President Fernando Cardoso’s recent announcement that he was interested
in seeking a second term in office has sparked a debate about the current
presidential electoral system. Since 1889, the inception of the republic, there is a
provision preventing a president to remain in power for more than one consecutive
mandate. The provision some say is to prevent despotism. But, does it work?
Presidential reelection has been an on-again off-again issue in Brazil over the past several months. In the last
three months or so the debate has picked up steam with national surveys of public opinion on the issue and the
media’s scrutiny of president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s behavior and what it tells us about his intentions.
Politicians in the Chamber of Deputies and the
Senate (the lower and upper house of the Brazilian national
legislature, respectively) have run the gamut of political positioning
on this issue. Some are in favor of allowing the president to run for
immediate reelection. Others are vehemently opposed to the idea. Still
others are taking a more cautious approach, waiting for the political
winds to tell them what they should do.
On a trip to Argentina in mid April, Fernando Henrique Cardoso met with Argentine president Carlos Menem
who spoke openly that Cardoso should be allowed to run for reelection in Brazil. Menem, you may recall, modified
the constitution in his own country and was elected to a second term. Cardoso took charge and publicly displayed
his support for the idea, making it clear that he would like to run for president again in 1998 and stay in office until
the year 2002. This placed the issue to a wider audience, the public, whereas before it had remained almost exclusively
in the realm of backstage politics.
Cardoso’s announcement has sparked an intense struggle between the government and opposition forces within
the national congress and other politicians vying to position themselves for the 1998 presidential election. This
struggle is played out, however, in a battlefield of constitutional reform bills under consideration by congress,
primarily, although not exclusively, in relation to the archaic, inefficient and corrupt social security system.
Cardoso’s announcement also leads to questions about why the current presidential electoral system, with
the provision prohibiting the possibility of immediate reelection, has remained unchanged since the inception of
the republic in 1889. The issue of presidential reelection in Brazil also raises the questions: why have it? why not have
it? In other words, what are the purported advantages and disadvantages of allowing a president to serve
consecutive terms in office?
The importance assigned to the no-reelection principle is pervasive throughout most of Latin America and has
acquired a strong symbolic value. The memory of lifelong rule by nondemocratic rulers, caudillos and dictators, led to
demands of no reelection. Attempts to change constitutional provisions barring reelection efforts to assure what
Latin Americans call
continuísmo, have mobilized public opinion and at times have led to riots and coups.
The prospect of reelection of an incumbent often has united presidential hopefuls of quite opposite
ideological positions, as some powerful Brazilian governors were united against João Goulart in 1964. A recent article in
Veja, a weekly newsmagazine, points out, however, that if constitutional barriers to reelection were intended to
eliminate dictatorship, history shows that they failed miserably. A more plausible argument is that the republican
constitution adopted in 1891, modeled after the United States constitution, reflected the fact that up to that point Brazil was
ruled by a monarch.
Thus the drafters of the new constitution inserted the rule of no presidential reelection. And despite the adoption
of five new constitutions over the course of history, this principle remained entrenched in all of them. The most
recent constitution, promulgated in 1988, also attached significant importance to the principle of no-reelection, but
instead of deciding outright, the writers of the 1988 constitution scheduled a constitutional reform period, to occur five
years after the promulgation of the 1988 document. At this time the then national legislature voted on an amendment
that would have allowed reelection. They voted it down.
Since 1985, newly democratic Brazil has been undergoing a transition period where new values are replacing old
ones and new institutional arrangements are gaining adherents, both in the public and in the political elite. Brazil is
living a time of intense institutional scrutiny. It is therefore, relevant and appropriate to weigh the merits and demerits of
the presidential electoral arrangement currently in place as well as of what is being proposed, namely to allow the
president to run for immediate reelection.
The disadvantages associated with the principle of no reelection are numerous. First of all there is no way of
holding accountable a president who cannot be presented for reelection. Such a president can neither be punished by the
voters by defeat nor rewarded for success by reelection with the same or larger vote than in the previous election. A
president who cannot be reelected is unaccountable.
