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BRAZIL
An eye on the presidency
LADB
1/30/2002
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Brazilian party alliances shift as candidates jockey for position.

With presidential elections just 10 months away, candidates, political parties and power brokers are jockeying for position. While President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Brazilian Social Democrat Party (PSDB) would like to continue its hold on the presidency in the October balloting, it must contend with the spectacular rise of Roseana Sarney, daughter of former President José Sarney (1985-90) and presidential hopeful of the Liberal Front Party (PFL), which is part of the governing coalition.

Roseana Sarney’s jump in the polls has forced Cardoso to admit that the governing coalition’s candidate might not come from the PSDB.

"My candidate is whoever has the best chance to unite forces to win the election through alliances with other parties," Cardoso said. "If Brazil wants a woman’s touch, that’s fine."

In just over two months, Sarney leaped from obscurity to challenge poll leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the eternal presidential hopeful of the Workers Party (PT), who has fallen short three times in elections and whose rejection rating is roughly the same as his approval rating.

Nonetheless, Lula and other opposition candidates remain confident that they have a strong chance of winning because popular support for the governing coalition has dropped as a result of energy rationing and sluggish economic growth.

Even PFL leaders were surprised by Sarney’s dramatic rise. A November poll showed Sarney, who is governor of the northern state of Maranhão, with 17-percent support, behind Lula, who had 30 percent, and eight points ahead of Ciro Gomes, of the Popular Socialist Party (PPS).

Sarney’s showing is having a strong effect on alliances within the governing coalition, which consists of the PSDB, PFL, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), and several smaller groups, as well as various factions of those parties.

There is pressure for the PMDB, Brazil’s largest party, to form alliances with Health Minister José Serra, another presidential hopeful, or Sarney. But since former President Itamar Franco (1992-94), who is now governor of Minas Gerais, rejoined the PMDB after leaving the presidency, splits have deepened between party members who support the governing coalition and those who follow Franco’s more oppositionist stance.

In a bid to keep Franco from winning the party primary, party leaders allied with Cardoso reduced the number of delegates eligible to vote in the primary to 4,000, from the 100,000 figure defended by Franco.

"Part of the PMDB, people who unfortunately direct the party that I helped found at a time when it was difficult to talk about democracy, want to block city councilmen and councilwomen from participating in party elections. Our name is on the party ballot. We will run," Franco said.

While Lula is the PT’s de facto candidate, Brazil’s largest opposition party will also hold primaries.

"It is absurd to submit Lula, who has 36 percent of voter support, to a primary just because of the capriciousness of one or two people," said Geraldo Magela, the PT’s primary candidate for governor of the Federal District.

But party leaders have said that primary elections are part of democracy, and Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, former husband of São Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy, has been clamoring for a chance to launch his name nationwide. Another person seeking to run against Lula under the PT banner is Belém Mayor Edmilson Rodrigues.

The PT has not been making overtures to other parties, but party leaders do not rule out the possibility.

"You can’t have a government made up only of the PT or the left," PT president José Dirceu said in an interview published in Primeira Leitura magazine.

One shift in recent campaigning is a general movement away from strict adherence to neoliberal policies. Because of sluggish economic growth, growing external vulnerabilities and an energy crisis largely blamed on the government’s refusal to invest in increased electricity generation (LP, June 11, 2001), even candidates of the governing coalition are advocating positions that tend to coincide with those of the left.

Along with support for a stronger state role in society, there has been a general movement toward the center from both ends of the political spectrum. Marta Suplicy is often called "PT lite," while Roseana Sarney is sometimes referred to as "red PFL."

"When I joined the PFL, they used to call me the person from the PFLdoB because of my ties to the PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil), which comes from my involvement in the student movement," Sarney said.

If she were to win the presidency, however, calls for a stronger government role in the economy could be short-lived. The PFL continues to defend Cardoso’s financial policies, and Sarney’s economic advisers say they support the way the economy is being managed.

Indeed, some observers say the October elections are likely to bring little real change.

While the fall of political heavyweights Antonio Carlos Magalhães and Jáder Barbalho (LP, Oct. 22, 2001) signaled a decline in the national political reach of the Brazil’s northeastern rural oligarchy, the rise of Sarney, who comes from another of the region’s elite families, demonstrates their staying power.

"The vestiges of the patrimonial order remain firmly in place in Brazil. It will take some years before it is successfully removed," political scientist Riodan Roett said. "The public sector and the political elite still work within that frame of reference."

Roett predicts that the PT will fall short in October and that a PFL-PSDB-PMDB coalition will win again.

In the end, Sarney’s rise and the likelihood that the PFL will return to power with a presidential or vice-presidential candidate means that the rural oligarchs will continue to have a hand in ruling Brazil. Given the party’s record, significant social or economic change is likely to remain elusive.


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