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How the election works

Presidents are elected for 4 year terms, with at most two consecutive terms. Presidents must be elected by a majority of the valid votes: if no candidate surpasses 50% of the vote, there's a second round between the two leading candidates. All Brazilians are required to vote if they are 18 to 65 years old. Vote is optional in the 16-to-18 and 65+ age ranges and among the illiterate.

Abstention is extremely high though: about 20% of the voters didn't vote in 2002.

All candidates have free radio and TV time which is used under somewhat strict rules. TV time is proportional to the current balance of powers: the biggest parties get most of the air time.

The political landscape

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president, was elected in 1994 and re-elected in 1998. His first mandate was imensely popular, and he was re-elected in the first round in 1998. His second term, however, was disastrous. The Real (the currency) was kept at an unreasonably high value compared to the dollar, encouraging imports and making exports prohibitive. This means Brazil sustained a huge deficit, leaving the country highly dependent on foreign investment and the worldwide economic health, which was getting poorer by the day. Brazil had been aligned to the same economic model Argentina had adopted, and the crisis and ensuing default of the neighbouring country did nothing to improve Brazil's situation. A record 12 million Brazilians were unemployed, the decreasing value of the real was rising prices of imported goods and putting inflation control, the leading achievement of Fernando Henrique's government, at risk. The privatization of the telecommunication and electric sectors was very close to a blatant failure. Most of the country suffered a power crisis, which further hurt already sensitive industries. Telephones were easier than ever to get, but the phone bill was increasingly prohibitive as well. There were two-fold, three-fold increases in tariffs. No Brazilian can tell where the privatization money was used. The general sentiment was that the country had sold all of its assets only to find itself owing more money than it owed initially. The already huge gap between rich and poor was widening steadly. In short, none of the promises of neoliberalism had been fulfilled.

That said, Fernando Henrique enjoyed a good reputation as an able man. But good image alone didn't solve problems. Furthermore, he was politically weakened, as the coalition that supported him was broken. Antônio Carlos Magalhães, an old-fashioned right-wing politician that was his biggest supporter became his fiercest enemy. As the election came closer, fewer and fewer politicians wanted to take responsability for the government they had just been a part of.

The pre-election period

The 2002 election rush started early. A new law gave political parties free TV time for institutional messages months before the political campaign started officially, and the parties used that time to enhance the public images of their own politicians. Even before the parties themselves had chosen their candidates, the men and women most likely to be chosen were already getting unprecedent attention in the media.

There was no doubt one man would participate: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leading politician of the PT (Worker's Party, the leading opposition party), who had already lost three elections (two to Fernando Henrique, one to impeached corrupt Fernando Collor in 1989). A former factory worker, union leader born in abject poverty in the country's poorest region, Lula had this last chance to become president, as another defeat would be fatally damaging to himself and to the party. This was a tough business: the only time a left-wing politician became president was when a left-wing vice-president was put into power by a right-wing president who resigned. A military coup followed, putting the country under a dictatorship for twenty-one years. The Brazilian public is very conservative, and Lula's socialist past was seen with suspicion, but the crisis also meant more people were willing to hear him them ever.

The PFL (Liberal Front Party) tried to launch Roseana Sarney's campaign. The first state governess ever and daughter of ex-president José Sarney (who would later support Lula), her campaign was shot down before it even started by accusations of corruption. Fernando Henrique had a hand in this, as government officials were curiously assigned to investigate her family's businesses in shady operations as her popularity rose.

The president's PSDB (Social-Democrat Party) chose José Serra as the candidate. As a Health Minister, he implemented the generic medication system which brought medicine prices down. He also scored bonus points for breaking AIDS treatment patents and successfully dealing with the case at the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, setting an example for other countries to follow.

The other two important candidates were Anthony Garotinho of the PSB (Socialist Brazilian Party) and Ciro Gomes of the PPS (Popular Socialist Party). Anthony Garotinho was a suprise. Running on a populist platform and supported by evangelical sectors, he earned a surprising third place in the election.

The first round

The first round was mostly a war between Ciro Gomes and José Serra. Ciro Gomes was rising in popularity as a safer oppositionist than Lula. He almost topped Lula's traditional pre-election popularity. However, Lula has a strong, dedicated following, and his presence in the second round was unquestionable. Thus the first round was essentially a rush for second place. José Serra started a strong defamation campaign against Ciro Gomes, which had instant results.

