Brazil at the crossroads

Arthur Ituassu
14 August 2006

The first big soccer event in Brazil after the disappointing performance of the national team in the world cup in Germany was the two-leg final (17 and 26 July) of the Brazilian Cup, an important competition at national level, played between two Rio de Janeiro giants – Flamengo and Vasco – at the Maracanã stadium. It was a sobering and revealing return to the country's reality.

In terms of history and respect, the Maracanã is the stadium in Brazil. It was built for Brazil's hosting of the 1950 world cup and is routinely described as the greatest arena in the world (admittedly in a country where that superlative is a popular favourite).

Today, Maracanã is one national monument that is completely disrespected by the authorities. The seats are dangerous, the entrance is dirty, there is no parking lot or even minimum provosion for food and drink, and an atmosphere of violence is all around.

This combination from time to time produces violent scenes such as those exposed by the Brazilian press after the second cup-final match – including photographs of policemen brutally beating fans at the stadium entrance with their truncheons. The captions read: "the guards try to organise the line".

A police colonel, Álvaro Garcia, openly approved the action and told O Globo: "The misbehaviour of the fans is absurd and difficult to control. A lot of people come without a ticket, wanting to steal other people's, and create confusion. There is no way to know who is who. The just pays for sinner."

On the night of the matches, the just also paid for sinner in the streets of Leblon in Rio, as one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the city became a stage for vandalism, chaotic noise, and fighting. In the squares of São Paulo too, buses were burned and people were attacked in their homes as the insurgency of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) gang continues barely abated.

The events at and around the Maracanã highlight the three major issues facing Brazil as the elections scheduled for 1 and 29 October approach (the latter date will see a second-round run-off for the presidential and gubernatorial races if required). A campaign that gains momentum with the launch of radio and TV broadcasts on 15 August must, if it is to facilitate a meaningful dialogue about the country's problems, focus attention on the level of violence, on education, and on the corruption and behaviour of public institutions.

The scale of the election is enormous: almost 126 million Brazilian voters will choose their president, vice-president, twenty-seven state governors and members of assemblies, 513 federal deputies, and twenty-seven members (a third of the total) of the senate. This time, Brazilians will be making a judgment on the way that their politics has been dominated by scandal, lawlessness and disintegration for the previous eighteen months. It is no exaggeration to say that the democratic destiny of the nation is at stake.

The clear favourite for the top job is the incumbent, President Lula, who until now has been successful in distancing himself from the wave of scandal that dominated 2005 and caused the resignation of his leading allies. Two rival candidates are, however, fighting hard to reach the second round: Geraldo Alckmin of the PSDB and Heloísa Helena of the PSOL (a leftist breakaway from Lula's own Workers' Party [PT]).

As the "electronic campaign" gets underway – with election broadcasts by the leading candidates being featured on national TV and radio several times a week – it is becoming clear that the coming months in Brazil will be a test not just of Brazilians' political preferences, but of their belief in politics itself as a possible vehicle of social change. As the title of a recent book I have co-edited asks: O Brasil tem jeito? ("Is there a way for Brazil?").

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end?" (May 2005)

"A big mess in Brazil" (June 2005)

"Lula: the dream is over" (August 2005)

"Brazil: never the same again" (October 2005)

"Farewell José, farewell 2005"
(December 2005)

"Lula's flame still burns" (January 2006)

"Lula in London"
(March 2006)

"Brazil's next winning team" (March 2006)

"The sum of all fears in Latin America"
(May 2006)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (May 2006)

The power of the middle

The three issues named above (violence, education and corruption) will not be the sole matters of concern in the campaign; others such as economic growth, exports, transport, infrastructure, and taxes will also be prominent.

There is a widespread feeling in Brazil that taxes are too high – almost 40% of national income – and without much to see in return. And even if the size of the state may not be thought important, the quality of public spending must be. The people of Brazil are sorely lacking in public benefits. True, 95% of Brazilian children are at school (80% of them in public ones), but they are not learning; Unesco figures show that the country's expenditure on a primary-school child is fifty-sixth in the world (behind Colombia, Uruguay and Namibia). Brazil has as many illiterate people in its population as those of Portugal and Uruguay combined. The failures in education are paralleled in healthcare and justice; they create an environment that denies both security and equal opportunity to citizens.

But important as they are, it is the "big three" issues that may become a formative influence in the weeks ahead, and for a vital reason: the decisive importance in the next election of the Brazilian middle class. In July, two of Lula's actions showed the electoral power of this group.

First, he decided to veto a law proposing a safety-fund for domestic maids (something that every regular employee in other industries in Brazil has access to), even though it would have cost their middle-class employers only a small amount more. Second, the PT announced that it will included middle-class people in its Fome Zero (zero hunger) programme if Lula wins a second term.

Lula, the working-class president, has always had trouble appealing to Brazil's middle class, and that is where Geraldo Alckmin seeks his opportunity.

The institutional matrix

A recent opinion poll found that 47.9% planned to vote for Lula, against 19.7% for Alckmin and 9.3% for Heloísa Helena. A combined vote of over 57% for the two "left" candidates, even after all the corruption scandals, is significant. Yet the figures show also that Alckmin has possibilities to appeal to the undecided and the current abstainers; a second-round contest cannot be ruled out.

In any case, the gubernatorial elections will also be vital in establishing the PSDB's power-base. The party will likely keep its hold of São Paulo state (headed by José Serra) and Minas Gerais (Aécio Neves), while Lula's PT may not succeed in Rio – which would exclude the ruling party from the country's three main states. The PSDB's current fortunes suggest that what used to be called the politics of café com leite (coffee-and-milk) – a trade-off between power at presidential and regional level – may be a viable future strategy for the party of former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Meanwhile, a renovation of the congress will be a good result. After the innumerable corruption scandals, it is so weakened as the end of Lula's first term nears that the president has suggested an extraordinary constitutional assembly to propose reform. Several websites list the names and pictures of congressmen currently involved in the various scandals (for example, here). The number of new members of congress after the October elections will be one measure of political progress; and as Lula's government was at the centre of scandal during these years, a weaker PT may result and pose problems for Lula's second term.

The political and social convulsions of the past eighteen months make the upcoming elections the most important political moment in Brazil since its return to democracy. The result will clearly indicate the readiness of Brazilian citizens to embrace change, and to see politics as its viable instrument.

The campaign is an opportunity to raise questions that the candidates must not be allowed to evade. Why do many of Brazil's problems remain unchanged? Why are Brazilian citizens constantly disrespected by the way the authorities spend public money? Why are there no free and efficient schools and hospitals? Why is there no security or equal access to justice? Why are a very few Brazilians considered "more" Brazilian than the the majority of the population? Is politics to be allowed to degenerate to nothing more than a TV show?

And behind these questions lies an even more fundamental one: is there a way for Brazil?

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