The 1985 Brazilian presidential election was the last to be held indirectly through an electoral college, and the last to be held under the Military Regime. The electoral college system was put in place so that the military elite that controlled the government could secure the election of the candidate chosen by the High Command of the Armed Forces as President. However, in 1985, due to the process of negotiated transition to democracy that started in the late 1970s, the politicians in the electoral college were placed under no coercion, and were allowed to choose the president of their choice.
Under the 1967-1969 Constitution enacted by the military, the electoral college was composed of all the members of the Brazilian bicameral National Congress (formed by Senators and Federal Deputies) and also of a number of State Deputies who were especially elected by their peers in the State Assemblies for the purpose of serving as delegates of those Assemblies in the electoral college. The 1982 legislative elections had already taken place under the process of gradual restoration of democratic freedoms, and the opposition had a slim majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, but the governing party, allied with the Military Regime, still controlled the Senate (only a fraction of the composition of the Senate had been up for election in 1982, other sentators had been elected indirectly in the late 1970s).
Two groups were disputing the succession of President João Figueiredo: the Democratic Alliance and the Democratic Social Party. The Democratic Alliance, which advocated the restoration of democracy through the creation of a new Constitution, launched the candidacy of Tancredo Neves from the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). The MDB led the Alliance and was supported by the Liberal Front, a dissidence of the Democratic Social Party, and the Democratic Labour Party.
The Democratic Social Paty, on the other hand, defended the legacy of the 1964 military regime, and launched the candidature of Paulo Salim Maluf, also a civilian, but one that was aligned with the military elite that controlled the regime.
The supporters of the regime, however, were weakened: they had even rebranded their party as the Democratic Social Party, abandoning the old name ARENA (National Renewal Alliance) in order to confuse voters at legislative elections and thus avoid a massive loss of seats. Also, in the nomination of the PDS's Presidential candidate, Colonel Mário Andreazza was the preferred candidate of outgoing President General João Figueiredo, but the membership of the PDS was no longer disciplined: former São Paulo Governor Paulo Maluf defeated Andreazza in the Party's Convention, resulting in a split in the PDS. After Maluf's nomination, many members left the Party and joined the Opposition MDB (including José Sarney, who went on to become Tancredo Neves's running mate in a political deal that secured for the Opposition the votes of the electoral college members who defected from the PDS and joined the MDB).
In 1984, the Diretas Já movement, that sought the immediate restoration of direct popular elections for the Presidency of the Republic, failed, since, in spite of strong popular support and rallies, the Opposition to the military government failed to secure the two-thirds supermajority of votes in Congress, that was required to amend the 1967 Constitution, as amended and republished in 1969.
On January 15, 1985, the Electoral College gathered to vote for the presidential election. Tancredo Neves was elected President with 480 votes (72.4%) against only 180 (27.3%) given to Maluf. There were 26 abstentions, mostly from parliamentarians from the Workers' Party, which decided to maintain its neutrality and support neither candidates. Some of its members, however, such as actress and congresswoman Bete Mendes, voted on the Democratic Alliance and ended up being expelled from the party. Overall, three members of the party (Airton Soares, Mendes and José Eudes) were expelled from it.
On March 14, 1985, just one day prior to his inauguration, President-elect Tancredo Neves fell ill with strong abdominal pain, so that he could not appear before Congress to take office as President on March 15 (the Constitution required the oath of office to be taken before a joint session of the Legislature). José Sarney, who was elected Vice-President, took office as Vice-President on inauguration day, and became Acting President at once. On April 21, 1985, Neves died from a generalized infection. Although he was never technically President because he never took the constitutional oath, he died during his Presidential term and Congress passed a special statute, directing that his name be included on the official list of Brazilian presidents as a matter of homage. Upon the death of the President-elect, Acting President Sarney succeeded to the Presidency.
The Democratic Alliance's promise of passing a Constitutional Amendment to the 1967-1969 Constitution summoning elections for a National Constituent Assembly was fulfilled on 27 November 1985, with the enactment of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution inheirited from the military regime era. Under that Amendment, the members of the 48th Legislature of Brazil's National Congress, that assembled on 1 February 1987 after the 1986 legislative elections, convened as a National Constituent Assembly, with unlimited powers to draft and enact Brazil's new Constitution. The Constitution was promulgated on 5 October 1988.