Brazilian Elections 2002


RIO DE JANEIRO. From the air, the ‘cidade maravilhosa’ was not so much draped in red as blanketed in white. Millions of paper backgrounds, pieces of political propaganda, stickers, pamphlets, slips and posters, shot back light to the spring sun. Some were still swaying in the bay breeze as they spiraled to the ground in a last bid to encrust the face of candidates onto the conscience of voters. Gliding down into the melee, people’s faces now in view, spontaneous socialist marches were breaking out in many districts. The red flag, symbol of blood and struggle, healthily breathed the spicy humidity of a victory set in the tropics.

In the aftermath of the first round in Brazil’s 2002 presidential elections, the Workers’ party (PT) is celebrating their best result in a two-decade long history. Barely a week ago, though, the residents of Rio were reminded for a few hours of how daunting the challenges are which lie ahead.

On Monday September 30, the city awoke to a week bound for history. The national currency hovered dangerously close to the psychological 4-to-1 mark with respect to the dollar. Weekend polls had Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, PT presidential hopeful, stretching tautly over the 50% high-bar, possibly hurdling to power in the first round. Despite the international support brought to the country’s economy by the IMF’s $30 bn loan a month ago, many questioned the current government’s ability to draw the country intact to January 1 when the new president would take over. Apart from the desire to govern, the PT rank and file soberly contemplated what they would be able to achieve under these highly sensitive financial conditions.

Yet on that Monday the Real would in fact gain strength. Economists glared confidently with the news of a record $US 2,349bn third-quarter trade balance surplus, setting the total for the year at $US 7,727bn. Few had expected the momentary scenes of panic sparked in the city as narco-gang lords provoked the shutdown of shops in 40 different districts, including Copacabana and Ipanema. Classes in 40% of private schools were hindered, while 22% of public schools had unexplainably failed to open at all. Buses lacked, creating chaos for workers and leaving 800,000 commuters without service. At the same time the civilian police, managed at the municipal level by Mayor Cesar Maia, had simply seemed to vanish. In the end, businesses suffered losses estimated at $US 40 million.

Was it a menacing rumor of reprisal that spread like brushfire? Or had the gangs fully, and finally, taken over from their favella outposts? For the state government, seated in Rio’s south zone and headed by Ms Benedita da Silva from the PT, it could only have been a political ploy meant to destabilize her chances for re-election.

Her insinuations were not a preconceived partisan attack. This was politics of a broader sort. It was the kind that lets you speak of the battle waged between the democratic Republic and drug-traffic gangs as a continuing medium-intensity civil war. Benedita summoned all of the state’s police forces to the streets. Further threats to destabilize Sunday’s elections led her to seek protection from the federal government, which promptly dispatched the army to watch over risk areas and ensure safety for Rio’s battered residents.

Such scenes should in no way deter the celebrations justly being held for Lula, leader of the first round results with 46.44% of the tally. The country has been swept over by a red wave, with the PT now the best represented party in the Lower House of Congress. In the Senate, it has nearly doubled its representation. Apart from the federal votes, Brazilians were also asked to select their next state governor and some state representatives. There was a lot of button pushing in Brazil’s second entirely electronic vote.

Voting is obligatory here, the expression of republican duty. As a North American attending his first elections in Brazil, this obligation stirred up conflict with my homebred individualism. Shouldn’t it be up to each and every individual to decide on whether to vote? Ushered into national pride by my companions who strode in solemn tranquility in Catete on their way to voting booths, I’ve concluded that: No, voting is a binding matter of civic responsibility. If there is anything a State owes to its citizens, it is to enshrine voting as their rightfully unalienable duty to choose who is to govern them.

Our North-American political leadership, perhaps more so in the US than Canada, is far too content to be victorious in a climate cleaved of the voting majority. The Soviet-style two-party system that has taken over the US will last well into the future. Meanwhile, the population folds in dejected desperation at the impossibility of seeing progressives govern at home. As for the Elected, their minimal concern is legitimacy. Either a Republican or Democrat achieves this easily from the subservience of the establishment media, notwithstanding the street smart postures of the latter. Television debates in Brazil had set the cut-off point to four candidates. Who had the jurisdiction to bar Ralph Nader from the American presidential debates? Was this another act of individual and democratic free will?

