In the November consultations for the Constituent Assembly, the PMDB, identified with the government, was awarded with an absolute majority in the House and Senate and the election of 22 of the 23 governors. However, those responsible for economic policy were now in favor of the liberalization of prices to reduce the purchasing power of the population and a few days after the elections a plan to this effect was launched. The disappointment with these measures and the lack of depth of changes in the democratic framework encouraged a widespread attitude of distrust in politics. To this were added the controversies between and within the parties (the PMDB also underwent a split that led to the birth of the PSDB, Partido da Socialdemocracia Brasileira) and in the Constituent Assembly, shaken by very hard discussions about the duration of the presidential mandate, which were resolved with the postponement of the elections to 1989 and the retention of Sarney in office.
The Assembly approved, in September 1988, a constitution that makes some progress in social legislation and workers’ rights, establishes the referendum, places restrictions on foreign capital, eliminates censorship, but does not progress on many issues, also conceding, populistically, the right to vote for sixteen year olds.
Democratization has so far yielded less than hoped-for results, due to various factors, first of all, the political pact between PMDB, FL and a PDS group that was able to create an alliance large enough to neutralize resistance to transition but too broad to guarantee unique addresses. The PMDB itself, which as a front had maintained a certain unity of action as long as the goal was to overthrow the dictatorship, is divided into the democratic phase.
It should also be considered that the social pact between government, employers and the world of work, aimed at reducing conflicts, has essentially failed both because the rate of inflation (close to 700% in 1988) does not allow far-reaching economic policies and therefore a reform plan, both due to the lack of social representativeness of political forces. Other factors are the absence or weakness of ideological parties and defined representation of social interests, their historical inability to structure themselves as national organizations, the patronage politics that make party identification, today as in the past, a phenomenon of little value.. The PMDB itself has within it many refugees from the military party. Finally, starting from 1985, the presence of an independent executive has placed the members of the Democratic Alliance in the untenable position of being, at the same time, government parties (as the Sarney presidency emerged from their bosom and as responsible for key posts in the government structure) and opposition parties (as dissenters from many of the presidential choices), thus taking away space for real opposition. It is true that the municipal elections of November 1988 rewarded PT and PDT, inaugurating what could be a turnaround, but the picture described is particularly serious in a country where anti-partyism has always been a widespread phenomenon, thanks also to the populist legacy that has strongly personalized social and political relations.
It should be added that the social movements have lost their incisiveness due to their often localistic character and for having suffered more than due the disappointment following the failure or only partial acceptance of their demands by democratic governments. The transition to the civilian regime then had the effect of creating tensions and conflicts within the movements themselves (between the secular left and the Catholic left, between the various party currents). This phenomenon has also involved Catholic structures, especially since the Church of the poor must now come to terms with a restoration of a Vatican matrix, which is expressed through the appointment of new bishops belonging to the conservative currents. The unions themselves have less weight as political actors and their credibility is undermined by the stubbornness with which they defend certain corporate legislative measures dating back to the populist period, such as the prohibition of trade union plurality by area and sector, measures reaffirmed by the new constitution. The two confederations, then (CGT and CUT), quickly set out to identify their positions with those of the parties.
Finally, the military, even if removed from the management of power, have not given up their political role, opposing government decisions, reform projects (especially the agrarian one), pronouncing themselves on political issues (in particular on the debates at the Constituent Assembly), occupying posts key in public administration. This attitude is largely due to the peculiarities of a transition process agreed with civilians and even carried out by a wing of the Armed Forces. It is obvious that this has involved prices and some control over the intensity of democratization.
In the presidential elections of November 1989 – the first with a popular and direct vote since 1960, characterized by a scarcity of both political and economic programs, despite the scourge of foreign debt and inflation that exceeded 2500% in one year – emerged three characters: the populist L. Brizola of the PDT, the worker LI da Silva, called Lula, of the PT and the almost unknown F. Collor de Mello, supported by the powerful Globo television network and presented by a party he himself created in February 1989, PRN (Partido de Reconstrução Nacional). Riding the tiger of the fight against corruption in the public administration and fighting for the privatization of state-owned enterprises, de Mello leapt to the top of the polls, attracting numerous exponents of other parties to the PRN, and obtained 26% of the votes, while Lula stood on 17%. The consultation marked the collapse of the PMDB (4%) demonstrating once again the ease of disintegration of the center parties in Brazil in the presence of rapid polarization processes linked to the economic and social crisis.
The ballot introduced by the new Constitution saw de Mello’s victory with 51.5%, but Lula’s strong resistance showed that the votes had not been distributed according to the indications of the candidates defeated in the first round, thus perpetuating the lack of representation of the parties. The elected president announced the temporary moratorium and the future payment of only 50% of the foreign debt and launched a plan of austerity, privatization, freezing of prices and wages. Finally, it blocked bank accounts for a year and a half, a measure which aimed to cause a sharp drop in liquidity and, consequently, in inflation.
The president’s policy achieved a clear consensus among the political forces, confirmed by the results of the October 1990 elections. In May 1991, after a few months of resumption of inflation (which had dropped dramatically after the rise of Collor), the minister of the economy, Mrs. Zélia Cardoso de Mello, who had promoted initiatives as radical as they were impracticable also because they were linked to the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, was forced to resign.