RIO DE JANEIRO — It has been 29 years since Brazilians elected a president, and the nation didn't quite know what to expect as this year's campaign got started. The big surprise so far has been Fernando Collor de Mello, an energetic young centrist who has emerged from near-obscurity to become Brazil's brightest political star.
Known as Collor, the tall, handsome politician has surged to the top of all major opinion polls, opening a huge lead over a stunned field of more experienced candidates for the Nov. 15 election. Growing numbers of lesser politicians have been offering him their support--"Colloring," as this jumping on the bandwagon is called.
Collor has made his remarkable early showing with a new party that has only a semblance of national structure, yet he confidently contends that he has set in motion the making of a president.
He told foreign correspondents Wednesday in Rio that his only surprise has been to take the lead in opinion polls before July, when his campaign strategists expected.
"It merely redoubles our enormous conviction in victory," he said.
Calling himself a "Christian reformer," Collor accused the current government of corruption, inefficiency and incompetence.
"I am an absolutely independent person who will not give up my independence," he said. "I reached the position where I am without the support of any senator, any governor, any businessman or any military man, and I don't want their support."
Brazil's last popular election for president was in 1960. The armed forces seized power in 1964 and ruled until the current transitional government was installed in 1985.
Poll results published last weekend by Ibope, Brazil's leading surveyor of public opinion, gave Collor 43% of the respondents. Of nine other candidates, the closest to Collor were leftists Leonel Brizola with 11% and Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva with 8%.
Ulysses Guimaraes, leader of the most powerful party in Congress, trailed with 5%. Six other candidates shared 11% of the polling preferences, according to Ibope.
Commentators observed that if each candidate were to receive a proportional share from the undecided 35%, Collor would hold an absolute majority. If no candidate wins more than half of November's votes, a runoff election will be required.
Collor stopped short of predicting victory by an absolute majority in the first round of voting, but he said: "I am confident that I will be present in the runoff."
The Ibope poll was the latest in a series of surveys that have shown Collor ahead and running away. A Gallup poll published the week before gave him 37.7% over 13% for Brizola and 8.1% for Lula.
Collor's position has shot up from 6.5% in a poll by Gallup in February, when Brizola led with 12.3%, followed by Lula with 12.1%.
Collor, 39, belonged to Guimaraes' Brazilian Democratic Movement Party in 1976 when he was elected governor of Alagoas, a small northeastern state. As governor, he earned national fame with a crusade against overpaid bureaucrats, called "maharajas," fighting a heavily publicized legal battle to cut their salaries.
His stand against the maharajas coincided with a growing wave of public disgust over official corruption and perfidy as the nation of 145 million people fell into a deep economic crisis, marked by inflation and industrial stagnation.
"What we have seen is a profound national frustration with regard to the political class and political parties," Collor said Wednesday.
Last year he quit the Democratic Movement Party, which has shared power with unpopular President Jose Sarney, and founded his own National Reconstruction Party. This year, he resigned as governor to campaign for the presidency.
As his support in opinion polls has swollen, Collor has increasingly come under attack by other presidential candidates. Some have voiced reminders that he formerly belonged to the conservative party that supported the military government.
Brizola, a left-wing populist and former governor of Rio de Janeiro state, has insinuated that Collor is a Nazi sympathizer. In a political advertisement Wednesday, Brizola said the so-called maharaja-hunter is a maharaja himself because he received a television broadcasting license "by the grace of the dictatorship and hand kissing."