Brazilian Elections

September 25, 2007

On October 15, 1978, General. Joao Baptista Figueiredo was "elected" to succeed Ernesto Geisel, as President of Brazil. Figueiredo's "victory" was not a surprise, even after intense
lobbying on the part of the opposition Movimento Democratico
Brasiliero (MDB) to swing the dissident members of the government's party, ARENA, to cast their votes for the MDB candidate, retired Gen. Euler Bentes Monteiro. Though the "election" of Geisel's hand-picked successor became a heated political process, it was really a proxy for the larger political issue which has been looming for some time : How can there be a return to bourgeois democracy after 14 years of authoritarian military rule?

The succession was in many ways a sensitive thermometer to
the flexibility and limits of the campaign for a return to civilian government. These pressures have been mounting intensely in the world's fourth largest country since early 1977. In 1977 the first fissures in the military-apparently unified since 1968-began to appear with the forced resignation from Geisel's cabinet of Sevro Gomes, civilian Minister of Trade and Commerce. Gomes, allied with segments of Brazilian
capital who opposed further foreign penetration of the economy, was pushed out of the government for deviating from Geisel's politically authoritarian and economically pro-international capital stance. The Gomes affair provoked a torrent of criticism in the press as well as within the caucuses of important industrial leaders and from university students.

This was the beginning of the Geisel government's legitimacy
crisis. While Geisel pretended to be moving toward the restoration of democracy and civilian rule at some uncertain point in the future, sectors of Brazilian society which had once supported the military takeover were becoming disaffected and impatient. The most important semblance of democracy, the
two party system, contributed to this crisis as the opposition
party, the MDB, began to take its political role more seriously-seriously in the sense of entering into the political battlefield at the level of local and congressional elections to win, rather than merely exist pro forma.

By April 1977, it appeared that the military regime was tolerating an opening up of its authoritarian rule to allow political debate, criticism and even political organization in opposition to its own policies. The slap in the face came when Geisel closed the Federal Congress in April and instituted constitutional changes making it more difficult for the
MDB to function as an effective opposition. Nonetheless, the
tone of political discontent and dissent had been set.

During the next year and a half, political protests swept forward at a pace unequalled since 1968, when the ultra-right within the military purged its more progressive ranks and issued a series of institutional acts effectively eliminating all traditional bourgeois freedoms: press, speech, right to habeas corpus, etc. Beyond the MDB's growing political agitation, grass roots movements emerged. One was the movement for political amnesty calling for release of all political prisoners and amnesty for political exiles living abroad. The attempts to reconstruct a national student organization were underway in spite of police repression, and student congresses were held in the face of governmental prohibitions. The labor movement, which had been strictly controlled by the government, began to show signs of revitalization. These
included a number of wildcat strikes and mounting pressures by workers to reinstate their right to strike and demanding the
inclusion of cost of living increases in the minimum wage
regulated by government. More recently, the government has
been faced with a widespread popular movement against the
skyrocketing cost of living-nearly 50 percent per year in the
past two years. This movement is gaining force in working class neighborhoods as well as among middle class residents of Sao Paulo, who have found their standard of living rapidly eroded by inflation.

All of these growing political forces and pressures added weight to the question of the 1979 presidential succession. On the surface, it appeared that the military was more prepared
to look for political solutions to dissent than it had been since 1964. There was repression, but not on the scale experienced by Brazilian workers, intellectuals, labor and political leaders during the late sixties and early
seventies. Moreover, there were the first signs of division within the military itself.

News of disgruntled junior officers within the army and air
force spread. A much clearer delineation of political differences within the military emerged as the presidential succession drew nearer. Three factions became identifiable: 1) the ultra-right nationalists who favor the strengthening of national capital and restriction of foreign economic interests under a tight, military leadership ruling in the name of national security; 2) the faction identified with Geisel and
Figueiredo, favoring authoritarian control of politics, but with a clear allegiance to the presence and expansion of foreign capital within the country as a strategy for development; and 3) the progressive nationalist wing of the
military, drawn primarily from the junior officers. This group is social democratic in orientation and favors a return to direct political control by the Congress, as well as the expansion of internal consumer markets, and wants to subsidize workers' standard of living and open up the bargaining process over wages, especially for professional and technical employees. This faction, which would likely find widespread support among civilians, is still a relatively unknown force within the military. It remains to be seen what it will do when the dust from the change of presidents has settled.

Nonetheless, speculations about the Figueiredo government had begun to fly before the election results were known.
Gen. Figueiredo is considered to be a hard liner on matters of national security and not thought to be inclined toward any further democratization of the military regime. He is reported to have said that he would close the Congress if the MDB were to emerge victorious in the November 15 congressional elections. This, of course, is not likely, due to the severe restrictions placed on campaigning by the Lei Falcon (Falcon Law) which prohibits anything more than showing a Reform-Brazil's new President speaking with a forked tongue?
picture of each political candidate on TV. While the MDB is
very strong in the major urban areas in the south (Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte) ARENA has gerrymandered control over many rural areas and some of the
northeast. The MDB pushed a reform package in the Congress
prior to the presidential election, hoping to eliminate some of the more restrictive political censorship, such as the Lei Falcon. However, their efforts were defeated, making it far more difficult for the party to make any gains in the congressional elections.

President Figueiredo may also have to contend soon with the
formation of new political parties -the result of liberalizing
reforms taking effect in January. It is very likely that a workers' party, in the fashion of the old populist PTB (Partido Trabalhista Brasiliero) and a socialist party will be formed. The military will then have to deal with a much more complex political situation than the present two party arrangement. Gen. Hugo Abreu, a progressive nationalist senior
military officer, predicted the Figueiredo government would
not last two years before falling. Whether this demise would be due to growing civilian pressures, or due to a coup from
within the military cannot be predicted. Abreu's outspokenness
during the presidential electoral campaign cost him 20 days
imprisonment for circulating a letter among senior officers
implicating Geisel and Figueiredo in government corruption.

However, the direction of political change in Brazil at this time is unclear. It is too soon to tell whether Figuelredo will last, or even whether he will resort to an intensive campaign to close the doors of democracy which had begun to open at the end of the Geisel government. One can speculate, however, that if the government continues to favor the entry and expansion of foreign capital the conditions of the working and middle sectors will continue to deteriorate. This will certainly bring more protest from these groups and it may precipitate a new wave of repression. The Brazilian political-economic model which has been the inspiration for other military dictatorships in Latin America, cannot easily co-exist with even bourgeois political freedoms.


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