Claimed in 1500 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral, Brazil was ruled from Lisbon as a colony until 1808. In that year, fleeing Napoleon's army, the Portuguese royal family established the empire's seat of government in Rio de Janeiro. In 1821, the royal family returned to Portugal, leaving Prince Dom Pedro as regent of the newly established Brazilian kingdom. On 7 September 1822, Dom Pedro proclaimed Brazil's independence from Portugal and declared himself Emperor Dom Pedro I. His son, Dom Pedro II, ruled from 1831 to 1889 when a bloodless and unchallenged coup, led by army marshall Deodoro da Fonseca, established the United States of Brazil as a federal republic.
During the first 40 years of its republican history, Brazil was a constitutional democracy. In 1930, a military coup established the civilian Getulio Vargas as president. He remained dictator until 1945 when the nation returned to democratic practice. Alarmed by a spiraling economic downturn and growing social instability, the military intervened once again in 1964. Army chief of staff General Humberto Castelo Branco led a bloodless coup against the left-leaning administration of President Joao Goulart. Castelo Branco became president and eventually assumed dictatorial powers. All political parties were banned. Successive military governments ruled Brazil until 1985 when a majority faction in the electoral college chose Senator Tancredo Neves as the next president, the first civilian to occupy that office since 1961. Although Neves died unexpectedly prior to his inauguration, his vice president, José Sarney, was sworn in as president in April 1985. In 1989, direct presidential elections were held for the first time in 29 years, and Brazilians elected Fernando Collor de Mello. (Collor defeated the young and charismatic leader of the Workers' Party, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.) Amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, Collor resigned from office in 1992, and Vice President Itamar Franco completed his term. This smooth transition was hailed as a rebirth for the nation—the crisis and succession having been managed entirely within the dictates of constitutional procedure.
Upon the return to civilian government in 1985, Brazil moved quickly to reestablish fundamental democratic processes. In May 1985, a constitutional amendment reestablished direct elections by universal suffrage. The right to vote was extended to illiterates (20% of the population in 1985, approximately 17% in 2000). In 1987, a Constituent Assembly was seated and began debate on the new Brazilian constitution. The final draft was approved by the National Congress and promulgated on 5 October 1988.
The Constitution contains 245 highly specific articles, some of which remain controversial. The fundamental points establish Brazil as a federal republic of 26 states and the Federal District. A bicameral National Congress exercises legislative authority. The Federal Senate is composed of 81 members who serve eight-year terms. The Chamber of Deputies is elected every four years by a system of proportional representation. The 1988 Constitution stipulated that executive power be held by a president elected to a five-year term. In 1994, the term was changed to four years. Two years later, the Constitution was altered to allow a president to serve more than one term in office. Presidential elections are structured in a two-round system. The first round is open to all comers. The second round is a contest between the two top contenders from the first round, unless a candidate receives an outright majority of votes cast.