TOPICS : Little hope for change in Brazil

Marlene Nadle

Conventional wisdom says that after a surprising failure to win outright the first round of the Brazilian election on October 1, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will cruise to re-election in Sunday’s runoff. Even if he wins, Lula will struggle to earn back that trust of those who no longer consider him their hero. There’s still a lot of anger among the discontented voters who elected him four years ago and for good reason.

In addition to rampant government corruption, Lula betrayed almost all of his promises to his political base. Lula won power in 2002 on a platform of helping the country’s millions of poor. Since taking office, he has met only about 50 per cent of his own social goals. He pledged 10 million new jobs, but created only 4 million. Unemployment stands at 10.7 per cent nationwide, with joblessness hitting an estimated 70 per cent in the slums. He has placed less than half the promised number of peasant families on farms created from public land. In a nation where 1 per cent of the people own 50 per cent of the land, he has yet to begin his land reform programme that would buy and distribute private land.

He missed his target on providing healthcare to more people by half, and did not come close to fulfilling his promise to double the minimum wage until re-election time neared. That helps explain why Lula got just 48.6 per cent of the first-round vote. The votes he needed to get at least 50 per cent and avoid a runoff were given in protest to two dissident candidates who were once members of Lula’s Workers’ Party. Sen. Heloisa Helena Lima de Moraes, who left Lula’s party in disgust, took 6.9 per cent of the vote, while Cristovam Buarque, Lula’s former minister of education, got 2.6 per cent. Geraldo Alckmin, the candidate of the elites and the Social Democratic Party who faced Lula on October 29, got 41.6 per cent.

Discrepancy between Lula’s rhetoric about the poor and his actions caused a rebellion among his supporters in the first round and poses risks for the runoff. Senator De Moraes, a fierce champion of social justice whose electoral challenge forced Lula to promise to improve public schools and boost social programmes, is urging her supporters to deface their mandatory ballot - voting is required in Brazil - instead of voting for Lula.

Brazil’s hope for change lies not with the two candidates in the runoff, but with the social movements that originally put Lula in power. Labour movements that still support Lula, though with new reservations, say they’ll have a different relationship with him if he serves a second term. They understand that being his uncritical cheerleaders in the first term didn’t produce much for the poor or Brazil.

The media and Lula’s opponents are using the corruption issue to blur Brazil’s struggle for justice. But this election won’t be shaped by corruption. It will be shaped by whether Lula’s betrayed supporters vote their anger or their hope.