Lula was preserved, and he suffered few attacks. All of the candidates who lost in the first round would have to support him in the second round, so for the sake of consistency he was somewhat preserved. This gave him time to use his air time to enhance his image and that of his party, while the other candidates fought one another. A direct assault is seen by the Brazilian public as abominable, and only when well orchestrated it serves its purpose. So after Ciro's popularity fell victim to a successful attack, Lula's popularity rose as he wasn't involved in the fight.

The last few weeks of the first round campaign were desperate for José Serra. Lula was approaching 50% quickly in opinion polls. There was a real possibility that there wouldn't be a second round. A quick direct assault on Lula followed, but it failed. Fortunately for Serra he had more votes than opinion polls showed, and a second round happened.

First round results - Valid Votes

  Candidate           Votes       %
  Lula           39.454.692     46,44%
  José Serra     19.705.061     23,20%
  Garotinho      15.179.879     17,87%
  Ciro Gomes     10.170.666     11,97%
  Zé Maria          402.232      0,47%
  Rui Costa          38.619      0,05%
  Total          84.951.149

  Invalid votes/Blank votes: 9.849.825
  Abstention:               20.449.690

The second round

Lula quickly secured support from the losing candidates - an easy task. Furthermore, with a more polarized election, everyone who was against Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his candidate jumped to support Lula. This includes the aforementioned Antônio Carlos Magalhães and other politicians, forming a surreal alliance that put side by side many opposing sectors of the society, from former guerrilla fighters to former dictatorship supporters, from landless rural workers to powerful rural oligarchies.

José Serra was running nearly alone. He had support from three major parties, but there was opposition against him in these parties. The most popular politicians in these parties were supporting Lula. José Serra had a bureaucracy by his side, not leaders.

During the second round, intention of votes for Lula never fell below 60% of the voters. The campaign, however, was tense. José Serra used his free TV time to launch an attack on Lula and the PT. He questioned the quality of the PT's administration in the states under its administration. He attacked Lula for having gone to school for only five years in his life, while Serra himself held a doctorate. It was Serra who started to create the myth of the Lula-Chavez-Castro axis and other scare tactics - he even tried to associate Lula with the neoliberal government that broke Argentina! (Menem and Fernando Henrique were close allies). While the defamation campaign was long and harsh, it was also absolutely unsuccessful, never increasing Serra's popularity. At a time, 51% of the voters declared they would "never" vote for Serra. His campaign was doomed.

Second round results - Valid Votes

  Candidate           Votes       %
  Lula           52.793.364     61,27%

  José Serra     33.370.739     38,73%
  Total          86.164.103

  Invalid votes/Blank votes: 5.499.890
  Abstention:               23.589.188

About 6 hours after the election most of the votes had been accounted for, and Serra's victory was impossible. He bitterly recognized his defeat, not mentioning his opponent's name, and promising he would be a fierce oppositionist. His striking defeat, however, may be very damaging to his political importance. Brazil had never elected a left-wing politician, and when Serra was a representative of the right (although he was once a left-wing politician himself), he suffered the worst defeat ever in Brazilian history. No other president had broken the 60% barrier before, and Lula was just two million votes away from Ronald Reagan's record 55 million votes, even though Brazil has far fewer voters than the US.

Where Serra went wrong

José Serra trusted himself too much. He thought he would be be able to win alone. Although he had a strong reputation from his work as a Health Minister, Serra is not a leader. He's a bureaucrat. He feels more comfortable behind a desk than in front of millions, and what Brazil needed was a leader who could show the way out. Not only that, all of Serra's supporters were bureaucrats, meaning his campaign had no political "sex appeal".

Serra also alienated his own traditional supporters. He used four failed strategies against Lula:

  • Serra tried to portray Lula as a populist socialist trying to form an axis with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Fidel Castro of Cuba and the FARC
  • Serra tried to portray Lula as an illiterate barbarian
  • Serra tried tried to forge a relation between the decreasing value of the real against the US dollar and Lula's rising popularity
  • Serra tried to dissociate his image from Fernando Henrique's government

The first three tactics were absolutely incompatible with José Serra's otherwise clean, left-wing career. The "intelectual" left, which was his natural supporter, jumped ship when these attacks started. The increasingly unrecognizable José Serra then started a "family & tradition" campaign to bring votes from the conservative right, but that failed miserably and its undertones were similar to the campaign that preceded the dictatorship some decades earlier. Even President Fernando Henrique Cardoso himself frequently called the press to show his opposition to his candidate's campaign.

