The Demerits of Presidentialism: A Reassessment of the Brazilian monarchy

Note: This article is a follow-up to a previous discussion on the merits of presidentialism. To save having to recycle entire portions of text, it should be read as a response to it, and retraction of the original position argued,  available at


The first installment of this two-part essay was informed by a certain position of dispassionate academic inquiry. I refer to an exploratory process that was characterized by engagement with a scholarly work on the subject matter, in this case Jose Linz’s essay, where certain historical examples are cherry-picked to fit a pre-determined conclusion. That’s not to say that this conclusion is arbitrary, rather that its formulation is guided by appeal to abstract principles to the extent that one can then extract prescriptions whose contact with concrete problems, although intelligible, nevertheless retains something of a technocrat’s “one-size-fits-all” approach. Given the object of this essay has been to explore the fruits of Presidentialism in Brazil, one is left with a tremendous question, namely, to explain how a system good on paper, can produce such a consistent track record of failures – failures which were impossible under the old system.

A solution to this problem was, if not explicitly proposed, implicit in the previous article. This was the idealistic notion that Presidentialism was a seed which fell among thorns, and as these grew up, they choked any prospects of success it would otherwise naturally have. A deeper reading of the historical record, and of the constitutional aspects of the monarchical period compels us to a different conclusion however.

The South American soil wasn’t predestined to be civically barren, nor the flower of democracy one which couldn’t flourish in this tropical milieu. The transition from Portuguese rule to Brazilian independence was distinguished by a maintenance of the traditions and concepts of legitimacy and nature of the state which nurtured a sense of national cohesion, identity, and liberty. As we shall see, the coup d’état that led to the republic, constituted a radical break with this accumulated political and social experience, and being instigated by ignoble interests inevitably heralded a period of decline and regression the country arguably never recovered from. The first essay concludes with a stress on how measures of democracy, legitimacy, and stability, serve as markers of success of a given political arrangement, yet as we shall see, the republic only inaugurated a systematic neglect for these measures. Undoubtedly the most viable and reasonable prescription for a country, in terms of the constitution of its state, is one which caters to its unique set of circumstances and idiosyncrasies, rather than attempt a pastiche of foreign models.


 Parliamentary and Presidential systems reconsidered

Previously, the contrast between the Westminster and the American models may have been useful to set the parameters of debate, but nevertheless these were limiting in their application to this concrete scenario. The monarchical period in Brazil was characterized by a constitutional arrangement that was quite dissimilar to that of the UK on crucial aspects of distribution of powers, to the degree that the Westminster model can’t simply be used as a “stand-in” for it, either in its failures or successes. Likewise, the US model is one that is perpetuated and maintained by a shared background, culturally and intellectually, that safeguards it against the perils highlighted by Jose Linz, which are latent in the presidential system. Similarly, while republican Brazil superficially, resembles the US in its model, any notion of comparability quickly dissolves upon contact with rudimentary context.

The “two-dimensionality” of the role of the President of the Republic, as Head of State and Head of Government, has historically been very problematic in the Brazilian scenario, and indeed Latin America as a whole, for the very reasons highlighted by Linz. The weakness and fragility of a republican culture, in the sense of respect for the common good, the national interest and the ordinary political process, conceived as such, creates an environment where populism thrives.  This is a problem that routinely resurfaces, whereby a single man takes upon himself to enact a narrow partisan vision by conflating it with the “will of the people”, enabled by the weakness of institutions, and sweeping ideological narratives.

Admittedly, the problem of populism per se, is external to the question of presidentialism, it is something that scholars generally attribute to vast disparities between an elite and the masses, yet in the context of the presidential arrangement, it is something that easily spirals out of control. Presidential elections, in these cases, inevitably become polarizing events which can threaten the constitutional order, in extreme cases with the only alternative being an intervention by a relatively non-partisan body, such as the Army or the Judiciary.

