May 11, 2016 3:15 p.m. ET
In most large presidential republics, elected heads of state are almost certain to finish their terms, barring extraordinary circumstances. Not so in Brazil.
Of Brazil’s eight elected leaders since 1950, only three have managed to serve out their full terms. One died before assuming office, while another committed suicide. Yet another mysteriously resigned, and his successor was overthrown in a coup. Ms. Rousseff would be the second forced out by impeachment.
It isn’t that Latin America’s largest economy is undemocratic. Brazil has a free press, an independent judiciary and a legislature that is anything but a rubber stamp. But when the country’s notoriously fickle public opinion swings against a president, those institutions have tended to fall quickly into line.
Here is how it went wrong for the country’s ill-fated presidents of that period:
Getulio Vargas (Jan. 31, 1951 to Aug. 24, 1954)
Having previously ruled Brazil as dictator from 1934-45, Getulio Vargas’ final term in office came after a lopsided election victory over the right-wing National Democratic Union, or UDN.
But as Mr. Vargas resumed his populist agenda, he faced steady opposition from the UDN, which unsuccessfully tried to impeach him in June 1954.
Shortly thereafter, an assassin opened fire on prominent UDN politician and media owner Carlos Lacerda, missing him and killing an Air Force major. The incident prompted Mr. Lacerda to undertake a blistering offensive against Mr. Vargas and undermined the president’s rapport with the military.
Hours after an emergency cabinet meeting in which he was urged to resign, Mr. Vargas put a bullet through his own heart. A suicide note addressed to the Brazilian people read: “I gave you my life. I now offer my death. I fear nothing. Serenely, I take the first step down the path of eternity, and I exit life to enter History.”
Jânio Quadros (Jan. 31, 1961 to Aug. 25, 1961)
Jânio Quadros is one of Brazil’s more enigmatic figures, whose rise in politics was as meteoric as his fall.
With a lazy-eye condition and sporting a dark mustache and thick-rimmed glasses, Mr. Quadros spoke with an archaic grandiloquence that fascinated the masses. He ran on an anticorruption platform, symbolized by a broom, and was elected under a coalition that included the UDN party.
Once in office, he implemented an orthodox package of economic reforms that pleased the U.S. and Europe. Among other things, he honored Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and banned bikini swimwear in the country.
On Aug. 18, 1961, the UDN’s Carlos Lacerda traveled to Brasília to meet with Mr. Quadros to request financial help for his newspaper but was reportedly snubbed by the president.
On Aug. 24, Mr. Lacerda made a nationally broadcast speech denouncing a supposed plan by Mr. Quadros to suspend Congress and become dictator. Though Mr. Lacerda’s allegations weren’t proven, Mr. Quadros abruptly resigned the next day, vaguely attributing his decision to what he said were “terrible forces” that had risen against him.
João Goulart (Sept. 7, 1961 to March 31, 1964).
A former pupil and confidant of Getúlio Vargas, João Goulart was elected vice president on a ticket with President Jânio Quadros, becoming Brazil’s leader when Mr. Quadros resigned.
He was an outspoken populist who was dreaded by conservatives. Seeking to curb Mr. Goulart’s powers, Congress quickly established a parliamentary political system before he took office, putting the armed forces under the control of the prime minister rather than the president. Brazil eventually returned to a presidential system, but the episode left the country deeply polarized.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy had run into trouble. Seeking to shore up his left-wing base, Mr. Goulart in a speech on Mar. 13, 1964 suggested he would alter the constitution, declaring it no longer served the desires of the people. He then announced decrees nationalizing private oil refineries and allowing for confiscation of underused lands and all properties along railroads and federal highways.
Mr. Goulart’s radical plans sparked a backlash from conservatives. Six days after his speech, 500,000 people took to the streets of São Paulo in protest. And on March 31, Gen. Olímpio Mourão Filho intervened against Mr. Goulart, setting off a coup that ushered in more than 20 years of military dictatorship.
Tancredo Neves (elected Jan. 15, 1985, never assumed office)
Selected by an electoral college, in a step toward eventual popular elections after the military dictatorship ended in 1985, Tancredo Neves was a long-serving statesman.
But he fell ill with a mysterious stomach ailment shortly after defeating the military’s preferred candidate and died three months later, never assuming office. The following decade would be marred by corruption scandals, bouts of hyperinflation and economic turmoil as Brazil completed its transition back to democracy.
His grandson, Aécio Neves, would ride Tancredo’s legacy to a political career of his own, which culminated in a narrow electoral loss to President Dilma Rousseff in 2014.
Globo via Getty Images
Fernando Collor de Mello (March 15,1990 to Dec. 29, 1992)
Brazil’s first directly elected president since Jânio Quadros almost 30 years before, Fernando Collor de Mello won election by campaigning hard against corruption. He was youthful, photogenic and seen by middle-class Brazilians as a more conservative alternative to left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who eventually became president and was mentor to Dimla Rousseff.
Mr. Collor’s first move as president was to freeze savings accounts to fight inflation. It didn’t work. Instead, depositors lost money, while Mr. Collor’s finance minister allegedly profited from the measure.
An avalanche of corruption accusations ensued, many of them issued by the president’s brother, Pedro, who controlled the main media outlets in his home state of Alagoas and with whom Mr. Collor had an intense rivalry.
Public opinion wheeled against Mr. Collor as inflation heightened, with mass protests across the country. Mr. Collor resigned after the lower house of Congress voted overwhelmingly to impeach him. Years later, Brazil’s Supreme Court cleared Mr. Collor of corruption and other criminal charges, citing a lack of evidence.
Mr. Collor is now a senator, sitting in judgment of Ms. Rousseff.
Write to Paul Kiernan at firstname.lastname@example.org