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Legal History of Brazil

With an area of 8.5 million square km and a population of over 202 million, Brazil is the largest and most populated Latin American country. After more than three hundred years of Portuguese rule, Brazil became independent in 1822. It first adopted a monarchical system until 1889, when a republic was established. Since 1889, the country has had several forms of government, including state autonomy and centralization, authoritarianism, and democracy.

Constitutional history of Brazil

Brazil’s independence was proclaimed on September 7th, 1822, by the then Prince of Portugal, who became Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil. Since then, the country wrote seven other constitutions beginning with the constitution of 1824. The 1824 Constitution gave the Emperor wide control over governing institutions, such as the legislature and provincial governments and lasted until 1889, when Pedro II was overthrown and the Republic of Brazil was formed.

1891 Constitution

This first republican constitution was very similar to the United States Constitution. It established a presidential system and male universal suffrage from the age of 21. It contained provisions for separation of powers, checks, and balances, a bicameral legislature, direct elections, and created a Federal Chamber. The former provinces were declared States, giving these individual entities a strong presidential or gubernatorial character.

  • Structure of Government under the 1988 Constitution as amended

Under the current Constitution, Brazil is a presidential, federal republic. Through an amendment in 1996, municipalities were incorporated with states as part of the federation. Consequently, the country is composed of 26 states and the Federal District (Brasilia). The federal, state and municipal governments have their own legislative, executive and judicial institutions. The aim of the 1988 text was to give state and municipal governments administrative autonomy and responsibility for policy implementation, decentralizing the federal power.

  • The executive branch

The executive is headed by a President who is directly for a four-year term. He or She is both head of the state and head of the government. Although all of Brazil’s constitutions since 1891 prohibited consecutive presidential terms, a 1997 amendment changed this rule. A president now has no limit on a number of terms but may not serve more than two terms consecutively. Of the 48,000 positions the Brazilian President has the power to appoint–including Ministers of State, military officers, and judges—only ambassadors, higher-court judges, the solicitor general, and Central Bank directors must have Senate approval.

  • The legislative branch

The federal legislative branch is bicameral, consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. There are 513 federal deputies: 3 members from each state and federal district are elected to serve eight-year terms. One-third and two-thirds of members are alternately elected every four years. 81 senators are elected by proportional representation from each state and serve four-year terms.

  • The judicial branch

The federal judiciary is composed of the Federal Supreme Court, the Superior Court of Justice, regional federal courts, labor courts, the Electoral Court, and the Military court. The Supreme Federal Court is the highest court and consists of 11 justices appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. The Court can declare federal, state, and municipal laws unconstitutional and therefore null.

New constitutional developments and challenges

In 2013, the Brazilian government faced a wide-spread national dissatisfaction, expressed in the country’s largest protests in 20 years on a range of issues. These included corruption accusations, the costs associated with hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the general high living costs. President Dilma Rousseff sought to overcome this situation, proposing to vote on amending Brazil’s constitution by calling for a constitutional assembly to reform the political system.

Timeline for Constitution Building Process

1500

Portuguese land in the area and claim it to the Portuguese crown.

1822

Son of Portuguese king declares independence from Portugal and crowns himself Peter I, Emperor of Brazil.

1889

Monarchy overthrown, the federal republic established.

1930

Revolt places Getulio Vargas at the head of the provisional revolutionary government.

1937

Vargas leads coup, rules as dictator with military backing. Economy placed under authoritarian state control, the start of the social welfare revolution, and reform of laws governing the industry.

1945

Vargas ousted in a military coup. Elections held under the caretaker government. The new constitution returns power to states.

1964

Goulart ousted in a bloodless coup, flees into exile. The military rule associated with repression but also with rapid economic growth based on the state-ownership of key sectors.

1974

General Ernesto Geisel becomes president, introduces reforms that allow limited political activity and elections.

1988

The new constitution reduces presidential powers.

1997

Constitution changed to allow the president to run for re-election.

2013

June – A wave of protests sweeps the country. People take to the streets in dozens of cities to demonstrate over woeful public services, rising public transport costs and the expense of staging the 2014 World Cup. The protests continue into the autumn.

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