Despite the PT’s brilliant performance, on the day after there remained a shrill sense of disappointment in the streets of Rio. Some Rio residents awoke with the odd sensation that their aerial view had not been mistakenly skewed from red into white after all. There was a palpable perception that the state had voted contrary to the national tendency. The PT had a disappointing finish here, with the State being only one of three in which Lula was defeated. But for a bare minimum of districts in the city itself, Rio had indeed chosen the white veil.

Where you live in Brazil will undoubtedly color your perception of the election. Lula took over 50% of the vote in three states, including very prosperous Minas Gerais and Santa Cantarina. In Rio, we have been given an ominous sign of the country’s future. Its national rival, the Brazilian Social Democratic party (PSDB), did not beat the PT here. If there was a stunned silence in many parts of the South Zone and downtown on Monday, it was because Rosinha Matheus Garotinho had been swept to victory in the first round of the gubernatorial race with 51.3%.

Rosinha, as she is commonly known, is only one half of a pair. Her husband, Anthony, or simply “Garotinho” (which means little boy in Portuguese), is the former state governor. For the longest time, his bid for the presidency failed to leave a languishing fourth place standing. Early in August, there was even talk of him dropping out. But in his home state, he ended up beating Lula by two percentage points. Countrywide, Garotinho suddenly became a contender, finishing third with roughly 18% of the tally. This result makes the inevitability of forming an alliance with him a strategic and costly challenge for either Lula or his rival, Jose Serra (of the PSDB).

The Garotinhos are far from receiving respect from Rio’s middle classes. During the campaign, Anthony’s obvious populism was self-indulgent to the point of being repulsive. Rosinha prances about pretending that she’s the lollypop queen of the nation’s disenfranchised children, when she isn’t assuming proto-fascist imagery in citing herself as an Evita-like figure: an honest wife loyally supporting her husband through thick and thin. Recall that behind every Evita scurries a Lady Macbeth, misguidedly blaming her husband’s political opponents for what, when the record has been set straight, was caused by his own megalomaniacal mismanagement. More to the point, however, is that behind the populism, the couple stands for something much larger and more ambitious. It goes by the name of the Universal Church of the Reign of God.

Founded by Edir Macedo in 1977, the ‘Universal’ has grown expansively. With over 7000 churches in Brazil alone, it owns a national television station, Record TV, and countless radio stations. Rio de Janeiro is its Bethlehem, with a megatemple in suburban Del Castilho, the “Catedral Mundial da Fe”, able to greet up to 10,000 faithful.

As most churches, their role is not merely to provide comfort to the weak and destitute. Federal University sociologist, Maria das Dores Campos Machado, has been following the role of the evangelical movement in the elections. She shared her observations with Veja Rio magazine: “When the Universal Church launches a candidate, the ecclesiastical structure gets heavily involved in the campaign. The Universal Church has invested massively in assistancialism and advertising for its social work. They are fully making use of the mass media.”

The Garotinhos are Presbyterian evangelists with no explicit ties to the Universal. In political terms, they merely represent the Universal’s secular wing. Yet they have made abundant use of its infrastructure as a springboard to power. Though they each ran under the heading of the PSB, i.e. the Brazilian Socialist Party, actual use of the word ‘socialism’, or even ‘worker’ was muted under that of “Garotinho” and “I/me”.

Meanwhile, Lula’s main contender, the “government” candidate Jose Serra, designated as the official successor to outgoing president Cardoso, managed to slip into the run-off elections with 23.2%. This figure showed no significant increase over what the polls had projected when predicting that Lula would head straight for the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia. Who cut down Lula’s stride in Rio was Garotinho.

Garotinho would be best described as an unpredictable electoral clown, were it not for what has quickly been exposed as his unquenchable thirst for power. What he wants is as perplexing as how he got 18% of the nation’s popular vote. Exceeding 15 million voters, this is an astonishing result for someone who gave only the most ludicrous promises and displayed an utter ignorance of economic issues. He spent three years as governor in Rio de Janeiro State. Until resigning in his bid to run for the presidentials, he polished over what has since exploded as empty state coffers and drug-lord control of the greater metropolitan region. Early in his term, city progressives were filled with hope for this new, young “socialist”. Gradually disabused, they soon caught the real hue of his socialism.

