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Brazzil - Politics - September 2004

Voters to Choose Between Past and Future in Brazil

A win for Marta Suplicy as Mayor of São Paulo would indicate
that Brazilian President Lula was on the right track. It would
help him press on with his foreign policy. Why so much attention
on the outcome of one election when there will be thousands of
elections? The fact is São Paulo is the only one that matters.

Guy Burton

Marta Suplicy

Picture I've been quiet from these pages for the last few weeks. But that doesn't mean I've been on holiday. No, I have been working while in my spare time I've been helping to set up and run a new blog (a short term for `web log'—an online diary which is regularly updated). Along with a colleague, we're going to monitor the election campaign currently taking place in São Paulo.

São Paulo, I hear people mutter. What possible reason could there be to follow that when there is a far more pressing contest taking place further north, between George Dubya and John Kerry? It's a good point, not least because whoever wins in the US later this year will have a profound impact on foreign policy and how America is perceived around the world.

But even though it may seem obscure, the São Paulo contest is important for Brazil and South America. With just over a month until the first round of voting takes place, the choice appears to be between the past and the future: on the one hand the social democrat/neo-liberal coalition which ran the country for most of the 1990s; on the other the current government and ostensibly socialist Workers Party (PT).

Whoever wins São Paulo will have an effect on the Brazilian president's re-election prospects. With those elections due in 2006, the present contest offers voters an opportunity to pass a mid-term judgment on President Lula's first two years.

If they plump for his party colleague—and São Paulo's current mayor—Marta Suplicy, then PT campaign managers will be confident they are on the right track, despite the government's decision to follow an orthodox economic policy when it took office last year.

But if Marta fails to land a second term, the PT soothsayers may become jumpy. A victory for her closest rival, the former Health Minister José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), may well mean voters don't think Lula has delivered.

And for Serra and his party it would keep alive the hope of winning the presidency in 2006 with their electoral and Congressional allies, the neo-liberal Liberal Front Party (PFL). That outcome would mean a swift end to the PT's social and political experiments and a return to business as usual.

Beyond Brazil the ramifications of the São Paulo poll is equally important. Lula represents an indigenous and new democratic Left; his isn't the brand transported to South America by the old Soviet Union and which lives on in Cuba.

A win for Marta would indicate that Lula was on the right track; it would help him press on with his current robust foreign policy, including the campaign for a permanent UN Security Council seat, a larger presence in peace-keeping missions abroad and pressure for fair international trade rules.

But why should so much attention be placed on the outcome of one election? After all, all Brazilian cities face mayoral contests this year; when you include the candidates for city council as well the number of elections will run into thousands.

Yet despite these numbers, the fact remains that São Paulo is really the only one that matters. Whereas Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre all have populations over one million, São Paulo remains the largest and most important of them all. As the biggest city in South America nearly 20 million people call São Paulo their home; half the population of the state as a whole.

Economically São Paulo is huge: it is the commercial, financial and industrial centre of the country and constitutes around a third of Brazil's GNP. The surrounding metropolitan area houses much of Brazil's industry, which makes up two-thirds of the nation's output. As for São Paulo state, its people contribute 40% of federal tax revenues, much of which will come from city residents.

Because of São Paulo's economic clout, it has played a key role in Brazil's politics. Ever since it's emergence as the country's powerhouse at the end of the nineteenth century few politicians have managed to reach the top without its support, including the current and last presidents, both residents of São Paulo. In Congress, São Paulo state has one of the largest congressional delegations—a recognition of its demographic size.

Yet given the importance of this election, there is a dearth of coverage—in English at any rate. While there are some websites providing around-the-clock news on the candidates and issues, they remain largely in Portuguese. This means a great many people who might otherwise be interested in the contest and its implications are excluded. So we took it upon ourselves to fill that gap and offer news and comment as the election unfolds.

Two weeks ago we began Prefeito Paulistano 2004 (www.saopaulo2004.blogspot.com). Through it we hope to recreate the success of Andrew Stevens' previous blog on the London elections earlier this year, Race 4 City Hall (www.race4cityhall.blogspot.com). As for me, I was introduced to blogging earlier this year during my own failed election bid in London.

At first glance many readers may well find it odd that two London-based bloggers would choose to follow a contest taking place over an ocean away. But we are aware of the interest that Lula and his party, as a symbol of the new democratic left in the region, has proven of interest to observers in Britain and America because of an on-going fascination of many on the British left with Latin American socialist endeavours, particularly with those of a soixante-huitard complexion.

Furthermore, with Internet access we are guaranteed almost immediate information on the election campaign, including the candidates' comments, their policies and their whereabouts. In addition, we are no strangers to blogging from afar: Andrew is currently the author of another blog which follows the Hartlepool by-election in northern England (www.guacamoleville.blogspot.com).

Both of us also bring a range of experiences to the blog. Andrew has extensive knowledge of sub-national government and local politics on a comparative level: he wrote the Politico's Guide to Local Government and is currently the Government Relations Manager for the Japan Local Government Centre in London.

Guy not only has practical experience of local elections, he is also a student of Latin American and Brazilian politics, having contributed research on the PT in Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003).

As I mentioned earlier, as a first test of support in Lula's leadership, the outcome in São Paulo cannot be overstated. The size and importance of São Paulo makes what should be a local contest into a national one.

Win or lose, much of the way the PT is perceived between now and the presidential election in two years' time will depend on Marta's result. Similarly, if the PSDB is to present a serious challenge to Lula at those future elections, it will need to make a good showing in the mayoral election.

Until a winner is declared, we will cover the story. Whether it is the beginning or end of October (depending on whether a second round is necessary) we will provide an overview of the events as they unfold in the campaign.

We'll point readers to stories, both in Portuguese and English, which help add substance to the contest and develop the audience's awareness and understanding of the city and its politics.

Yes, we have reserved the right to pass comment on occasion and in some cases either criticise or lampoon the candidates. But because of the language barriers faced by those who don't speak or read Portuguese, when we do that we'll try and make it clear where the news ends and our comments begin.

Besides, the coverage can't be translated too dryly: animated, irreverent views will help stimulate the readership, we hope. And as ever, we invite them to get involved, by offering comments and suggestions of their own.

Guy Burton lives in London. He is about to begin a postgraduate degree in Latin American politics at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London. He has written for Brazzil magazine previously and contributed research on the Workers Party's experience of regional government in Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003). A candidate during the London elections, he started blogging his campaign experiences at www.guyburton.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com.

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