A Crash Course in Brazilian Politics

Lula, Dilma and Bolsonaro Brazilian politics line drawing

I didn’t go to Brazil to learn about their politics. Brazilian politics just envelops everything. I learnt through osmosis.

With an impeachment in 2016 (or golpe, maybe), storming of the Brazilian congress in 2023, the launch of a series of corruption scandals beginning with the Car Wash Scandal, Brazilian politics never bores.

A telltale sign of the novela that is Brazilian politics lies in the creative names rattling around the industry. Brazil enjoys baptising corruption investigations with imaginative mafia names.

  • Operação Gafanhotos (Operation Locusts)
  • Operação Vampiro (Operation Vampire)
  • Operação Mar de Lama (Operation Sea of Mud)
  • Operação Castelo de Areia (Operation Sand Castle)

I’ll stop.

The Car Wash Scandal (Lava Jato) investigated the bribing and manipulation of contracts with the State-owned oil company Petrobras. It ground the oil and gas industry to a devastating halt, and since Brazil has been completely engulfed in the pursuit for political morality. At least in pointing the finger at those abusing it. In this way, I witnessed Ex-President Dilma pulled out of power, President Lula pushed behind bars and a complete lunatic rise to Presidency (Bolsonaro).

One morning I woke with a message from an American who was staying with friends. A gas leak had forced them to switch of gas for a few days. It coincided with mass protests against Bolsonaro. How do they protest? Obviously they pound the streets, but also they bang pots and pans outside of the windows in choreographed unison. This is called Panelaço (big pan). He thought the whole city was protesting the street’s gas leak. Brazilians are passionate about politics.

As a non-expert, I’m definitely qualified to run you through this crash course on Brazilian politics. Buckle up.

The Power of the Brazilian Passport -Brazil flag above Rio

Brazilian Politics Absolute Basics

Brazil’s politics are presidential, tense and currently a hot flame of corruption scandals. In Brazil, voting is mandatory. Failure to vote or explain an absence means a fine of R$3.5 (roughly US$1). You can however, also be barred from getting a passport or other official documents until you’ve paid up.

Brazil has been a Republic since 15 November 1889, when a coup d’état removed the monarchy. The Portuguese Monarchy was removed in 1822. This was unusual for a colony to install its own monarchy, rather than jumping right into a Republic. The second Brazilian coup took place in 1930 led by Getúlio Vargas. The third Brazilian coup took place in 1964, which left a military dictatorship throwing their weight around for 21 stinking years. Now they are a democracy, in the sense that they chose their current senseless President themselves.

The Brazilian President

The President of the Republic is elected by the people every 4 years. He can hold office for a maximum of 8 years or 2 mandates. Brazil is currently on its 38th President. Número 1 was Deodoro da Fonseca, but he wasn’t elected (nor was the 2nd) because remember, there was an almighty coup.

Quick fact: the President always gains a majority in either Minas Gerais or São Paulo states. It’s not a law, it’s just there’s a lot of people there. So for predicting the election winner, turn to those 2 States.

Recent Brazilian Presidents

38TH Bolsonaro (2018 – Current)

elected as a member of the PSL party, Bolsonaro has been in politics for around 30 years, mainly as a member of congress. During his career he’s haphazardly hopped between political parties. His presidential slogan is “Brasil acima de tudo, Deus acima de todos” (Brazil above everything, God above everyone). During that period he’s not done much apart from install all 3 of his sons as politicians around the country. He passed just 2 minor bills over 26 years in congress! Since becoming President, Bolsonaro has made guns easier to obtain, made child safety seats optional (insanity) and impeded some bank fees (at least there’s a positive).

37TH Temer (2016-2018)

The Vice President of Dilma took over for 1 year and 4 months after her impeachment.

36TH Dilma (2011-2016)

Installed in the government as the successor to Lula. Dilma angered the old rule, talked a lot of inconsistent rubbish and found herself impeached in 2016 without any corruption charges.

35TH Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011)

Popular Lula rose to politics from his role as president of the Metal Workers’ Union. He campaigned for the rights of workers, wage increase during the dictatorship, all paving his way to a career in politics. Lula was a co-founder of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), Workers’ Party in English. In April 2018, Lula was arrested for alleged corruption. He remained incarcerated until Nov 2019. The judicial process is ongoing and is extremely politicized.

34TH Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003)

Belonged to the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira party. He changed the Brazilian currency form Cruzeiro to Real. Cardoso has an informative memoir in English on Brazilian politics and history, called The Accidental President of Brazil. Highlights include insight in being exiled to Chile during the dictatorship, as well as the events leading to the 1964 military coup.

Documentary the Edge of Democracy is great for understanding the recent anti-corruption movement. You can read about this in our The Big List of Brazilian Documentaries.

Brazilian Politics Legislative Branch

Along with the President, are the Congressmen / Congresswomen. The National Congress consists of the Chamber of Deputies and Federal Senate. Everyone is located in Brasília. They meet there Tuesday – Thursday to vote on bills. Except for 3 months of the year, because at this time they should be travelling around their constituency to gather the opinions and demands of the people. Equipping them to fight for them back in the capital.

There are 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies (Câmara de Deputados). Each Representative runs for a 4 year mandate and can be re-elected indefinitely.

Each State gets 3 Senators (senadores), including the Federal District. So that makes 81 Senators serving in the Senate (Senado Federal), each elected for 8 year mandates. Senators can also be re-elected indefinitely.

Quick fact: each Federal Representative speaks for 410,000 people on average. Comparing that with the US, which each Federal Representative speaks for 750,000 people on average. In the UK each Member of the House of Commons represents 90,000 people on average.

The President of the Chamber of Deputies is third in line to the throne. If the President and Vice President suffer an impeachment, die, fall ill or travels abroad, this person takes the floor.

Quick Fact: In May 2016, President of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, who started the impeachment process of Dilma, was removed from power and incarcerated on corruption charges.

Brazilian flags

Brazilian Politics Judicial Branch

Judges are there to interpret the law.

Supreme Court Justices, called Ministers in Portuguese (Ministros), are appointed by the President when a vacancy arises. There are 11 Ministers in the Brazilian Supreme Court. They do not serve for life. Retirement is obligatory at age 75.

A judge’s career begins via a selective process of exams (concurso). Therefore, on merit. Although in reality, those who generally pass are those with the resources to study intensely without working a 9-5.

Brazilian Politics Municipalities and States

In the municipalities and Brazilian states the structure of the federal level is replicated. States have governors in the executive branch and State Representatives in the legislative branch. Differently from the US, there are no State Senators. Every State legislative body in Brazil is unicameral.

States also have a Governor and the mandate is 4 years.

Mayors are in charge of cities. The most powerful being the Mayor of São Paulo. São Paulo has a population of almost 13 million people, one of the top 10 largest and richest cities of the world. The GDP of Sao Paulo is the equivalent of the GDP of countries such as Portugal, New Zealand, Peru and Greece.

Then you have Councilmen and Councilwomen (Vereadores). They pass bills specific to the city they represent.

There are Brazilian elections every 2 years, alternating between city elections (Mayor and Councilmen/women) and Federal and State elections (President, State and Federal Representatives, Senators and Governors). There are 7 political jobs that are results of direct votes in elections.

Quick Fact: Marielle Franco was a feminist Councilwoman of Rio de Janeiro who was assassinated in March 2018. Her death is an ongoing inquiry. You can read more about Marielle Franco in our post Brazilian Women Everyone Should Know.

That’s it, a quick crash course in Brazilian politics.

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