Second, a rapid turnover in power, after only four years in the case of Brazil, can also have dysfunctional
consequences because no government can be assured the time to implement promises, to carry through between the two
elections major programs of social change, to achieve irreversible changes in the society. The rapid turnover in power
also encourages a sense of urgency that might lead to ill-designed policies, rapid implementation, impatience with
the opposition, and expenditures that otherwise would be distributed over a longer period of time or policies that
might contribute to political tension and sometimes inefficacy.
Third, the principle of no reelection means that the political system has to produce a capable and popular
leader periodically and that the political capital accumulated by a successful leader cannot be used beyond the leader’s
term of office. Finally, the desire for continuity may lead a president to look for a successor who will not challenge him
while he is in office. Such a person is not necessarily the most capable and attractive candidate.
On the other hand, the adoption of the principle of no reelection almost guarantees that the president will try to
make a positive mark right away and work very hard to achieve that goal. No reelection also means the possible
healthy alternation in power of different political parties and politicians.
The adoption of a rule allowing reelection also carries with it disadvantages and advantages. First, in the case of
Brazil, eight years might be too many. Second, it runs contrary to the Brazilian tradition of setting legal obstacles to
continuist temptations. Third, the possibility of reelection provides incentives to use the state apparatus and spend public
funds irresponsibly in an effort to win a second term in office. According to Brazilian political scientist Bolívar
Lamounier, “If many holders of executive positions already spend so much to get their successor elected, what will happen
when they are running for office themselves?”
Another negative is the possibility of abusing the executive apparatus in electoral campaigns, which already
occurs in favor of specific candidates supported by the government. Likewise, how much more will this be abused if
the incumbent is the candidate. Fourth, it may lead to the feudalization of local power in the hands of local and state
leaders for very long periods of time. On the other hand, four years may be perceived as too few. Reelection also
allows continuity in government programs. It also stabilizes rules and reinforces domestic and foreign confidence in
the regime. Finally, the electorate has the opportunity to judge the president at the end of his (or her) term in office.
Of course the debate goes beyond the realm of abstract pros and cons and into the field of practicing politicians
who are constantly trying to gain the best possible political position for themselves and their parties. The initial reaction
to the president’s announcement was not uniform. The most vocal supporter of Cardoso’s bid for reelection was,
and is, the PSDB, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, of which the president is a member.
The leaders of the PSDB would like to see the next administration continue the policy orientation initiated by
Cardoso. What better way to assure this than to have Cardoso himself back in the office for another four years? But even
within his own party there are dissidents. Ciro Gomes, former governor of the northeastern state of Ceará and currently
a visiting researcher at Harvard University, publicly denounced the president’s intentions to pursue a
constitutional reform measure to allow him to run again in 1998.
In April, Cardoso sought to make allies out of the current governors and mayors. The current state governors,
however, realized how difficult it would be for the proposal to pass in the Senate, where a large number of senators have
their eyes on the elections for governorship in 1998, and balked at throwing their support behind Cardoso. In the
meantime, Cardoso received the enthusiastic support of 600 mayors from around the country who convened in Brasília to
meet with the president.
The mayor of the city of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf, had supported the idea of changing the constitution to allow
for executive reelections even before the president openly endorsed it. Maluf supported the idea not out of loyalty to
the president or because he thinks the president is doing a good job. Maluf’s political ambitions dictate his position.
Paulo Maluf is seeking to make true the old adage: the third time is a charm. Twice Maluf ran unsuccessfully for
president, once in 1985 against Tancredo Neves, and again in 1989, an election in which he didn’t even make it into the
Maluf initially supported the proposal because he felt that he could get reelected as mayor of São Paulo in the
upcoming October elections, and run for president in 2002 using two terms as São Paulo mayor as credentials. Maluf
withdrew his support when he realized that there was no time left to change the electoral rules for the elections this year.
In addition, he feels that next year most political parties will have their presidential candidates picked out and will be
less likely to support the president’s plans to alter the constitution.
