Magna Inácio – Collapse of Brazilian coalitional presidentialism?

This is a guest post by Magna Inácio from the Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais

Twenty-four years after the impeachment of the first elected president since redemocratization, Collor, a new trial has suspended the current president, Dilma, from her powerful seat as the senate votes whether or not to impeach her. Two events of this magnitude, in six presidential mandates, have called into question the capacity of Brazilian presidentialism to maintain stable governments. Further, they have rekindled interest in the adoption of semipresidencialism or parliamentarism.

Brazilian presidents build coalitions and govern through them. Scholars have seen this as a cooperative solution to legislative-executive relations that might mitigate the risks of legislative gridlocks and democratic breakdowns. Since ongoing political crisis challenges this view, it is inevitable to ask: is it a crisis of coalitional presidentialism in Brazil? Alternatively, is it a crisis of a coalition and the president’s failures in its management?

The current crisis seems to describe the typical scenario of those crises that magnify the rigidity of a system without exhaust valves for inter-branch conflicts: an unpopular and recalcitrant president and decisional paralysis spasms provoked by greater activism of the legislative parties. After a hard-won victory, Dilma pushed the government into the crossfire of the opposition and discontented supporters. Diverging from her electoral platform, which was based on redistributive policies, a different economic outlook was revealed when a fiscal adjustment program and deep budgetary cutbacks were adopted in the first days of her second term. Two years after reaching a record presidential approval rating (65%), in her first term, Dilma’s popularity fell to the lowest level (8%) achieved by any recent presidents.

Cross-pressured by these ambiguous signals, her legislative majority has become increasingly hostile and volatile. The conflicts within the coalition deepened, feeding the opposition’s attractiveness and political polarization in the legislative arena and on the streets. The legislative gridlocks and intense opposition, exacerbated by the Chamber of Deputies’ Speaker and member of the major coalition partner, made the fracture of the legislative cartel, led by the president, very obvious. Corruption scandals and a massive investigation (“Operation Car Wash”) touched important leaders of the president’s party, including former president Lula as well as other coalition partners, and deepened these conflicts as uncertainty about the future of government spread.

Why did these political conflicts evolve into an impeachment trial? Some scholars have identified the impeachment events as a heterodox political solution to the lack of exhaust valves in the presidentialism. Recent literature has pointed to the new political instability in Latin America at the government level, but not at the regime level (Pérez Liñan, 2007). Given the fragility of horizontal controls to constrain, ex-ante, the abuse of presidential powers, impeachment could work as a mechanism, ex-post, to interrupt it. In this, context matters. According to Carlin et al. (2015, 2016), such breakdowns reveal a conditional accountability: presidential unpopularity and scandals can feed protests, but they will be decisive in the collapse of governments when economic insecurities magnify political uncertainties. From this perspective, the corruption scandals became decisive to Dilma’s impeachment trial because they occurred simultaneously with the disastrous economic performance of government: high inflation (10%), high unemployment rates (11%), and negative GDP growth in the last year (-3.80%).

External shocks are relevant factors, but I consider that the effects of the scandals, plummeting popularity and declining economic outlook on the collapse of the government are all dependent on the lack of coalition management ability of the presidency. Powerful Brazilian presidentialism is strong, and not only because the president relies on a broad array of institutional powers. Its strength is variable: it depends on the coordinating ability of the presidency to use these resources in the management of the coalition and, jointly with legislative parties, to pave the way for sustainable governance. However, it should be noted that, although coalitional presidentialism is a recurrent practice in Brazil, there is a lack of institutional mechanisms of coalition leadership or a collective decision-making committee, as a coalition or party summit. Therefore, cabinet governance strongly depends on presidents’ strategies and abilities to manage their multiparty alliance.

In a fragmented party system, the profile of coalition makes its management cost variable. Brazilian presidents count on a diverse toolbox for dealing with these costs (Raile et al., 2011). This includes legislative agenda powers, ministerial positions, budget, etc. In addition to the distribution of these resources, whether with partisan bias or not, the model of coalition governance also varies according to the degree of centralization of decision-making in the hands of the presidency and its staff (Inácio & Llanos, 2014).

Although presidential powers have remained relatively stable since redemocratization, the performance of the presidencies on cabinet coordination varies considerably. Only when the president´s coordinating capacity declined below a critical threshold did the impeachment take place. Thus, the collapse of government seems to require both endogenous and exogenous factors, affecting the process of government. Then, impeachment is not inevitable.

Since 1986, Brazilian presidents have faced severe economic crises, presidential popularity has remained at oscillating and moderate levels, and scandals have been frequent. The most stable periods of coalition governance in Brazil correspond to power-sharing cabinet-presidency relations. The governments of Itamar (successor to Collor), Cardoso and Lula coordinated their coalitions in such a way as to internalize management costs and the processing of conflicts behind the closed doors of the executive. Cardoso and Lula faced serious crises that weakened the operational ability of the coalitions to sustain government decisions. However, both presidents managed their resources to surmount these crises through cabinet reshuffling, centralization, pork goods, policy concessions, and administrative strategies to keep tabs on their partners and keep them together, in order to avoid a single-party cabinet or the collapse of the government as reversion outcomes.