His decision to dissociate from the government was so poor that Fernando Henrique's troublesome government was more popular than his candidate, meaning there were many people happy with Fernando Henrique but who would vote for Lula.

Where Lula went right

The 2002 campaign started much earlier for the PT. The left-wing, originally socialist party had a lot of homework after its crushing defeat in 1998. Radical socialist sectors were expelled to smaller parties, or at least had their power greatly reduced. The moderate side of the part became larger and more important. This paved the way to this campaign's most important event: the alliance between the PT and right-wing PL (Liberal Party). The PL is a small but influential party. The alliance didn't mean much in term of votes, but it sent a powerful message to the country's elites: the PT was changing. Senator José Alencar, a textile industry magnate of the PL, was to be Lula's vice-president. José Alencar put former union leader Lula on the same conversation table as the country's leading capitalists. And they talked until they found a middle ground. Both sides wanted to strengthen the national industry and reduce the country's dependence on foreign capital. Both sides understood the economy had to grow again, but on solid ground this time, rather than on volatile international investment. The bottom line? Less speculation, more production.

Capitalists then started to support Lula or, at the very least, they didn't oppose him like they did in previous elections. The president of an important industry association had announced in 1989 that if Lula won, all businessmen would leave the country. In 2002, the new president of the same association campaigned for Lula, who adopted a more moderate approach and announced unprecedented bilateral talks with a system of councils that would oversee his government. The councils started to work before the election, so that everyone understood its model. Even opponents were called to oversee Lula's political campaign. This worked very well, and showed Lula's openness for dialogue.

That said, investors were still somewhat scared of Lula. The PT then called some of its leading economists to bring forth proposals to revitalize the stocks market, like investing part of the several worker's relief funds. The PT accepted the stocks market as part of the productive alliance, as long as it serves to fund production rather than to profit on the country's struggling situation. This was very well-received by the market, even though the PT's model is a departure from that of the previous government. After a quick instability after the election, the real was recovering its value and the Bovespa was going up.

But backstage actions were not enough. Lula suffered a fair deal of prejudice. Much of what Serra used against him was the real opinion of a large parcel of the society. The PT hired a star professional marketer to lead the television campaign. The PT then ran a soft, well-polished campaign, while its opponents struggled against each other in personal attacks.

So it all boils down to a few key facts:

  • The PT kicked out its most radical members and softened some of its ideas
  • Lula formed an alliance with a right wing party and gained support from leading capitalists. This opened the path to even more right wing and conservative supporters
  • Lula's public image was restored with an intimate campaign. His public image as a hard-liner union leader was teared down. The TV showed him with his family, and his acceptance of support from every sector of the society that didn't oppose some of his core ideals showed he was a man open for dialogue.

All in all, Lula was elected because he had support from the right, and the PT made a spectacular campaign without a single bad decision.

The post-electoral climate

The only other left-wing politician to take power was overruled by a military coup, so this moment was sensitive for the Brazilian people. A coup or any undemocratic action seemed extremely unlikely, though. TV Globo, the leading TV channel created during the dictatorship, which was almost single-handedly responsible for Lula's defeat in 1989, adopted a neutral approach during this campaign. After Lula was confirmed the president, it ran documentaries and "flashes" on Lula's life for days, with frequent messages congratulating him. One of the messages showed the hands of several children on a Constitution of the country, while a voice welcomed him as the nation's new president. Beautiful. Even Jornal Nacional, the nearly monopolist news program, which has had the same inflexible format for thirty years, made a radically different special edition with Lula as the surprise co-host for the entire program.

Lula is being received with unprecedented optimism. His government is going to be hard, though. The country is impoverished, and his support in the Congress will not be as strong as Fernando Henrique's. Nevertheless, Lula showed during the campaign that he is able to make successful broad alliances, and it is expected he will maintain this strategy while in power. Fernando Henrique is trying to minimize his political loss by making sure the transition between governments takes place in an exemplar manner. The crisis is still there, of course, and it will take a few years before it's reverted. But nothing bad happened after Lula's election. Foreign investment that had left the country is now returning, the national currency is becoming more valuable, the stock market is coming back to action. This isn't to say that the trend has been reverted yet. But it shows everyone seems to be willing to work to make it happen. Democratically.

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