Latin America's largest country is set to defy the US and go socialist.
15th March 2001
Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva, a poorly educated former lathe operator from the industrial heartland of Brazil, is on the brink of making history after a first round polling victory in the Presidential elections in Brazil. If he succeeds he will be the first socialist to lead Brazil since 1964, and the first worker ever to occupy the position.
Lula secured 46.4 per cent of the vote in the first round of the elections held on Oct 6, less than four per cent away from outright victory. He will now face the second placed candidate, Jose Serra - who scored 23.2 per cent - in a final round head to head run off. Serra is a former health minister and is backed by current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso All indications suggest he will become president of the eighth largest economy in the world after the final round on October 27. However, the structure of the elections in Brazil means the final is never a certainty despite first round superiority Just prior to the election his supporters attended a hugely emotional closing rally at the metalworkers union [Sindicarto dos metalurgicos do ABC] at Sao Bernardo do Campo in the industrial suburbs of Sao Paulo.
The crowd, many of whom were dressed in blue boiler-suits having come directly from work, chanted "Brazil Urgente, Lula Presidente!", as the leader of the Worker's Party (PT), the largest left party in Latin America, openly wept.
It was here that Lula made his name in the mid-1970's as the leader of a wave of strikes that helped end the military dictatorship which had run the country since 1964. After three failed attempts, it seems the former shoe shine boy is about to take his place in the sun; the biggest political change for a generation. His slogan: "Agora e Lula" [This time it''s Lula].
"This is the beginning of a change in the history of the country," Lula told the crowds. "We are going to build this history in our own lives because it is very easy to recognise a hero after he dies, but we are all alive and starting from Sunday, if God wills it, we will have for the first time in the history of this country a metalworker as President of the country. "Everything that we have done until now hasn't been done to gain the Presidency, that is just a consequence. The most symbolic thing about me winning is that we will prove to anybody the truth of something that I said in 1979, which is that nobody will ever again be able to doubt the working classes. "The most important thing that can happen is not simply the fact of me being elected President, it is the power to awaken the conscience in every man, woman and child that we cannot be treated differently because we are black, white, men, women or children or because we are educated or because we don't have diplomas, because we are workers or we are unemployed."
The symbolism of such a victory is not hard to comprehend for the tens of millions of Brazil's poor.
But Brazil will set its face against the US for the first time over key policy issues - the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas due in 2005, the 'war against drugs' in Colombia and trade sanctions against Cuba.
The 'Real' currency, launched in 1994, dropped to its lowest ever level in the final week of the campaign to 5.9 to the pound - a drop of almost 40 per cent this year. The drop was blamed on market jitters fearing a socialist outcome. Despite this, however, Lula's popularity within the 115 million eligible voters increased as the currency plummeted.
The election has been broadly played out on TV - the only medium to cover a country more than 20 times the size of Germany. For his fourth attempt to become president, Lula now sports a suit, has had his wild grey beard clipped and has even had his teeth straightened to woo the voters. The elections are not only to elect a President but also members of the Congress, the Senate and local governors. It is compulsory to vote - failure to do so can lead to arrest. The computerised election system is regarded as safe and fair.
At 8.30 for an hour each night across the networks, a bewildering array of punchy 30-second propaganda pitches fight for attention with much finger-jabbing, jingles and little substance. In the final televised debate on Thursday night on TV Globo, Lula emerged intact with the three other candidates, Serra, Ciro Gomes and Anthony Garotinho scrapping with each other for second place for a potential run-off.
When Serra's team tried to film a piece in a factory in Sao Bernardo last month, workers down tools shouting 'Lula' until they forced the shoot to be abandoned. In urban Sao Paulo there is little evidence of Serra support -just the paid flag waves on Avenida Paulista, the equivalent of Oxford Street.
To make themselves electable after more than a decade of defeats, the Worker's Party - formed in 1980 and the largest left party in Latin America - has made alliances with centre-right business leaders like Jose Alencar in order to appeal to a cross section of Brazilian society.
Many traditional activists within the PT are keeping their anger subdued at the prospect of victory but foresee fierce battles ahead.
Lula has softened not just his image. He now promises to make good the country's crippling $260bn debt - 60 per cent of GDP - and work with the IMF honouring a $30bn loan, a double U-turn from his last candidature.
On the domestic agenda, rampant unemployment and poverty remain the principle issues. Despite its wealth, Brazil has the fourth largest gap between rich and poor in the world - starkly evident where the ramshackle slums (the favelas) rise above the millionaire's row of Copacabaña beach, for example.
Violence comes a close second - with drug gangs in so much control they can order the shut down of large swathes of commercial Rio de Janeiro on command, as happened on the Monday of election week. The gangs are estimated to number 100,000 with an armoury of 65,000 guns - outstripping the state police force.
If Lula fails to win in the final round the left will plunge into a long night of despair after biding its time for so long.
But Lula is confident: "We have to believe that if we have big dreams then we will be able to make our dreams come true. I believe that all of us who are dreaming about a new world are dreaming without prejudice. We can both laugh and cry with happiness at the same time in the realisation that we can make all of the dreams of all of the Brazilian workers come true."
If he succeeds, Brazilians will party long and hard. Hope is so high that no longer may they need World Cup victories and Carnival as regular distractions from the harsh struggle of every day life.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
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