With world attention focused on the Middle East, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s likely victory in Sunday’s Brazilian elections has had little coverage, but according to Canada’s Globe and Mail, “If he succeeds, it will be one of the most remarkable political feats in recent Latin American history—perhaps more momentous than Vicente Fox Quesada’s 2000 triumph in Mexico.” In the latest polls, Lula, as he is universally known, enjoys a lead of more than 20 points over his nearest rival, and the big unknown is whether he’ll secure 50 percent of the votes cast on Sunday and thereby avoid a second-round runoff.
A former metalworker with a long history of left-wing activism, Lula, who only started to read at the age of 10 and never finished secondary school, would complete what the London Times described as “an extraordinary journey from picket line and prison cell to presidential palace.” After rising through the ranks of the metalworkers’ union, Lula was one of the founders of the Workers’ Party (PT) in 1981 and was jailed several times by the military dictatorship before its downfall in 1985. Although the Workers’ Party unashamedly displays its far-left roots—the Globe and Mail’s Paul Knox said the “icons of socialism” were proudly on display at their rallies: “The PT’s red-star emblem was everywhere. Lula’s portrait and the hammer and sickle adorned posters of the Communist Party of Brazil, one of five parties in his electoral alliance”—Lula has moderated his politics since his three previous election defeats. He named a textile magnate from the Liberal Party as his running mate and assured foreign investors that a leftist government “would not lead Brazil into bankruptcy.”
The likelihood of a Lula victory spooked the financial markets in the world’s eighth-largest economy. The Times reported, “Foreign investors have withdrawn their funds, and the Brazilian real has plummeted to a record low against the US dollar.” Nevertheless, the electorate is so dissatisfied by the poor performance of departing President Fernando Cardoso that it is ready to embrace Lula. “The overwhelming feeling is that eight years of free-market reforms have helped foreign investors, hurt Brazilian industry and failed to stabilise the economy.” Voters have also lost faith in the “IMF route,” which led to such a spectacular meltdown in Argentina.
Voting is compulsory in Brazil, but according to the Financial Times, one in five Brazilians disobeys the law, largely because the electoral process is so complex. Brazil uses an electronic voting system, which “has all but eliminated the risk of election fraud and produces almost immediate results,” but because state, federal, and presidential elections are held on the same day (as in the United States), “the mechanics of choosing a candidate remain a challenge even for the most astute voter. Each candidate is assigned a number—federal deputies have a four figure number, for example—so that, in total, voters have to type in 25 separate digits.”
The Guardian reported that because Brazilian law guarantees free air time for all electoral candidates, “terrestrial TV channels have been transmitting almost two hours of political propaganda every day since last month.” In an attempt to stand out from the crowd, lesser-known candidates resort to gimmicks such as repeating their name nonstop for 30 seconds. Presidential candidates are allocated time in the TV schedule according to the number of seats their parties hold in Congress—an advantage to the incumbents. Jose Serra, the government’s candidate, has 20 minutes, 41 seconds three times per week, compared with Lula’s 10 minutes, 38 seconds. This seems to have helped Serra overwhelm early favorite Ciro Gomes, but wasn’t enough for him to dent Lula’s lead.