The operation of checks and balances inherent within the separation of powers conceived in the presidential model are dependent on conditions which are external to the model. Of these we might name such factors as the partisan landscape of the country, whether a reigning political party has an effective opposition, or the degree to which the political process is recognized by the populace as responsive to its needs, the impartiality of the judiciary, and so on.

The role of the Monarch

The question of the suitability of an individual for the position of Head of State, it must be admitted, was previously dealt with in a specious manner. While it may be true that a monarch necessarily has a lived experience that is quite dissimilar to that of a commoner, it is questionable whether that is not also the case with any other occupant of a public office who hails from a privileged background. Only in the case of the former, at the very least the monarch has been raised to represent and champion the national interest, and all things being equal, has a greater capacity to do so considering the non-elective and non-partisan nature of his role.

Regarding the exact role the monarch plays in the constitutional order, the observations made previously still stand to reason. The Headship of State, embodied in the monarch, as distinct from Headship of Government, cannot be so minimal as to be merely ornamental, yet neither should it be so expansive as to eclipse democratically-elected representatives, and the Judiciary.

As Jose Linz proposes, the Head of State needs to serve the function of a neutral arbiter, above the fray of partisan squabbles, and sectarian interests. The scholars Scott Mainwaring and Matthew S. Shugart for their part, on a work cited previously, maintain that this requires the Head of State to be “institutionally entitled” to do so. Moreover, it needs to be reiterated that the necessity of such a role, the scholars argue, is a concession to the “Madisonian point that placing unchecked power in the hands of the assembly majority isn’t necessarily good”. They reasonably conclude that the crux of the matter “is the distribution of powers among the different players involved in initiating or blocking policy”.

Considering these observations, it can only be said that the provision of the 1824 Constitution, of a “poder moderador”, a 4th institution that was devised to arbiter the Judiciary, Legislative, and Executive powers, residing in the non-elective monarch strikes an intricate and delicate balance. Inspired by the Swiss theorist Benjamin Constant, and the prevailing constitutionalism of the early 19th century, it remains the most durable and flexible constitutions Brazil ever had, lasting for the totality of the existence of the monarchical state, alongside being renowned at the time for its guarantee of civil liberties. It is even more noteworthy how this document, and the system it envisaged, stood in stark contrast to the lamentable experience of Brazil’s Hispanic neighbors, all of whom adopted the Presidential system, and almost invariably relapsed into dictatorships, internecine warfare, and regional fragmentation.

Rather than an exotic anomaly, a more charitable view of this legal construct would be to regard it as a highly original measure, suitable to the circumstances- and testament to the ingenuity of its creator. Ironically, it might even be said that the characteristics of the document were more conducive to the nurturing of classical republican values, as such.

The scholar Richard Dagger, in his book Civic Virtues- Rights, Citizenship and Republican Liberalism (2005), argues that such a polity is ultimately dependent on the maintenance of civic virtue. This can be succinctly described as the “disposition to further public over private good in action and deliberation”, composed of elements of which a fundamental one is “fear of corruption”. Whether in republican Brazil, or its Hispanic neighbors, corruption of public office remains a chronic malaise, with especially unfortunate repercussions when it affects occupants of the highest office. It becomes difficult to defend the presidential system, given in an electoral context, the populace has a choice pre-determined by party committees, among candidates who inevitably are representative of factions and special interests, and due to the reality of campaign-financing and coalition-building, are beholden to them every four years.

Beyond the formal aspect of the monarch vis-à-vis the machinery of State, a much-neglected facet of the institution has been the powerful symbolic influence it exerts. It is an influence derived by the insertion of the human element into an otherwise impersonal juridical construct. There can be said to be a subtle poetical resonance to a form of government whose hierarchy mirrors the original cell of society, which is the family- and as with any flesh-and-blood family, it is one which embodies a history, traditions, and unique customs, over generations. It is this personal element of the institution whose aesthetic and spiritual dimensions exert an ennobling quality over the State, and its subjects- cultivating greater solidarity among diverse groups, softening extreme ideological swings, and above all maintaining a sense of continuity.