The most serious opposition to the idea of changing the constitution to allow the president to serve consecutive
terms in office comes from the other political parties, including the PFL, the Liberal Front Party, which helped elect
Cardoso in 1994 and is part of the government base in his cabinet and the national congress. The powerful governor of
Bahia and one of the leaders of the PFL, Antônio Carlos Magalhães, publicly displayed his displeasure, a sentiment
echoed by Inocêncio Oliveira, leader of the PFL in the Chamber of Deputies, who voiced his concern that the government
was playing a dangerous game that could have grave consequences for the administration.
PFL leaders politely informed the president that he didn’t have a leg to stand on in congress when it comes to this
issue. The PMDB, the largest party in congress, the PPB, Paulo Maluf’s party, and the PFL would only agree to consider
the proposal beginning in 1997. The president of the Senate, José Sarney (who governed Brazil between 1985 and
1990), was also opposed. Sarney’s opposition is due to his less than subtle aspirations to return to the presidency in
1998. Not unlike Sarney, former president Itamar Franco declared his opposition to the idea arguing that allowing
reelection precludes the “alternation of parties and men in exercising executive authority.”
The president of the PMDB, Paes de Andrade, joined forces with Franco in publicly declaring his opposition to
the proposal. To further complicate matters for the president, most of the business sector, which has benefited
greatly during the one and a half years of the Cardoso administration, also failed to support the president’s plan.
José Ermírio de Moraes, head of Votorantim, Brazil’s biggest private conglomerate, dismissed the idea that
the reelection issue might delay the other reforms and said he would vote for Cardoso again. On the other side,
the powerful Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP) openly questioned the president’s
timing. According to FIESP, the debate over the reelection issue is very inconvenient at this point, when more
significant legislation is being discussed in congress. For them the idea seems dead in the water.
But since mid April, the issue has reappeared time and again. Most importantly, it has resurfaced in the form of
two projects introduced in the lower house of congress. The first was presented by federal deputy Mendonça Filho and
it involves amending the 1988 constitution to allow reelection of all executive posts. The most difficult part,
however, is that a constitutional amendment requires a majority of three fifths of the members of the lower house instead of
a simple majority, which is what is needed for passage of ordinary legislation.
Support of this magnitude is hard to
muster especially in a country like Brazil where party loyalty is
practically nonexistent and the president has to negotiate with almost
each member of congress. The second piece of legislation, introduced by
deputy Márcio Fortes (PSDB-Rio de Janeiro), requires only a simple
majority vote and calls for a national plebiscite in which Brazilians
would decide the fate of the issue. As ordinary legislation this
naturally appeals to the president. Furthermore, in this project a
“yes” vote in the plebiscite would automatically change the
Again, obstacles emerge. This time the Supreme Federal Tribunal (the Brazilian supreme court) claimed that 1)
a national plebiscite itself requires a constitutional amendment and 2) even if a plebiscite took place and the “yes”
vote prevailed, a constitutional amendment would still be required to confirm the citizens’ preferred choice.
The Cardoso administration, in recent weeks, has decided to lay low on the issue. Public displays of support,
especially by the president, fuel the opposition. Even the Minister of Communications, Sérgio Motta, the most ardent and
vocal supporter of presidential reelection, whether it be via plebiscite or constitutional amendment, has toned down
his public pronouncements in favor of conducting business behind the scenes. The decision to step back and let the
issue settle down for the moment was also the result of the administration’s attitude that government performance, and
not rhetoric, will pave the way to a positive result in congress.
Cardoso himself has shifted gears and in an interview on the Rádio Gaúcha (a radio station from the state of Rio
Grande do Sul) on July 2 the president argued that the government needs seven years to solve national problems. In his
words, “God needed seven days to make the world. I am not God. For a mere mortal, it will be necessary seven years.”
The new strategy adopted by the president appears to coincide with the fact that government performance will be one
key to the success of any proposal to change the constitution in the president’s favor.