An alliance with the state-level PT led him to power. It also allowed him to co-opt its reputation. His most pompous campaign promise was to boost the minimum wage up to $R 400 upon taking office. By contrast, the PT has called for a gradual increase to $R300 over three years provided the economy grow by 4.5%. His maddest posture was to reject the conditions of the IMF loan. Given that roughly 95% of the 2003 budget has already been allocated, no victor will have much breathing space on social spending in the first year. A vastly undereducated people, however, may not understand such constraints when the powerful relentlessly insist to them that nothing is impossible provided one be willing to try.

His elegant vice-governor and former federal senator, Benedita da Silva has struggled with a chaotic situation since assuming power last spring. Her team has been determined to fight organized crime head on. Running mate and current public security and citizenship coordinator, Luiz Eduardo Soares, was subsecretary of public security under Garotinho’s government.

Under threat to him and his family, Soares fled the country once the governor dropped his support and protection for him after he began exposing the circle of corruption among the state police hierarchy. While in exile in the US, he spent time studying the New York City police force. When he and Benedita went into action earlier this year, the gang lords began attacking state buildings. The governor herself came close to being assaulted one weekend.

As nationals of any country subjected to intensive political marketing, Brazilians have shown fascination for the old vertical identification phenomenon. Benedita grew up in Mangueira, a poor hillside favella community in Rio’s north zone and legendary home to Samba greats Nelson Cavaquinho and Cartola. In spite of arresting two drug kingpins and partially smashing their organizations, Ms de Silva has at times been found guilty of expressing shame on her face. Many of the disenfranchised seem to prefer turning their awe-stricken gaze to the saintly image of Rosinha instead.

In the months leading up to the elections, the international press has emphasized the discomfort that torment investors and creditors wrought by the thought of having to do business with the PT. But the picture drawn by Wall Street and the IMF, as Kenneth Maxwell recently put it in the Financial Times, is only an extension of the Latin American literary fad of magical realism by other means. Their demonization of Lula is typical to northern power brokers who only leave home to find themselves sequestered behind the secure walls of five-star hotels and yachts.

No amount of dialogue seems to be enough to calm an edgy creditor. Lula and the PT, including much of the Brazilian media and business class, have painstakingly emphasized his pro-business alliances, best represented in his choice of Senator Jose Alencar from the PL as his vice-presidential running mate. Even more, Lula accepted the terms of the $30bn IMF loan granted to Brazil amidst its currency crisis in August.

Undeniable to his position, which in my view is what really disturbs the Anglo-American goldenperson set, is Lula’s passionate nationalism and that of Brazilians in general. Never for a moment has the Brazilian business class, regardless of political stripe, accepted the speculation on the Real as justifiably due to Lula’s standing in the polls. The truth is that whenever the south speaks critical economics, the north takes it as a rebuff of the self-proclaimed superiority of their ways.

What is the north offering to the south now that it grovels amidst growing recession and a string of corporation corruption cases? The unilateral behavior of the Bush regime has not only impeded dialogue with the south. It has cast a shadow on shareholder capitalism, and on the very nature of the economic growth the north reveled in for the latter part of the nineties. This is the sentiment the PT has analyzed, and in regard to which it is delicately proposing action.

Nonetheless, the face-off between Serra and Lula is diverting attention from those who remain their mutual opponents. With popular education only slowly progressing during the Cardoso years, various Church groups have set in their ambitions for Brazil. One of the two Senators Rio will send to Brasilia is bispo (i.e. bishop) Marcelo Crivella, nephew of the founder of the ‘Universal’. His switch from a church pop pastor symbol, with millions of CDs sold, to the pastoral model of political leader has been striking, to say the least. And as the Church prepares to run a candidate for the federal elections in the future, one can already sense the possible tendency for its, and Garotinho’s, drive for alliances.