Indeed, the symbolic nature of the monarchy is something that only recently has been rehabilitated, and reassessed by numerous commentators, following centuries of neglect inspired by an overly technocratic and utilitarian mindset. From sources such as Foreign Policy, to the likes of The Diplomat, these are general merits which can be observed in diverse cases, whether in the Middle-East, Post-Franco Spain, Asia and beyond.

Bringing it all back home to our Brazilian scenario, it becomes clearer why the challenges faced by other South American nascent states were minimized. The preservation of territorial integrity over vast stretches of land, the maintenance of civilian control of the military, and the realization of a project of modernization were all, in relative terms, effectively tackled. The figure of the monarch was conducive to national cohesion, in its symbolic aspect, while in more pragmatic terms, safeguarding a sense of stability and continuity in public policy. This was accomplished through the management of the interplay between different factions of society when the prominence of one over another would otherwise result in irreconcilable tensions.  As it turned out in hindsight, the sovereign was charged with a balancing act, whose value would only be truly felt in his absence- with dire consequences, as we shall consider next.


The historiographical problem – the illegitimacy of the Republic

Since the French revolution, and the intellectual atmosphere ushered in by the Enlightenment, it has been customary to generally regard monarchies as anachronistic institutions, with latent tendencies toward tyranny. Republics are favorably contrasted with these, by their promise of greater popular participation and accountability, as well as by their more impersonal character, being “a government of laws, and not men” as US founding father John Adams put it.

In many cases, throughout Europe and elsewhere, this may well be a sentiment reflective of the facts of specific cases. However, upon a closer look, one can question the neatly linear transition from monarchy to republic in Brazil, as bearing more resemblance to an elitist coup d’état than a popular “proclamation”. The chasm between the supposed ideals of republicanism, and the reality of the period from 1889- present dispel any notions of “constitutional determinism”, or the idea that abstract juridical constructs can dictate a concrete reality of progress, peace, and stability into existence.

More than a simple failure of ideals to translate into reality, the birth of the Republic can be said to be a doomed project of superimposition of foreign and obscure doctrines into a hitherto organically developed nation. The Brazilian flag itself bears the scars of this violent rupture – originally in its symbolism, the green background referred to the House of Braganza, and the yellow to the House of Hapsburg (respectively those of Dom Pedro I, first monarch, and his wife, Maria Leopoldina). At its center stood a coat of arms with distinctly Lusitanian motifs, such as a golden armillary sphere, signifying Portugal’s maritime prowess in the Age of Discovery, and the cross of the Order of Christ, a reformed version of the Knights Templar as it was reconstituted in 1319.

In its entirety, the original flag adopted in 1822 inaugurated a design whose originality paid homage to the country’s Iberian tradition and was grounded in the colors of the dynasties who composed its royal family.

By contrast, the flag in current usage, conceived by Raimundo Teixeira Mendes and a cohort of ideologues, maintained the green background and yellow rhombus, both of which now live on in the popular imagination as signifying geographical and material accidents (the abundance of forests, and gold). But the coup de grace was the replacement of the imperial coat of arms with a blue globe, strewed with stars of questionable astronomical accuracy, and emblazoned with a triumphalist banner declaring “Order and Progress”. The latter has the dubious distinction of being a paraphrase of the French theorist Auguste Comte’s Positivist motto, “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal”, a misleading summary for what is a largely forgotten and discredited philosophy that nevertheless was of some popularity in the late 19th century.

Its noteworthy also that the current flag, with its unmistakable debt to the original was brought in following the negative reception of the one used by the provisional government, between 15 November – 19 November 1889. The abominable creation of Ruy Barbosa, a jurist and author of other national calamities, this was an indolent copy-and-paste job of the US flag, replacing red and white stripes for green and yellow ones, and adjusting the number of stars in accordance to the numerical difference in states.

