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  • Brazil's New Beginning
  • Bolívar Lamounier (bio)

Last December 17, Brazil elected a president by direct vote for the first time in three decades. In a run-off following the general election of November 15, Brazilians chose right-of-center candidate Fernando Collor de Mello of the National Reconstruction Party (PRN) over his left-wing rival Luis Inácio ("Lula") da Silva of the Workers' Party (PT) by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. The country must now settle down to face an array of grave problems ranging from imminent hyperinflation in an economy beset by increasingly severe bottlenecks, to one of the most sharply unequal income-distribution profiles in the world.

Will Brazilian democracy stand the test? The answer largely depends on the answers to other questions that Brazilians are now asking about their new government: Is President Collor up to the task? Can he garner the necessary support in a society that appears deeply divided following the recent election? Can the tiny PRN and its allies among legislators from other parties give him the votes he needs in the National Congress? In short, will he be able to exorcise the specter of ungovernability that has come to haunt Brazilian democracy?

Economists have labelled the 1980s as Latin America's "lost" decade; political scientists seeking a term to sum up the last ten years in Brazil might want to call them the "incredible" decade. The period saw a series of grave economic and political difficulties play themselves out against [End Page 87] a background of sweeping social changes and at least one cruel twist of fate, the 1985 demise of President-elect Tancredo Neves, who died before he could be inaugurated as Brazil's first civilian president in 21 years. Yet the country managed to weather the stormy 1980s; one might well conclude that the worst is now over, and that Brazilian democracy stands a fair chance of consolidating and extending its gains into the twenty-first century.

In Brazil, the 1980s saw the potential for social conflict rise sharply even as the political system's ability to absorb such tension steeply declined. Over the course of the decade, the annual rate of growth of the gross national product (GNP) plummeted from its 1970s average of seven to eight percent to an average of two percent—hardly enough to make up for population growth. A sharp recession that lasted from 1981 to 1983 exacerbated this economic downturn.

Meanwhile, the proportion of the population living in urban areas continued to grow rapidly. It was 46 percent in 1960, 65 percent in 1980, and will probably have reached close to 80 percent by the time of the 1990 census. Rising rates of urbanization combined with declining rates of economic growth are a recipe for increased social tension. Not surprisingly, this period also saw a remarkable increase in participation, both in political associations and in elections. The figures for electoral participation are especially striking: 16 million Brazilians (22 percent of the total population) were registered to vote in 1960, the year of the last free presidential election before the 1964 military takeover; in 1989, 82 million (55 percent of the population) were entitled to cast a ballot in the run-off between Collor and da Silva.

The political system's ability to accommodate tensions was sharply declining in still another way. Brazil's transition from military authoritarianism was painstakingly gradual. There was no watershed event, as the death of Francisco Franco was for Spain or the loss of the Falklands/Malvinas War was for Argentina, to provoke the sudden collapse of the authoritarian regime. Instead, Brazil's military government followed a course of progressive relaxation or "decompression," to which the democratic opposition responded by using elections to reoccupy the political "space" opened up by the military's slow withdrawal. This peculiar give-and-take helped to maintain civil peace, but at the cost of jeopardizing governmental legitimacy. The final period of military administration, headed by General João Baptista Figueiredo from 1979 to 1985, can only be described as agonizing. The years after 1982 were especially bad; General Figueiredo, finding himself bereft of any real [End Page 88] authority and...


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