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Politics of Fear Enter Brazilian Presidential Election

Jose Serra leaves an Oct. 16 press conference in Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil: Social Democratic presidential candidate José Serra leaves an Oct. 16 press conference (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP).

Party officials working on Brazilian presidential candidate José Serra’s campaign have a message for frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: The race isn't won yet. Though Serra, the handpicked successor to Social Democrat President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, won just 23 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on Oct. 6, he managed to keep the Workers' Party candidate from winning the 51 percent of the vote he needed to clinch the elections on the spot. In the weeks since, the new Serra campaign has gone on the offensive. The final round of voting is scheduled for Sunday. Time is running out for Serra.

Since Lula’s victory two weeks ago, Joao Domingos Milano, an engineer for the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo in Curitiba, has sent e-mails about the benefits a José Serra presidency would bring to Brazil to everyone he knows.

Daniel Cruz, his 22-year-old nephew, is among those on the receiving end. “The e-mails [my uncle] sends are usually about how stable Serra is, how his politics have not changed, and how Lula’s recent success is just because of good marketing,” Cruz summarizes.

But his allegiance is with Workers’ Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Lula’s like the old radical Communists—that’s the message Serra supporters want to convey. But I disagree. I’m not afraid. I think these guys are less radical than they used to be. They’ve changed. They’re the government of change for Brazil.”

Cruz copies and pastes statements from the Workers’ Party campaign Web site—complete with pictures of Lula hugging a red star, the party’s logo—and sends them back to his uncle in Curitiba, about 45 minutes by air from São Paulo. Milano apparently hasn’t been impressed with what he’s read. “My uncle says it’s just political discourse,” Cruz explains. “He wants to see these plans in reality.”

“I’m in favor of changing power, but in this case you can’t treat it as just another power switch,” Milano said in a phone interview. “You could be substituting good policies that put Brazil back on track for a populist politics binge.”

Whether on the streets of São Paulo or smaller cities like Londrina, old Volkswagen vans from the 1970s with large black speakers roped to their rooftops blasting songs about Lula—“Lula la! Lula la!”—are a common sight. It is rare to hear a song about Serra, who was chosen by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to follow in his footsteps. Cardoso was the first Brazilian president to serve two terms.

This year’s election has become the World Cup of Brazilian politics. Both teams are running out of time, but only those rooting for Serra have their eyes on the clock. Last year at this time, no one expected Serra to have come this far. In November 2001, polls gave him just 6 percent of the vote.

So the Serra campaign has gone on the offensive in a series of campaign ads and speeches. Serra has compared Lula to the pilot of a crashing plane who must rely on the passengers to save him; Lula’s politics can’t work in reality; inflation will return; Brazil will become another Argentina; the Workers’ Party is the party of rioting radicals.

The fear factor seems to be having its intended effect among some voters, though not as dramatically as the Social Democrats would like. In a poll released by the Brazilian Institute for Public Opinion and Statistics last week, 66 percent of respondents said they planned to vote for Lula, while only 34 percent said they planned to vote for Serra. The Institute’s latest poll, released Oct. 23, showed Lula’s support slipping, but not by much: 65 percent said they planned to vote for Lula, while 35 percent planned to vote for Serra.

That same night, Geraldo Oliveira, a 52-year-old doorman at the upscale Emilio Lamaison apartment building in downtown Londrina, decided he would vote for Lula. “I voted for him on Oct. 6, but I don’t know about this time around,” he said, scratching his head.

“Okay. No. My wife is for Serra. I’m going with Lula,” he concluded. “After eight years with Cardoso, the guy sold Brazil and we got nothing but debt. We can’t even pay our debts. What did we sell these companies for? Eight years of this! Serra will do the same thing as Cardoso.”

Serra’s biggest liability is that he is from the ruling party, widely seen as the sole supporter of neo-liberal policies that have favored bankers and caused the dollar to skyrocket against the real, thus raising the cost of imported goods. Today, US$1 is worth nearly four Brazilian reals, the highest inflation Brazil has seen since the real was introduced in 1994.

Asked what he thinks about Serra’s promises to raise the minimum wage from R$200 to R$280 a month, Oliveira—who earns R$390, or about US$100, a month—scoffs: “Where’s the dignity in that?”

Oliveira’s friend, José Luis Alves, 58, voted for Lula each of the three times he ran for president. Alves also earns about US$100 a month. His wife doesn’t work. He takes two buses from the small industrial town of Ibipora to get to work as the third-shift doorman here. “Serra talks about his experience and all that he has done, but he’s done nothing. Cooking gas used to cost me just R$5,” Alves said in protest. “Now it costs me R$30 because of this rising dollar.”

To entice voters, Serra needs to win the loyalty of middle-class voters like Eduy Azevedo, the 36-year-old manager of Aguativa Resort Hotel in Londrina. Azevedo, who is married and has two children, respects President Cardoso, but doesn’t like his fiscal policies. “If Cardoso could run again, I would vote for him,” he said. “He made a lot of mistakes, but everybody makes mistakes. Serra is weak. He was a good health minister. Only this.”

Serra is clearly fighting an uphill battle in his attempts to woo voters away from Lula. In the process, he’s resorted to some novel approaches. Last week, Regina Duarte, a prime-time TV star, went on the air during free political-campaign time to tell viewers that she fears for Brazil’s future if Lula gets elected: “I’m afraid to lose all of the stability we’ve achieved. The other guy, Lula, I used to think I knew him, but everything he had said in the past has changed. This makes me afraid.”

Sparks flew over Duarte’s charges. Other popular actresses condemned her. Singer Chico Buarque, who was exiled during Brazil’s long years of military dictatorship, defended her. Rita Camata, Serra’s running mate, criticized pro-Lula columnists in the press for trying to “censor Duarte,” and said their response was “reminiscent of the military dictatorship” artists like Buarque fled thirty years ago.

“I decided to vote for Serra after I saw the Workers’ Party reaction to the Regina Duarte comment on TV,” said Keli Bergamo, a 23-year-old law student from São Paulo, who had voted for Ciro Gomes, a former finance minister now backing Lula, on Oct. 6. “Ideologically, I think that Serra is better than the Workers’ Party. Lula’s staff and supporters are intellectuals, and have a lot of professional experience, but they don’t have enough practical experience inside the federal government.”

Analysts say that Serra’s scare tactics are a last-ditch effort to take votes away from Lula. But with polls showing just 5 percent of the population undecided, it seems unlikely that Lula could lose a 28-percent lead before Sunday’s election. Serra’s last attempts to frighten people into voting for him don’t appear to be washing with Brazilian voters.

The fears Serra has been trying to stir are “unjustified,” says Fernando Ribeiro, a São Paulo economist at the Brazilian Society for the Studies of Transnational Business and Globalization, a think-tank. “People hear that inflation is coming back under Lula. When they hear that, they think of the past, when the price of bread changed daily,” he said, referring to the 2000-percent inflation Brazilians saw a decade ago under President Fernando Collor de Mello. “There is going to be inflation. But if you have economic growth and inflation at just 10 or 11 percent a year, it’s very manageable for the population.”

Considering Serra’s weakness going into the polls, Azevedo concluded with a smile, “There might just be one thing to say about the last days of this long election: Lula la!”

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