This brief discussion on the flag may seem like a digression, but it is no mere aesthetic quibble, rather it can be said to contain in a nutshell the vacuity of republicanism in the country. Its modus operandi was to appropriate old symbols, previously meaningful, and rehash them as ahistorical and impersonal tokens, under the inspiration of a misguided philosophy, enthralled by foreign models, and justified by a presumptuous appeal to slogans whose intellectual provenance was at odds with the sentiments and character of the majority of the population. In summary, the progressivist veneer to an elitist operation.

The curious story of the republican transition was expertly told by journalist Laurentino Gomes, in his book 1889, subtitled “how a tired emperor, a vain marshal, and wronged teacher contributed to the end of the monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic in Brazil”. As the subtitle suggests, it was a regime change of an almost accidental nature, marked by Kafkaesque twists and turns.

Gomes highlights that though the country at the time was in many ways underdeveloped, nevertheless at the helm, in the figure of Dom Pedro II, the last to reign over South America’s one and only monarchy, one found a man of great devotion to his country who enjoyed immense popularity among the masses. Due to fatigue and old age, however the emperor who had for decades overseen the maturation of the country was losing grip on elite sectors of society who had grown used to the stability of the regime- and careless as to its maintenance. To summarize, these factions are the ones who to this day by and large provide the protagonists of national politics- the Army, economic oligarchies, and a radicalized intelligentsia.

Crucial to the relevance of our argument, Gomes explores in painstaking detail how the principal agents in the “proclamation” of the new regime were at best naïve, and at worst thoroughly morally questionable, but all invariably unconcerned as to most of the population. A curious example, is the fact that in the last parliamentary elections held in the monarchy, in August 1889, the national republican vote could barely muster a meager 15%, with parties folding up in many provinces due to lack of interest. Another comic irony being that the divided and numerically insignificant civilians who composed the movement enjoyed political freedoms which were quick to vanish upon the installation of the very Republic they clamored for.

It emerges that the main vehicle of the transition was the Army, more specifically a heavily indoctrinated faction within its ranks, whose insubordination to the civilian authorities were only matched by their cult-like devotion to the philosophy of Positivism. Among its most impassioned advocates, like Benjamin Constant de Magalhaes, prevailed a vision of an idealized dictatorship of technocrats whose scientific guidance would lead the country to greatness.

Meanwhile in the society at large, the number of true believers was scarce, rather the overnight support for the republican cause came in the shape of disgruntled agricultural oligarchs. As Gomes details, the abolition of slavery, a blemish on the country’s history, was a gradual process whose culmination in 1888, at the hands of Princess Isabel (then regent) consolidated in the minds of many the idea that the monarchy had dealt them an intolerable betrayal. It can be said that the country at the time had the disorientating quality of becoming a Republic without republicans of conviction, much less democrats.

This was reflected in the coup itself, devoid of popular participation, conducted by a handful of soldiers, Gomes notes that many passers-by who witnessed it mistook it for a military parade. Perhaps even more bizarrely, Marshal Deodora da Fonseca, an elderly veteran of the Paraguayan War of the 1860s, who supposedly proclaimed the new regime, had his hand forced into it, lacking any republican sympathies – as shown in letters sent to a relative shortly before the event, where the Marshal complains that a republic in Brazil would be a “disgrace”.

Both contemporary observers and modern historians of the event which put an end to monarchy are one in noting the ludicrous and minor nature of the “revolution”- where devoid of national symbols, the military band present played a rendition of the La Marseillaise and hoisted the infamous flag of the now United States of Brazil.  What was lacking in bloodshed on the fateful day was more than compensated for in the following years however.

