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Brazil, Political Caldron Aboil, Grapples With Mammoth Problems

December 14, 1986|Joan Dassin | Joan Dassin, editor of "Torture in Brazil" (Vintage), specializes in Latin America for Americas Watch, a human-rights organization.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Events move fast in Brazil. Even before all the votes in last month's 15 state and national elections had been counted, President Jose Sarney's Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) claimed victory.

It turned out that PMDB candidates for governor were elected in all but one of Brazil's 23 states. The PMDB won comfortable majorities in the most important state legislatures and also gained control in both houses of Congress. For an internally divided party that suffered major defeats in the November, 1985, mayoral races, the victory was stunning.

But victory euphoria faded fast. Widespread hostility to government-decreed price increases for cigarettes, liquor, automobiles, gasoline and alcohol fuel provoked a political crisis within two weeks after the elections. Intended to curb consumer spending and raise government revenues, the increases seemed like a betrayal to the broad spectrum of voters that had supported the PMDB. The two major labor federations organized a protest in Brasilia. The country was shocked when violence erupted and about 100 demonstrators were wounded. Election news has given way to nervousness about Brazil's political and economic future. As recently as Friday, the two largest labor unions called for a nationwide one-day strike.

How can these rapid swings be understood? Sarney himself recently observed that "Brazil isn't a country with problems, it's a country with big problems." A closer look at the elections shows what some of them are--and how they affect prospects for democracy in Brazil.

Civic spirit and political participation ran high in the campaign. The mood was in part created by an endless stream of media coverage that bombarded the country's nearly 70 million voters, but numerous public rallies convened by candidates were also well-attended. Party workers inundated the streets with posters, flyers and pamphlets proclaiming the virtues of 32 political parties. Communists ran legally for the first time in the history of the republic. The Federal District, where the national capital, Brasilia, is located, celebrated its first election ever. All over the country, people of all races and social classes clustered in bars, on beaches and even at street corners to discuss their favorite candidates.

At the same time, one newspaper editorial concluded that the electoral campaign was the "most depressing in recent history." The three principal candidates in the economically important state of Sao Paulo spent little time explaining policies and ideas. They concentrated instead on attacking one another, defending their personal credentials and cultivating political alliances.

On election day, determined voters braved long lines at the polls and massive confusion about prior registration procedures. The ballots were so complicated that one candidate compared them to college entrance exams. As a result, many ballots were incorrectly or partially completed. In some areas, the null and blank votes exceeded the valid votes cast. In Sao Paulo, 25% of the ballots cast in the capital city and up to 40% in the interior of the state were void or incomplete.

Those who voted for the PMDB were supporting an unstable coalition, not a cohesive party. Historically a broad front of forces contesting the military regime, the PMDB is still a mixed group. The newly elected governors include politicians like leftist Miguel Arraes of Pernambuco and Valdir Pires of Bahia. Both held important positions before the 1964 coup and were exiled before returning to political life. Sarney is a self-described centrist within the PMDB, although he was formerly head of the pro-military party.

Whether Brazil can develop a stronger party system remains to be seen. Much will depend on what happens to the losers in the November elections. So far, the signs are mixed. For example, the Liberal Front Party (PFL), which formed the more conservative half of the Democratic Alliance that brought Sarney to power, elected only one governor, in the small northeastern state of Sergipe. The party also performed very poorly in the other elections. The immediate cost may be the loss of important Cabinet posts held by PFL ministers. Nonetheless, the party represents important right-of-center forces that are certain to regroup. The same is true of the conservative Social Democratic Party (PDS). The party lost influence, particularly in Sao Paulo where PDS gubernatorial candidate Paulo Maluf came in a poor third. But Maluf supporters are not likely to stay out of politics for long.

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