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Brazilians Get Ready to Vote

Pierre BEAUDET, 3 September 2002


Brazil is heading to the ballot boxes in October. It will be a mega-election affecting the presidency, the Parliament and state governments. In other words, the entire political scene in this key South American country could very well change.

The stakes are sky-high. Under the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in office since 1994, the government has toed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank line. Enormous budgets were transferred from social sectors to debt servicing. Privatization of the public sector picked up pace. Meanwhile, Cardoso’s promises of agrarian reform disappeared into thin air, despite the fact that everyone, or almost everyone, admits that without agrarian reform, there is not much hope for a country where over 40 million landless peasants are abandoned to a fate of hunger and hardship.

But not only the poorest of the poor have been hit by neo-liberalism. A large segment of the middle classes, who had hoped that the President would help them by stabilizing the currency and reducing inflation, are now caught between unemployment and insecurity. As a result, the candidate appointed by the right to succeed Cardoso is languishing in voter’s polls.

Resistance Movements Taking Shape

Throughout this lost decade, grassroots Brazil has continued to organize itself and make demands, in both urban and rural settings. The rise of the MST (Landless Movement) sent shock waves rippling through Brazil’s have-nots, who had long been treated virtually as a sub-sector of humanity. According to the President of the MST, Joao Pedro Stedile, by occupying land left vacant by large landowners and organizing huge mobilizations across the country, the MST and its over one million members "brought forth a new social actor that completely upset the balance of power, particularly in rural areas." Grassroots movements of all kinds have sprouted up around various issues, including the environment. One example of this is the people’s reaction to the construction of large and mid-sized dams that threaten entire communities. Rather than disappearing, such movements are reviving and managing to convince public opinion that hydroelectric mega-projects are designed to meet the needs of multinational companies, not those of regular people.

This assiduous work has also given results on the political scene by fostering progressive coalitions in many areas of the country, notably big cities. The Workers Party (PT) and other left-leaning groups now control over one hundred municipalities, including most large urban areas, such as Sao Paulo, Recife, Belem and Porto Alegre, recently dubbed the "capital of democracy".

With the left in power, grassroots movements in these cities have rushed to propose, and to a large extent obtain a true reorganization of power. "It is not just a new municipal government that is being built here," explains Edmilson Brito Rodrigues, Mayor of Belem (population: 1 million), "it is a new way of governing." Take Porto Alegre, where the population organized itself into local committees to develop the "participatory budget" in which overarching priorities are determined in a collective, transparent manner. In Belem, over 50,000 people participate in the decision-making process: "It is not just consultation," states the Mayor, "The municipal council is then bound to respect the guidelines set out by citizens." This is the process used to decide that more money should go to school improvement, for example, or road repair, or building community centres, etc.

Seeking a National Cause

These local experiences have produced unexpected results. Most people recognize this, regardless of political orientation. Living conditions have improved visibly almost everywhere and, above all, citizens are aware of their real influence on public management. The PT has therefore proven itself at the local level, but is it ready to lead the country?
Obviously, large landowning and financial interests fear a party advocating radical change. However, there is a growing sense that the old dominant class is divided, particularly since the PT no longer seems a "revolutionary" party that wants to "strike everything down". This evolution from an opposition party to a governing party does frighten others, though, including the grassroots movement. The PT is tempted to water down its position by forging electoral alliances with middle-ground political sectors that see the tides turning.

For its part, the MST feels that the PT’s cause must remain that of the grassroots, poor and marginalized classes: "No compromise can be reached on draft agrarian reform, nor on cancellation of the foreign debt," states Joao Pedro Stedile.

The IMF and some major US banks have Brazil in a chokehold, with its almost 300 billion dollars worth of debt accumulated over years of mismanagement by the political right and by financial agencies. Brazilian and international financial circles are putting enormous pressure on the PT and its presidential candidate, the famous Lula, to commit to respecting the debt and play by the so-called "rules" of neo-liberalism and the world market.

Electoral fever
Right now, Lula is still ahead in the polls. In the six States controlled by the left (out of 27), the situation looks good, particularly in the Sate of Rio Grande do Sul (population: 10 million) where grassroots movements have an impressive influence. With regard to the presidential election, aside from the right-wing candidate, whose campaign is not getting off the ground, two other "populist" candidates, including the former governor of Rio de Janeiro, are trying to undermine the PT’s campaign by promising the earth without presenting clear programs or proposals.

Brazil’s double ballot system makes all kinds of alliances possible, which opens the door to wheeling and dealing that could end up damaging the PT. Whatever the case, electoral fever is rising, and a climate of cautious optimism prevails for those who advocate change.

The upcoming elections are also being followed closely outside Brazil. In Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere in Latin America, all grassroots movements are holding their collective breath. A victorious Brazilian left would send shock waves through the continent, where outbreaks of rebellion against neo-liberalism, its evils and injustices are taking place all over. "Everyone is sick of the status quo, but everyone is also wondering what to replace it with!" remarks Emilio Taddei, Argentine researcher and Alternatives’ correspondent.

In Argentina, in the eye of the storm, people are daydreaming about Lula’s possible election. It would set a whole new tone for the reorganization process in the Americas. In September, before the elections, Brazilian grassroots movements are organizing a "consulta", a kind of popular referendum to say NO to Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and YES to an integration of the Americas by and for the people. The advocates of "neo-liberalism made in America" could very well find themselves out in the cold.