As soon as the imperial family was ignominiously exiled to Europe, at once a provisional government was put in place, seemingly determined to impose on the country the hallmarks of a banana republic, following the well-traveled path of the Hispanic neighbors. Gomes notes how the new regime immediately set out on an expansive mission to re-write history, changing the names of streets, constructing monuments to overnight “patriotic heroes” who mushroomed up out of nowhere- in addition to curtailing the hitherto free press.  By 1891, a new constitution was announced, another half-hearted effort at imitation of the USA, which in any case was immediately violated, as Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, now the 1st President of Brazil, proceeded to shut down Congress.

The years of the consolidation of the republican regime were marked by a regression, in economic and political terms, of staggering proportions both qualitatively and quantitively. In addition to the occasional arbitrary suspension of liberties previously enjoyed interruptedly, the new regime was responsible for the encilhamento, an unprecedented economic crisis which rocked any already fragile popular confidence the regime already had. Still worse was to come in the presidency of Floriano Peixoto, another high-ranking army officer, and his immediate civilian successors – where rebellions were violently put down, resulting in the deaths of thousands, most infamously in what became known as the “War of Canudos” of 1895-98, in which 30,000 civilians were massacred for their alleged monarchism and religious fanaticism.

What began as an incoherent amalgam of 1789, US style federalism, and the Positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte can only be said to have ended in a sordid businessmen’s truce.

The vacuum left by the monarchy, and the subsequent retreat of the military, left a political scene where agricultural oligarchs of the state of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais rotated the Presidency of the Republic amongst themselves in the period that became known as the “Coffee with Milk Republic” – a name derived from the chief monopolized industries of the respective regions. Elections were fraudulent affairs, and most of the rural population lived in a state of coercion at the hands of the para-governmental institution of coronelismo, namely a semi-feudal arrangement where wealthy landowners were left to control the social and political life of their surroundings in a perverse distortion of the principle of federalism.

All things considered, the period that encompassed the birth and the consolidation of the republic was defined by the almost complete conversion of Brazil into a typical South American country- marked by conflicts of land, corruption, and a discredited political elite, stumbling its way through history increasingly diminished, and with an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the USA. Unsurprisingly it was model that lent itself to certain proclivities also typical of the region, of oscillations between bastardized forms of European style fascism and communism throughout the 20th century, a military that styled itself above the law and entitled to intervention, followed by ideologically compromised populisms in the 21st century.


A Failure of the Imagination

The historical survey which preceded this section serves the purpose of illustrating the fallacy of chronological snobbery. History travels a path determined more by the intention of its actors than their intrinsic benevolence or wisdom, and likewise, the future is an open field whose fruits are no less planted now by the deliberate intentions and actions of the present.

With this observation in mind, it becomes easy to perceive that the prevailing systems of government, electoral systems, and the seemingly unassailable edifice of “democracy” at it exists in most Western nations are entirely open to question. This is even more so when the chasm between the rhetorical flourish which endows them with legitimacy differs so flagrantly from the reality as experienced by much of the population. To apprehend the republican form of government, purely through the flat and monochrome lens of abstract political philosophy is to fail to grasp the way the texture of history has intrinsically riddled it with chronic and systemic inadequacies- at least in the Brazilian case.

At this point it becomes clearer to see that the difficulty experienced by many contemporaries to visualize a monarchical refashioning of the state, is simultaneously the same blind spot that precludes a lucid view of the country’s socio-political-economic ills- which seem to emerge without cause, rhyme or reason, seemingly as either the errors of a powerful few, or reflection of some sort of national malaise. This is a condition that obfuscates the past as much as it muddies the water of future potential alternatives. On my first article I mentioned the emergence of the monarchist movement, but it is more noteworthy that this is but one and relatively minor form of protest – arguably the more significant trend is one of nostalgia for the military regime of 1964-1985, whose advocates see in the military the ideal arbiter and enforcer of justice, in the period of crisis and disappointment that defined the unraveling of the Worker’s Party (PT) regime. Of course, none of this is accidental.

The distinctive features of the Brazilian state, and the popular responses to it in times of crisis are deeply conditioned by the circumstances of its republican refoundation. This is seen in the recurring patterns which time and time again resurfaced in new guises throughout the 129 years since its proclamation. Despite the temporal distance, it is evident that in the collective unconscious of the people, remains an almost Freudian longing for a parental figure to serve as the “poder moderador” in those times where the political classes are incapable of resolving dysfunctions, often caused by the same. It is natural that the Army has routinely stepped up to fulfil this purpose, by virtue of the republic itself being a fruit of its extra-institutional aspirations. Yet it can hardly be said that this is an acceptable or normal feature of a country that supposedly operates by the principles of rule of law, constitutional legitimacy or democratic accountability – it is an attitude that reveals at once the fragility of the republic at its very core.

Similarly, that there might be collusion between powerful economic and political elites, to the detriment of the public good isn’t news anywhere in the world, neither is it something entirely avoidable in the practice of governance. Yet it is remarkable the degree to which the political class in Brazil operates without a shred of sense of propriety, or basic civic duty, with the corresponding attitude in the population being one of apathy and distrust in the national institutions – all despite the current Constitution of 1988 being one of the most conducive to popular participation and engagement in the public sphere, at least on paper.

What emerges out of this picture is a sense of artificiality as to the republican social contract, where Constitutions are re-written every 20 years depending on the mood of the time, and political actors operate on the basis of a free-wheeling voluntarism. While credit must be given to law enforcement, particularly the Federal Police, for the ongoing revelations of the Operation Lava-Jato, or the “biggest corruption scandal in history”, it is equally troubling to see the degree to which the very functioning of the state is shown to be predicated on a vicious cycle of corruption. The immediate consequence of this, as many have observed, has been the elevation of the Judiciary into a, for all intents and purposes, “poder moderador”, at times with an elastic attitude towards its constitutional role that once more is demonstrative of the aforementioned voluntarism of the institutions.

Perhaps it is worth considering that however benevolent or momentarily necessary, these attitudes on the part of institutions, by their very nature contribute to the instability they seek to address. More than this however, it is revealing of a failure of the imagination, and expressive of the deeper scarcity of symbolic resources of the Brazilian republic, and its inability to command  loyalty,  or provide stability and sense of direction. Successful republican regimes, like the USA or France, for all their internal problems, possess founding myths with powerful influence on the minds of its citizens, which conduce them towards participation in the rituals of democracy.

This might seem like a somewhat rarefied and esoteric comment, at first, but it is hardly a negligible element of politics. An observer of the political culture of the USA for instance, can’t help but admire the degree to which the inadequacy of individual office-holders nevertheless doesn’t impinge on the popular reverence for the Constitution and its ideals. More than a static conservatism, it is a reverence which allows for the dynamic reformulation of motifs and symbols in the pursuit of concrete results – for example, in Martin Luther King’s appropriation of the promise of equality inherent in the American social contract, echoing Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, in the struggle for civil rights.

The imaginative scope of a country, in terms of solutions to its political and social problems, are uniquely conditioned by its historical formation to the degree that however admirable the US model might be however, it isn’t one which can be transposed in another place and context.

Given the origins of Brazilian independence and nation-building are entirely monarchical, with figures like Jose Bonifacio and of course Dom Pedro I, for all intents and purposes being the “founding fathers” of the country, it makes one wonder whether such a country can truly be best served under a republican regime. While abstract points of political philosophy can be disputed and argued, the historical assessment in terms of legitimacy, stability and democracy is far more conclusive, all things considered.

Perhaps we can conclude by considering the prophetic words of one of the most illustrious figures of Brazilian literature, the writer Machado de Assis, who in 1867 had written:

“As to my public opinions, I have two of them. One that is impossible, and another that is realized. The impossible one is the republic of Plato. The realized is the representative system. It is above all as a Brazilian that the latter pleases me much, and I ask the gods (I also believe in them) to keep the republican system away from Brazil, because this day would be the birth of the most insolent aristocracy the sun has ever illuminated”Facebooktwitter

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