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  • Writer's pictureStuart Jeffery

Common(wealth) Knowledge #22: Brazil and the democratic transition of power

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

How different democracies handle a change in government after an election.

A look at the differences between how different democracies handle a change in government after an election

On 30 October 2022, Brazilian voters elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the country’s new president, with 50.9% of the vote. Supporters of the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, took to the streets and social media to protest the result, with many of the right-wing candidate’s supporters claiming election fraud.

With the US midterm elections just days away, at the time of writing, many have drawn comparisons between this and the aftermath of the US 2020 presidential election. However, that was not the first time that US voters protested the result, with significant outrage after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. With a similar reaction expected after the midterm elections, now is an excellent opportunity to compare how different democracies handle the transition of power after an election, and how they stack up against Australia.

All the way back in Common(wealth) Knowledge #1, we saw how Australia’s system of government can be considered as the ‘Washminister’ system, a combination of the UK’s Westminster system and the US system, named after its capital of Washington, D.C. In contrast, the Brazilian government is largely inspired by the Washington system.

Brazil, like the US, is a constitutional federal republic. Brazil’s official name, the Federative Republic of Brazil, is a big hint here, although it isn’t always that helpful, given that the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea isn’t exactly democratic. A constitutional federal republic has three characteristics:

  1. A written constitution that is the supreme law of the country. For a discussion about written vs unwritten constitutions, check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #16 and #1.

  2. A federal system that splits power between two levels of government, the federal government and state governments.

  3. A republican style of government, with a president as the head of state.

The major difference between the US and Brazil is that Brazil can also be described as a democratic federative republic. Brazilian voters elect their President directly, in a democratic system. So it’s definitely a more accurate name than North Korea’s. Although most US elections happen that way, the role of the Electoral College in electing the President means that it isn’t entirely democratic, unlike Brazil and other presidential republics.

Australia ticks the first two boxes. All three countries also have capital cities that aren’t part of any state, but rather have their own, less powerful, government. Of the three, the Australian Capital Territory has the most government autonomy, but none of the three approaches the level of autonomy that states have. The difference between the two republics and Australia is that Australia is a constitutional monarchy, with a monarch as the official head of state, and a Prime Minister as the head of government, rather than a President performing both roles. This is where the Westminster system comes in.

When it comes to the transition of power after an election, the biggest difference between Australia and the two republics is how they handle caretaker governments. Caretaker governments basically ensure that the governing party can’t subvert the will of the people by making major decisions that the opposition wouldn’t do, if they were elected into government.

In Australia, a government becomes a caretaker government when an election is called. Section 5 of the Australian Constitution gives the Governor-General the power to dissolve the House of Representatives, while Section 12 gives “[t]he Governor of any State” the power to dissolve their State’s part of the Senate. Once there is a dissolution, an election must happen to elect a new government. It is a constitutional convention that the Governor-General will dissolve the House of Representatives on the advice of the Prime Minister, and if the Prime Minister wants an election for both Houses of Parliament, the Governors will follow suit.

It is a constitutional convention in Westminster systems that there must always be a government in place. It’s why Boris Johnson, and later Liz Truss, stayed in office in the UK until a new Prime Minister and party leader could be chosen, who in turn would choose an all-new Cabinet. The head of state, or in Australia’s case the Governor-General, must ensure that the country always has a government.

When Harold Holt disappeared in 1967, Country Party leader John McEwen became the caretaker Prime Minister until the Liberal Party could elect a new leader. Because McEwen and the Country Party refused to work with William McMahon, the then-deputy leader of the Liberal Party, which would have broken the coalition and meant that the Liberals did not have the numbers to govern in their own right, McMahon had no option but to accept their demands. When John Gorton was elected party leader, he became Prime Minister, and officially created the position of Deputy Prime Minister, appointing McEwen to that role.

In Westminster countries, the caretaker period starts once an election is called. During that time, the government won’t make major policy decisions, especially decisions that the opposition won’t support. This is because a representative government must respect the will of the voters. As the election outcome hasn’t been decided yet, it is better to be safe than sorry. This is why Scott Morrison waited until his party passed their 2022-23 budget through Parliament before advising the Governor-General to call an election.

If an election brings about a change in government, the old government will resign and the new Prime Minister will be sworn in as soon as possible. The new Prime Minister will then advise the Governor-General on who to appoint as Ministers.

In contrast, in Brazil and the US, this caretaker period happens after the election. In the case of the US, this is partly because the Electoral College can’t vote to decide who will be President and Vice-President until the public vote is finalised. At the same time, the different levels of government must certify the election results by confirming the validity of the counted votes. This isn’t as much of an issue in Australia and Brazil, where voting is mandatory. In those countries, officials know roughly how many votes they should receive, so it is pretty easy to work out if the number of votes counted is wrong. In contrast, because the US has voluntary voting this level of certainty doesn’t exist.

The vast majority of elections in the US are held on the same date, the Tuesday that falls between 2 November and 8 November of every second year. The exceptions are presidential elections being every four years and one-third of Senators being elected every two years, plus a handful of state and local elections. This is where Australia gets its staggered half-Senate elections from. Brazil is similar, except the election term is four years and Senate terms aren’t staggered.

The transition of government is therefore a mammoth task in Brazil and the US, on account of their massive population, which requires a large bureaucracy, and the fact that the transition must happen at all levels at the same time. So, for these countries, the caretaker government happens between the election date and inauguration day. Their approach to what the government has the power to do during this time is similar to the Australian approach. To help streamline the process, Brazil sets all inauguration days as 1 January of the next year, instead of doing them piecemeal.

In contrast, the US Congress is inaugurated before the President and Vice-President, so that they can help certify the validity of the presidential election, in conjunction with the Electoral College, especially because Congress must break a tie in Electoral College vote. In midterm elections, where there is no presidential election, this doesn’t matter as much. But the inauguration date remains the same, for simplicity. The delay also provides more time to challenge or protest the results of the election, as seen after the last few elections.

The post-election day protests in Brazil and the US are therefore a result of the system, specifically the delay in the inauguration. This is intensified by a lack of trust in government in both countries. In Brazil, this comes from allegations of corruption, while in the US, a country that won independence from a tyrannical government, it is arguably a by-product of the system itself. Ironically, because Australians don’t directly elect the Prime Minister, unlike Brazil, and even the US, to an extent, there is more faith in the democratic system.

Stuart Jeffery is the host of Between Parkes Place and Capital Hill on 6 News. His views on personal social media pages are his & his only, and do not reflect the views of 6 News or our journalists. He abides by 6 News' editorial standards relating to fairness & accuracy.

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