophic for both democracy and the rule of law. Owing to the way that politics in Brazil traditionally operates, too much legal power in the hands of the president would lead to more corruption and all kinds of governmental arbitrariness, especially against the opposition and minority groups.

As the late Argentinean philosopher Carlos Santiago Nino commented: “The kernel of [Unger’s] argument [is] that only the president… is apt to break the network of power binding conservative party leaders and to mobilize the masses after a program of structural transformation.

“But this argument touches precisely on the main weakness of the presidential system: if there is a wide consensus on specific programs and a certain man or group to carry it on, any system would work; the presidential one would only add the risk of abuses against minorities”.

In fact, this model of a ‘strong president’ has currently been adopted in neighbouring Venezuela, where the 1999 Constitution listed substantive goals, such as material equality and economic progress, empowering the president to achieve these objectives. Thus, the current Constitution of Venezuela gives to its ‘strong president’ the power to issue executive commands with the force of law and to dissolve the National Assembly.

To be fair, the president of Venezuela is, nonetheless, subject by force of a constitutional provision to popular plebiscite for the revocation of his mandate. But in practice, as one may well expect, this is almost impossible to implement, successfully, when the president becomes a ‘strong’ leader.

In the wake of a failed (and highly contested) 2004 recall attempt to revoke his mandate, the ‘strong’ president of Venezuela “clamped down on civil liberties, property rights,… decreed new laws that define public protest as a crime, [and] imposed media restrictions that encourage substantial self-censorship under threat of operating licence confiscation”.

Thus, the ‘strong’ presidentialism that Unger suggests has led to the weakening of the rule of law in Venezuela. This should constitute a very good reason for Brazilians to utterly reject his “progressive alternative”. But unfortunately, many members of the country’s ruling elite share with him the same enthusiasm for ‘strong’ government, so that prominent Brazilian intellectuals, politicians, and political activists have equally demonstrated their low regard for liberal democracy and the most basic principles of the rule of law by signing, in 2004, a political manifesto in support of the populist caudillo of Venezuela.

These ‘progressive’ members of the Brazilian elite are basically the heirs of the old Latin American tradition of “strong personal managements”. According to this, notes Law Professor Richard J. Wilson: “Charismatic leaders play the role of traditional caudillos, rich landowners who dispense favors and patronage to their employees. The tradition of caudillismo is long and deep, and is replicated in [populist] national leaders who are vested with extraordinary powers”.

But instead of more top-down ‘revolutionary’ changes conducted by an ‘enlightened’ populist ruler, what Brazil really needs is the rule of law being extended to the regulation of government action. In contrast to the ‘rule’ of a ‘strong president’, it is necessary to develop a culture of legality which minimises public and private arbitrariness, so that basic rights and freedoms of the individual citizen might be respected.

In brief, people in Brazil, particularly the Brazilian ruling groups, ought to finally understand that even a popular president needs always to be governed by pre-established rules of constitutional law.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitutional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is


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