The Federal Republic of Brazil is a democratic system of government that resembles the federal United States of America. The elected president is both the head of state and the head of the federal government. Brazil’s current Constitution dates from 1988.
Brazil’s national government consists of three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. The head of the executive branch is the President of the Republic, who is elected to office by universal suffrage. Voting is done by an extremely high-tech, computerized ballot system. Error or fraud is almost impossible. Voters who can’t read can choose the candidate of their choice by selecting a head shot. To this day, Brazilians are amazed by the infamous system of chads in the United States. Voting is mandatory for all literate citizens between 18 and 70 years of age. Brazilians who don’t vote must present an official justification or pay a (small) fine.
The president chooses a running mate who will be the vice president. Should anything happen to the president, the vice president assumes his or her position for the rest of the four-year term. Once elected to office, the president may appoint his/her own ministers, which he or she can also dismiss at any time. According to the Brazilian Constitution, if there is just cause, Congress can vote to have the president be removed from office through impeachment.
Brazil’s legislative power is concentrated in the hands of the National Congress (Congresso), which consists of two houses: The Chamber of Deputies (Câmara dos Deputados) is the lower house, and the Senate (Senado) is the upper house. The Chamber of Deputies seats 513 deputies representing each of the Brazilian states in numbers proportional to their population. Deputies are elected by popular vote for terms of four years. The Senate seats 81 senators—three for each of Brazil’s 26 states and three for the Federal District of Brasília. Senators are elected for terms of eight years. Both deputies and senators can run for reelection as many times as they want.
The judiciary is headed by the Federal Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the land. Its main headquarters are in Brasília, but the court’s jurisdiction extends throughout the country. Its 11 judges are appointed for life by the president upon approval from a Senate majority; judges in state courts are also appointed for life.
Brazil’s party system is fairly chaotic to an outsider. Parties are created and disappear all the time, and candidates easily and opportunistically switch from one to another without any compunction (recently passed reforms have tried to limit this habit). Most often this party switching occurs a few months prior to an election. Both the party names and more commonly used acronyms are confusing to keep track of, even for Brazilians. Many have no ideological affiliation whatsoever.
There are, however, a few main parties whose delegates usually compete for major positions. Presently, after being the country’s main opposition party, the traditionally left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT, wields power in the federal government. Other major parties that hover around the center and center-right include the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB; the Partido da Social Democrácia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), or PSDB; and the Democratas (Democrats) or DEM, which recently changed its name from the Partido Frente Liberal (Liberal Front Party), or PFL.
Currently, governing Brazil is all about making strategic alliances with members of other parties in order to pass (or defeat) legislation. In general, reaching a consensus involves enormous amounts of time and energy (not to mention bribes—in the form of favors or money).
Ironically, in spite of the many scandals and cover-ups, in some ways, the operation of Brazilian Congress is extremely transparent. In theory, any Brazilian (or visiting tourist) can sit in on the daily sessions in the Chamber of Deputies or Senate (you will often be amazed at the low attendance, particularly on a Friday). Moreover, Senate debates are broadcast live on a television station known as TV Senado. During major government scandals, this can make for quite dramatic viewing.
Judicial and Penal Systems
Brazilian law is derived from Portuguese civil law. The principal legal document is the National Constitution of 1988, which divides power between federal and state judicial branches. State-level courts preside over all civil and criminal cases (with appeals taken to regional federal courts). The Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal) makes final, binding decisions on legal matters and is also in charge of interpreting the Constitution. Justice, when it is delivered in Brazil, is famously slow. Loopholes are seemingly endless and lawsuits can be delayed by numerous appeals. Often a final ruling can be delayed for years, if not decades.
Justice is definitely not blind in Brazil. The rich, white, and powerful often literally get away with murder while the poorer you are and the darker your skin tone, the greater your chances of being beaten up, tossed in a crowded cell, and locked away. Crime is a big problem throughout all of Brazil, but the shamelessness with which white collar crime is committed is staggering. Through fraud, embezzlement, kick-backs, and bribes, billions of dollars in public funds are routinely siphoned away from the people who need it most. Then as the have-nots resort to ever more violent holdups, kidnappings, and break-ins, Brazil’s elite largely wall themselves up in closed condominium complexes with electric fences, cameras, and bodyguards.
It’s a very vicious, not to mention tragic, cycle and one of Brazil’s greatest challenges. In recent years, some small instances of justice have shaken the complete impunity with which the rich and powerful operate. However, in most cases, change is difficult because it’s in the interest of many of those in the upper echelons that the status quo remain the same.
Similarly, by law, penal conditions for criminals who have committed the same crime vary depending on the perp’s degree of education. Those without a high school diploma get thrown in overcrowded cells that are reputed for their squalor and violence. Meanwhile, a doctoral degree earns you the privilege of a cleaner, solitary cell or at least one that is shared with two or three other diploma-bearing criminals.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition