A Divided Society: Brazilians Go to the Polls

Point of View by Paulo Sotero, director, Brazil Institute

Nov 01, 2006

Four years after electing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the first "man of the people" to hold federal power in the notoriously unequal Brazil, the political and economic stability brought by 21 years of democracy will likely be tested in the months and years ahead. In contrast to the historic election that led Lula to the presidency in 2002, thanks to ample support from the urban middle classes, Brazil emerged from last month's presidential contest deeply divided along social and geographic lines.

The unresolved charges of corruption against Lula's Workers' Party (PT) have gravely poisoned Brazil's political atmosphere. The social polarization of the electorate, brought about by the dramatic shift of the PT support base from the industrialized South and Southeast to the more rural and impoverished North and Northeast, has further complicated the tasks of the executive: to build a governing coalition capable of making Congress tackle the pending agenda of structural reforms on taxes, labor laws, social security, and the judicial system; and to adopt a new microeconomic framework the country badly needs to grow faster and compete more effectively in the global economy.

The irony of this potential political paralysis is that, unlike in Mexico, Argentina, or Venezuela, where the very direction of economic policy remains central to the political debate, there is general agreement in Brazil on what needs to be done. As illustrated by Lula's economic policy choices, a consensus has existed for some time now among Brazilian policymakers that deepening reforms is necessary to unleash the nation's formidable economic capacity. It is widely understood that this path will lead to the creation of jobs, especially for those who have left the ranks of poverty in the last four years thanks to the maintenance of macroeconomic stability and Lula's raising of the minimum wage and aggressive expansion of the income transfer programs introduced by his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

And herein lies the hope, renewed by the votes of more than 100 million citizens who went to the polls twice in October, that elected officials will do what is difficult, necessary, and honorable: put their personal differences and animosities aside, and find a way to work constructively for the common good.

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