Along these lines and despite serious divisions between the PFL and the PSDB in the main states of the southeast,
Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and in congress, the president is banking on the success of the PSDB candidates in
the municipal elections of October 3. Especially in São Paulo, where the PSDB candidate, José Serra (former Minister
of Planning), is running second in public opinion polls to former São Paulo mayor and PT (Workers’ Party)
candidate Luíza Erundina.
The election of José Serra in São Paulo, and a more generalized success nationwide, would accomplish three
goals: first, it would serve as a positive vote on the Real plan and the Cardoso government; second, it would provide
continued support for the president at the state level; and third, it would eliminate potential opponents in the 1998
presidential election, mainly Paulo Maluf. If the PSDB achieves these goals, there should be fewer obstacles in the
national congress to holding a national plebiscite or voting on a constitutional amendment. But Cardoso’s primary concern
has to be with his government’s ability to deliver on promises made during the presidential election campaign in 1994.
It is difficult to entertain the notion of accepting a change to the institutional arrangement of the
presidency disassociated from the current president and how well he performs in office. This occurred on April 21, 1993,
when Brazilians voted to keep the presidential form of government (55%) over implementing a parliamentary system
(25%). Congressional opinion between mid 1991 and December 1992, according to an IDESP opinion poll,
confirmed substantial support for parliamentarism, and this trend was clearly associated with sharply negative evaluations
of President Collor’s performance.
An IDESP survey of the public at large
showed that the parliamentarist option was most attractive to voters
who were strongly opposed to Collor. The parliamentarist option
eventually failed primarily because the vast majority of the Brazilian
electorate said they wanted to vote directly for the head of
government, not an option in the parliamentarist proposal. What does
this tell us about FHC’s chances to change the constitution so that he
can run for president again in 1998?
In a public opinion poll conducted by InformEstado in mid April and published in the daily newspaper
O Estado de S. Paulo, respondents were asked whether they favored the approval of a constitutional amendment that would
allow reelection to executive posts. According to the results, 62 percent of the respondents (the sample consisted only
of residents of the state of São Paulo) favored it in general, that is for all executive posts.
On the other hand, 65 percent thought that the issue was taking time and energy away from efforts to gain
congressional approval of other more important constitutional reforms. This high level of support shouldn’t be surprising since
at the time the poll was conducted the president enjoyed an approval rate of roughly 66% in the state of São
Paulo (reported in the Latin American Regional report: Brazil).
Since mid April, the government has been hit hard by the media and its perceived inability to gain passage of
important bills in congress, not to mention the negative public reaction to the administration’s lackadaisical efforts to curb
rural violence and deal with the issue of land reform. More importantly, Brazilians feel that Cardoso has not kept
his campaign promises. In a survey conducted by IstoÉ/Brasmarket with 4,789 respondents from 14 capitals
and concluded on June 12, less than 18 percent rated the government “good” or “very good.”
On the other hand, four out of every five respondents rated the Cardoso administration “regular” or
“terrible.” Cardoso, the individual, still receives high marks. More than half the sample “approve” of the president.
The government received its worst ratings in the area of job creation (75% of respondents feel that the president failed
to fulfill his campaign pledge), followed by personal safety (60%), and by agriculture (52%). It shouldn’t come as
a surprise then that in a national plebiscite only 30.5 percent would vote in favor of letting the president serve
two consecutive terms while 52 percent would vote against it.
It remains to be seen whether Fernando Henrique Cardoso can reverse course and gain greater popular support. If
the public begins to see the government fulfilling its promises, the likelihood of giving the president what he
wants increases, which is a chance to run again in 1998. But even if his support increases, it remains to be seen whether
this will translate into greater support in the national congress.
As the 1998 presidential election approaches, and in the aftermath of the October municipal elections,
potential candidates will begin to emerge and their parties will become less likely to vote in favor of a constitutional
amendment that would allow Cardoso to run again in 1998 — with the likely exception of the PSDB. In this case, Cardoso’s
hopes rest on a national plebiscite whose outcome rests not in the president’s ability to deliver on his 1994