Sarney ascended in the politics of his home state of Maranhão as part of the "Bossa Nova Generation" of UDN politicians in the 1950s, young idealists seeking to reorganize public administration and rid the government of corruption and old deleterious practices. During the Brazilian military dictatorship, which imposed a two-party system, Sarney affiliated himself with the government party, ARENA, becoming the president of the party in 1979. As the regime fell, however, ARENA split over the appointment of Paulo Maluf as Presidential candidate. Sarney joined the dissenters, being instrumental in the creation of the Liberal Front Party. He agreed to run for Vice-President on the ticket of Tancredo Neves, of PMDB, formerly the opposition party to the military government. Neves won the Presidential elections, but fell ill and died before taking office, and Sarney became President. He started out his term with great popularity, but public opinion shifted with the Brazilian debt crisis and the failure of Plano Cruzado to abate chronic inflation.
Over time, Sarney and his family acquired enormous clout over Maranhão's public life, and he is today regarded as the foremost of Brazil's oligarchs. Sarney owns the most important newspapers and TV stations in Maranhão, and remains influential there, even though he is now a senator for the smaller state of Amapá. Sarney has also faced multiple allegations of nepotism and corruption in his career. In 2009, the British weekly The Economist called his election as President of the Senate "a victory for semi-feudalism" and "a throwback to an era of semi-feudal politics that still prevails in corners of Brazil and holds the rest of it back."Veja columnist Roberto Pompeu de Toledo deemed him "the perfect oligarch".
Sarney is currently the longest-standing member of the Brazilian Congress, and has held public office since 1958 almost without interruption. Sarney is also an accomplished writer, and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
Born in Pinheiro, Maranhão, as José Ribamar Ferreira de Araújo Costa, he was the son of Sarney de Araújo Costa, a wealthy land-owner and sugarcane producer, and Kiola Ferreira de Araújo Costa. In 1965 he legally adopted the name José Sarney de Araújo Costa, usually shortened to José Sarney ([ʒʊˈzɛ saɦˈnej]), for electoral purposes, since he was known as "Zé do Sarney", as in "José, son of Sarney". Married to Marly Sarney, his children are Congressman José Sarney Filho, Governor Roseana Sarney, and the businessman Fernando Sarney.
Sarney started his political career as a federal deputy in the late 1950s. He was a member of the centre-right National Democratic Union (União Democrática Nacional—UDN), being aligned with the progressive wing of the party. He strongly supported so-called "Revolution of 1964", a military coup that overthrew President leftist João Goulart in 1964.
After the military coup, Sarney was a member of the ARENA, the political party of the military government and was elected as governor of the state of Maranhão in 1966, serving until 1971. He was then elected to the Brazilian Senate and became ARENA's president.
Sarney, however, had never been quite accepted by the military establishment, which tried to block his career. In 1979 ARENA changed its name to PDS, and Sarney remained the party's president. In 1984, the military rule was under pressure due to popular protests to reinstall direct elections for president (Diretas Já movement). PDS was divided, but launched Paulo Maluf as its candidate for the presidency in indirect elections. Sarney disagreed with this decision and left PDS to form the Liberal Front, which then allied with the PMDB.
As part of the deal, Sarney became Tancredo Neves' running mate on the opposition ticket. Neves won the election of 15 January 1985, but on the eve of taking the oath he became severely ill. Sarney assumed office as acting president until Neves died on 21 April, then he formally became the first civilian president in 21 years.
His succession raised some question because, as Neves could not attend the inauguration ceremony on 15 March, several politicians contended at the time that Sarney shouldn't have been inaugurated as Vice-President and allowed to assume the role of Acting President. Those politicians believed that, since Sarney had been elected Vice-President only virtue of the election of his running mate as President (each member of the Electoral College cast one vote only, for President, and the choice of President carried with it the automatic selection of the ticket's running mate as Vice-President) Sarney could only take office as Vice-President together with Neves. They argued that, in the event of the head of the presidential ticket not being able to assume office, the presidency should pass to the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Ulysses Guimarães. There was some partisanship in this line of thought, since both Neves and Guimarães were members of the same party, and Sarney was not; he had been a supporter of the Military, and only recently had joined the coalition to defeat the military's candidate in the electoral college. The challenge to Sarney's inauguration was short-lived, however, because in the early hours of inauguration day Guimarães himself stated that he believed that Sarney had the right to be inaugurated even without Neves.
Sarney and the president of ArgentinaRaúl Alfonsín started the process of the creation of a common market between the two nations in 1985. As first steps, they agreed to subsidize regional trade with a special currency for the purpose (the Gaucho). This agreement led to the formation of the Mercosul in 1991.
He had to face many problems; an enormous foreign debt, rampant inflation and corruption as well as completion of the transition to democracy. Sarney launched an economic plan to stabilize the economy, called "Plano Cruzado", successful at first, but the inflation became stronger than ever after a year. A new and democratic constitution was promulgated in 1988, and in the following year the first direct elections since 1960 were held.
Sarney left the presidency at the end of his term. He supported Fernando Henrique Cardoso as presidential candidate in 1994 and 1998, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. Since leaving the Presidency, he has been a senator for Amapá, has been the president of the Senate of Brazil from 1995 to 1997, 2003 to 2005, 2009 to 2011 and again was re-elected president of the Senate for the 2011-2013 term.