On October 6 Brazilian voters propelled Workers’ Party candidate Luiz Inácio da Silva, or “Lula,” as he is known, one step closer to the presidency of the second-most-populous country in the Americas. It remains to be seen whether Brazil will help advance a recent trend in Latin America, which started with the election of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, of the poor and working people electing leaders who look and talk–and, more important, in many ways think and feel–like they do.
Lula, a former metalworker and union leader, took 46 percent of the valid ballots cast. That was less than the majority needed to avoid a runoff, so he faces José Serra of the governing coalition on October 27. Serra, a lackluster candidate, finished second with 23 percent of the vote.
The conventional wisdom has been that Lula could only win in the first round; in a runoff, all the forces that want to preserve the status quo would unite and pull out all the stops to defeat him (they were relatively restrained in the first round). But this election, Lula’s fourth attempt, may be different: He has never before placed first in the first round of voting, and this was by a pretty wide margin. And with a stagnant economy, rising unemployment and anemic growth (about 1.3 percent annually, per capita) to show for its eight years in power, the ruling coalition has little to brag about. And finally, two days after the first round, third-place finisher Ciro Gomes, with 12 percent of the vote, announced his “enthusiastic support” for Lula.
The economy will figure heavily in the runoff election. Lula’s opponents, raising the specter of Argentina, will argue that he cannot be trusted to please the financial markets and that a financial meltdown will result. But Brazil’s economic crisis is the fault of the current government, which piled up an enormous debt, largely because of extremely high interest rates.
Washington has so far kept its distance from the election, but there is no question that it favors Serra. The IMF’s recent $30 billion loan to Brazil was deliberately structured–with most of it to be disbursed next year–to lock the next government into maintaining current policies. There is great fear in US government and policy circles–both conservative and liberal–that Lula’s election would not only scuttle the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas but also put an end to the twenty-year experiment with neoliberalism in Latin America. For the region as a whole, there has been almost no growth in income per person since 1980, one of the worst performances in its modern history.
The United States has intervened against almost every progressive government in Latin America since the CIA helped overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Most recently, Washington supported the failed coup against Chavez in Venezuela on April 11. If Lula wins the runoff, his biggest challenges will still lie ahead.