If Garotinho can be taken at his word for any type of commitment, which is doubtful, he vehemently rejects any alliance with the PFL. One of Brazil’s most powerful parties, the PFL represents the interests of the notorious northeastern oligarchs and is well represented in the Lower House and Senate. The PT has had to temper the sparks it may launch toward the PFL if it at all hopes to govern. That’s owing to how much more the executive branch is constrained by congress than it is in the US. In trying to expose the compromises between these two parties, Garotinho has donned an image of purity, claiming to be free of all alliances — save for the Church’s, which is not alliance in his view, but a creed. With ever stroke meant to destabilize the PT, one can’t help but sense that an unraveled alliance with the PFL will only increase Garotinho and the Universal’s own opportunities in the Brasilia/Rio tandem.

With the international press’ general reluctance to accept Lula and the PT, it’s clear that in the eyes of many the cold war has never disappeared. Pundits keep confusing progressive political projects with vapid populism. In their eyes, if Stalin equals Hitler, then it only stands to reason that Lenin and Trotsky do as well. That this perspective is deeply rooted in half-digested knowledge of second-hand readings popularized by the most conservative political commentators is clearly reflected in the utter ignorance of what is at stake in Brazil’s criticism of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas as it now stands.

On November 1, at the ministerial meeting to be held in Quito, Ecuador, the US and Brazil will assume the co-presidency of the FTAA until January 2005. In his charismatic trade-union style, Lula has shone when describing how hard the Brazilians will negotiate against protectionism, especially on steel, orange juice and other produce including soy beans.

If there is one thing North-Americans must understand at this point, it’s that the PT’s proposals for the FTAA is a fuller expression of free-trade market principles than is the Bush administration’s. If North-Americans refuse to share their wealth, that’s one thing. But they should not deny their greed by distorting reality and disinforming its own public. It should not be a mystery to anyone that the current lines for instituting the FTAA are largely favorable to the North. Brazilians are not about to vanquish their country faced with the corruption and protectionism of the American business and political elite.

Economic indicators are suggesting that nothing will be easy for the next president, whether he be Lula or Serra. Thus far, though, little has been measured of the consequences behind the thrust of evangelical representation in state and federal government. A split has surely occurred in the middle classes in which the PT has been revving its power. In fact, the PT may not be far from being marred by its direct consequences, as the main party with which it has run, the PL, is also filled with the most ‘bishops’ of the Universal Church.

The messianic message pronounced away from the eyes of the mainstream media has been heard by the nation’s disenfranchised. Even then, it is hard to speak in terms of class lines. The Church’s ambitions are community forming. Executives and office workers alike have their roles to play. With nothing but platitudes involved in Garotinho’s political speeches, the short-comings of what were by far the most open and hotly debated campaign the country has ever seen, have now bared a blind spot.

Serra’s campaign has been the most tainted by a marketing strategy whose effect was to water down his political output. But he will have to make some hard choices regarding policy questions. Serra wants to represent the Cardoso government, yet aim for a vision that Cardoso either failed to achieve or did not strive for. Either way Cardoso’s support for Serra is understandably under the press’ scrutiny, as Brasilian’s have overwhelmingly asserted — with 76% of votes — their desire to see change from the president’s path. With Serra at only 23%, he’ll have to move harder against his mentor if he hopes to accumulate votes. As Garotinho’s antics have now been sidelined at the federal level, whether Serra has anything as solid to bring to debate as he has been boasting, is what the next three weeks will most likely reveal.

The disappointment of Lula’s partial victory on Sunday has started to settle into a realization of the vast support his vision does have for Brazilians – regardless of Rio de Janeiro State. That Lula has beaten Serra in their homestate of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial and financial capital has not only dispelled the stereotype of the Paulista’s disgust for those from the northeast, the land of Lula’s birth. It has confirmed the trust of a large sector of Brazilian industry in Lula.

Now all Lula’s got to show is that he’s able to keep it. The honesty game is about to begin. On that score, Lula’s main rivals are clearly the evangelists. And their conditions for delegating votes are already mounting.

NORMAN MADARASZ is a Canadian philosopher. He lives in Rio de Janeiro and welcomes comments at