The financial and energy crises in Cardoso’s second term led him to make concessions on high-priority policy agendas and to give more attention to clientelistic demands from his allies. With less presidential leverage, the president dealt with these constraints and postponed the reversion outcome. It effectively occurred with the rupture of his coalition, opening space for PSDB’s electoral defeat on his succession. Halfway through his first term, Lula faced a profound crisis with the “mensalão” scandal in 2005. Legislative threats to begin impeachment proceedings and declining popularity put Lula’s re-election at risk. However, the president handled these risks through cabinet reshuffling (three times in a semester), redesign of the hypertrophied presidential office (and reduction of the partisan bias favoring PT) and sharing the management of legislative-executive relations with coalition partners. After distancing himself from those PT members involved in the mensalão scandal, Lula assumed a more active role for himself in both cabinet coordination and the mobilization of his supporters.

Differently, presidents Collor and Dilma demonstrated clear limits in the coordination of their cabinets, endogenously fostering the escalation of interbranch and intracoalition conflicts. They both resorted to a model of centralized cabinet governance, restricting interparty and interbranch negotiations. It made them more vulnerable to political crises, particularly when allegations of corruption and the “crime of responsibility” opened space for impeachment trials.

Governing unilaterally from a minority and single-party cabinet, headed by a centralized presidency, Collor implemented a radical economic reform agenda. The unpopular policies and their distributive costs quickly pushed the legislative parties into the arms of discontented voters and economic groups. After revelations of Collor’s involvement in a corruption scheme, the dissatisfied congress impeached him quickly and almost unanimously.

Dilma’s first term was relatively stable throughout the first three years. However, legislative-executive relations were continuously tense. Although the ruling coalition has been the same as that of Lula’s administrations, these tensions deepened with the centralized decision-making process headed by Dilma, particularly in the economic area. The “new matrix” of economic policies pursued by the government, based on continued expanding credit and government spending, reinforced criticisms about the insulated decision-making process[1]. When the first signs of the failure of her economic policies and the new constraints from global economy were made clear, the administration strongly resisted changing the route on the eve of the president seeking re-election[2]. As a candidate, Dilma rejected the need for this policy shift in her campaign and condemned her opponents’ proposals about this agenda. This strategy had high reputational costs for Dilma, when she pursued did it after her re-election. The president did not explain to the voters the reasons for this turning point, nor did she open negotiations with those sectors and groups affected by these policies.

The delay of this policy shift reduced the leeway for policy-makers to implement reforms in a context of economic stagnation, fiscal deficit and low government credibility. Facing a more fragmented and polarized Congress, Dilma did not receive legislative support for her economic and fiscal reforms after reelection. Even the leaders of cabinet parties walked away from the executive agenda, revealing a real minority from this centrifugal dynamic. At this juncture, the corruption scandals, low approval ratings and economic stagnation pushed the political crisis to a point of no return. Could it be avoided?  Maybe we have to pay more attention to the management of the coalition, beyond the use of the presidential toolbox. It could mitigate the effects of exogenous shocks on the president’s fate. It could allows the president not only to foster cooperation in good times, but also to overcome political crises by widening their choices in bad times. But this management must not depend only the president’s wisdom. It must be a by-product of institutional, power-sharing mechanisms that support coalition leadership. Such strong dependency on presidential leadership is, maybe, a risk-taking feature of Brazilian presidentialism. Exhaust valves are important during extreme crises, but there is still room for institutional innovations that fill the gap between presidential and coalition leadership.


CARLIN, Ryan E.; LOVE, Gregory J.; MARTÍNEZ-GALLARDO, Cecilia. 2015. “Cushioning the Fall: Scandals, Economic Conditions, and Executive Approval.” Political Behavior, 37(1):109-130.

INÁCIO, Magna; LLANOS, Mariana. 2016. The Institutional Presidency in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis. Presidential Studies Quartely (forthcoming)

PÉREZ-LIÑÁN, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

RAILE, Eric D.; PEREIRA, Carlos; POWER, Timothy J. 2011. “The Executive Toolbox: Building Legislative Support in a Multiparty Presidential Regime.” Political Research Quarterly 64 (2): 323- 34.

[1] These policies undermined the confidence of the private sector in the government, as it was seen as deepening state interventionism and departing from the policies of fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting and a floating exchange rate pursued by Cardoso and Lula.

[2] Dilma is accused of the “crime of responsibility” for allegedly having violated budgetary laws by illegally covering budget shortfalls.


Magna. InacioMagna Inácio is an associate professor at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Her research interests include coalition governments, the institutional presidency, and legislative parties. Currently, her research is concerned with the institutional development of the Presidency in Brazil and Latin American. She has published co-edited books: Legislativo Brasileiro em Perspectiva Comparada (with Lúcio Rennó). (Ed. UFMG); Elites Parlamentares na America Latina. (Argvmentvm Ed, 2009) and chapters in “Algo más que Presidentes. El papel del Poder Legislativo en América Latina”. (co-edited by Manoel Alcantara Saez e Mercedes Garcia; Fundación Manuel Gimenez Abad 2011); O Congresso por Ele Mesmo. (edited by Timothy Powers e Cesar Zucco; Ed. UFMG 2011). She has published in journals such as America Latina Hoy and Jounal of Politics in Latin America. E-mail:

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