The President of the Chamber of Deputies has just authorized the creation of a working group to discuss the possibility of adopting a semi-presidential system of government in Brazil. With the successive political crises since the promulgation of the constitution culminating in two successful impeachments, a growing number of voices are expressing support for the adoption of a semi-presidential system. It is unlikely, however, that such reform will bring political stability by itself.
A Long Line of Initiatives
Presidentialism has been the leading system of government in Brazil since the proclamation of the republic in 1889. Despite intense talks about adopting a parliamentary system in the 1950s, a very short experience with parliamentarism, between 1961 and 1963, was quickly stopped after a popular consultation, with the return of the presidential system in 1963. Echoes in favor of a semi-presidential system were present in the discussions preceding the enactment of the 1988 Constitution, when a semi-presidential system was almost adopted in the final text.
A second popular consultation was held in 1993, when a significant majority of the population declared preference for a presidential system. There have also been five legislative proposals of constitutional amendment. Proposing a change to parliamentarianism, four of them (1995, 2004, 2007 and 2015) were unsuccessful. The most recent one, in 2020, proposes a change to a semi-presidential system and is still in early stages of debate in parliament.
The working group created by the President of the Chamber of Deputies aims at promoting an ample debate about the topic. The group is formed by members of parliament relying on the help of a consultative council formed by jurists and public authorities, including a former President of the Republic, and former Supreme Court judges. The idea is to proceed to a vote not until 2023, after the newly elected Parliament takes seat.
A Head of State and a Head of Government
The current proposal contemplates to split the roles of Head of state and Head of government, which today are concentrated in one single actor, the President of the Republic. The President would continue to be elected via direct popular vote, whereas the Prime Minister would be appointed by the President, requiring the further approval of an absolute majority of parliament to assume office. The appointed Prime Minister would then conduct the business of ordinary politics – i.e. all the tasks of political articulation and government formation – and take political responsibility for his or her choices.
The President of the Republic would maintain the role of Head of state, carrying the responsibility for international relations, appointing ambassadors and Supreme Court judges, among other functions. While some important powers would be added to his or her competences, such as the power to dissolve Congress in the case of a serious institutional crisis and to propose a motion of censure against the Prime Minister, other powers would take a more limited form (such as the power of presenting legislative proposals for consideration).
The core idea is clear: In comparison with the President in the current presidential system, the President of the Republic would be stronger in certain aspects and weaker in others. The President would also become, at least on paper, more insulated from the whims and dooms of ordinary politics. Those would primarily be the responsibility of the Prime Minister.
Supporting Reasons and Diverging Opinions
The presidential system is often viewed as a source of problems in Brazil, facilitating corruption and the formation of questionable political alliances, bringing instability, coupes and impeachments. Currently, the main justification for the proposal of adopting a semi-presidential system is that it would help to solve the longstanding political crisis that has been arresting the country since the impeachment of President Rousseff in 2016.
One advantage of a semi-presidential system is that it could give more flexibility to deal with situations of crisis. The Prime Minister could be more easily removed than the President in presidential systems, if he or she loses the confidence of Parliament. That removal could also be done without precipitating a serious political crisis. A semi-presidential system could also facilitate governability in parliament, and add a dimension of responsibility to parliament, which is non-existent in the current presidential system. Presently, Brazilian presidents often become hostages of parliament, albeit without the parliament carrying any responsibility for the failures and successes of the government.
For some voices, a semi-presidential system could attenuate the ‘hyper-presidentialism’ of Brazil’s political system, whereas others wonder whether the country would have the political maturity that is necessary for such a system to work. Some have also pointed out that raising the debate now may have a dangerous distracting effect in the upcoming presidential campaign, leading to a lack of attention to the more urgent questions that should be at the focus of the country’s politics. There is also the fear that the adoption of a semi-presidential system may actually lead to the pulverization of the already fragile political system in Brazil. According to supporters of this position, this fear is enhanced by the strong degree of polarization that dominates Brazilian politics and the high level of political fragmentation of Brazilian Parliament. Currently, there are 30 political parties with representation in the Chamber of Deputies, and 21 with representation in the Senate.
The Need for a Comprehensive Political Reform
It is unlikely that a change in the system of government would bring more political stability by itself. If this change is not conceived as part of a bigger political reform, one that also addresses the fragmentation of Brazilian Parliament, it might not bring much of an advantage. Actually, it may make things even worse.
Currently, Brazil possesses a government that is largely controlled by parliament. If the President of the Republic is not willing to make compromises and negotiate positions, he or she is likely to be under constant risk of losing support in parliament and becoming politically weak. As recent history shows, this can precipitate a political crisis, which may eventually lead to the fateful doom of a successful impeachment, as it did in the case of Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
Cries for a comprehensive political reform have been around for a long time in Brazil, but they have had difficulties gaining serious political traction. Though important changes have been made – such as a barrier clause and the end of proportional party coalitions – it is uncertain whether they will effectively reduce the fragmentation of Brazilian Parliament. In September 2021, another law was promulgated, which runs to the contrary of these steps. This law allows the formation of so-called ‘party federations’, a kind of association between political parties that allows them to act together during elections and legislature for a period of at least four years, not requiring their fusion. In practice, this means that political parties that belong to a federation can work as if they were a single political party, without actually being one.
If the adoption of a semi-presidential system is not followed by a coherent political reform leading to an effective reduction of the number of political parties in parliament, political fragmentation will continue to be a problem. The challenges of political stability and government formation would remain the same, only that they would be transferred from the President of the Republic to the Prime Minister – who would then be forced to take recourse to the low politics of occasional compromises in order to guarantee his or her maintenance in office.
The System of Government May Change, But the Crisis Will Stay
As things stand, it seems unlikely that an overarching and coherent political reform will be conducted. A significant part of the political parties that would be affected by it are the ones forming the so-called ‘big center’ (‘centrão’). Despite their small size and lack of clear ideological orientation, they exert considerable political pressure in exchange of votes and other favors. This group of parties might be interested in supporting a change of system, but not a more substantial political reform as this may decrease their chances to acquire seats in parliament.
Whether the proposal will have any practical consequences, only time will tell. Even though the semi-presidential system has recently gained supporters in high positions of the Republic, it is uncertain whether it will have sufficient popular and political support to succeed. What remains certain is that, if this change comes without a consistent, profound political reform – one that actually addresses the political fragmentation of Brazilian Parliament – it will not promote a solution to the political crisis in Brazil. The system of government may change, but the crisis will stay.