Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Brazil

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: May 2014

Government and Politics

The Federal Republic of Brazil is a semi-presidential republic. The country is governed according to the 1988 constitution, which is the first democratic constitution the country has known. The progression from oppressive military rule to truly liberal democracy, which begun in 1985, has almost been completed, though the military still has some influence.

In Brazil, the president is both head of state and head of government, and is permitted to serve a maximum of two successive four-year terms. Election of the president is by means of direct universal suffrage, with the vice presidential candidate appearing on the same ticket. Following the French model, the two leading candidates in the first round go through to the second round, in which the winner just needs to obtain a simple majority. The current president is Dilma Rousseff, who is the country’s first female head of state.

The president appoints the cabinet (Ministers of State) and several other high-level administrative posts. The president, as head of the executive, can submit bills to the legislature and has the power to veto any legislation, though this veto can be overturned by an absolute majority in the legislature. Furthermore, since 1988, the president’s ability to create new legislation has been curtailed.

The national Brazilian legislature, the Congresso Nacional, is mostly concerned with legislating nationwide financial and administrative matters. The National Congress is bicameral; the lower house is the Chamber of Deputies, in which 513 deputies sit for four-year terms. The number of deputies for each state is related to the state’s population, and varies from 8 to 70. Deputies are elected by universal suffrage using proportional representation. The minimum voting age is 16; for all non-military 18 to 70 year olds, voting is compulsory.

The upper house, the Federal Senate, represents federal interests rather than the country as a whole. It consists of 81 senators (3 for each state plus the Distrito Federal), who are elected by means of simple majority for eight-year terms. Senators are elected in two-year batches that are four years apart.

Political parties have multiplied in Brazil since their re-introduction in 1988. The three most important parties are the Workers’ Party (PT), the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and the Greens (PV.) There are eight other major parties, all of which are represented in both houses of the National Congress.

Each of Brazil’s 26 states has its own governor, judicial system and unicameral legislature known as a legislative assembly, all of which are protected by corresponding state constitutions. The Distrito Federal functions in the same way, but it lacks a legislative assembly.

Legal Systems

The Brazilian legal system is codified and is therefore a civil law system. The supreme source of law is the federal constitution, which was promulgated in October 1988. This constitution grants the 26 states the power to create their own constitutions and laws. However, federal intervention is permitted (subject to approval by the National Congress), which means that Brazil has a weakly federal system.

One quirk of the Brazilian judicial system is that it is split into normal and special branches. The normal branch deals with most cases, and the special branch conducts electoral, labour-related and military cases.

The highest court in the land is the Supreme Federal Court, which delivers judgements on the constitutional matters and hears cases involving senior political figures, up to and including the president. The Court consists of 11 judges, who are nominated by the president. For any matters not related to the constitution, the highest court is the Higher Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça); any appeals requiring a judgement on a point of law will ultimately be referred to this body. Below this court are the Regional Federal Courts.

The judicial system has long had a reputation for inefficient and corrupt practice, as with many areas of Brazilian life, though the situation is currently improving. Measures taken include the time-saving device that decisions made in high courts constitute legally binding precedents. This amounts to the introduction of a degree of common law into the Brazilian legal system.