BRASILIA — There are no campaign signs or TV spots, no barbs from the opposing candidates - and the Constitution doesn't even allow it - but Fernando Henrique Cardoso is running for reelection.
Brazil's popular president is trying to do what Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Argentina's Carlos Menem did before him: buck a continent's institutionalized wariness of dictatorship to strike down a constitutional ban on presidential reelection.
President Cardoso, revered by many for having conquered inflation that once ran at 100 percent a month, will probably get his way. But passing the needed constitutional amendment is proving to be more time-consuming and politicized than he would have liked. The president has threatened recourse to a referendum if Congress doesn't act soon.
Cardoso is getting his wish: A lower-house vote was set to begin Jan. 28, with a less-crucial Senate vote to follow.
Meanwhile, Cardoso's reelection bid, along with rumblings that Presidents Fujimori and Menem would like to change their Constitutions yet again to seek third terms, is stirring a debate throughout Latin American countries that have only recently thrown off the yoke of dictatorship.
Some observers point to President Clinton's reelection in the United States and say Latin American voters deserve the right to pass the same judgment on their presidents. Brazilian polls show about a 3-to-1 majority in favor of reelection, with about 60 percent of voters saying they would vote for Cardoso, whose term ends in 1998.
But others argue strongly that Latin America's democratization process is not yet strong enough - especially in a region that coined the term caudillo, or all-powerful leader - to dispense with the reelection taboo.
"One of Brazil's biggest problems is the faith in personalities rather than institutions," says Claudio Contador, a political analyst in Rio de Janeiro. "It's the idea at the beginning of dictatorships."
The way the right to reelection has been pursued in Latin America only reinforces worries about democracy's shallow roots in the region. "There's nothing wrong with the people having the right to decide. The problem is the unwillingness of leaders in weak democracies to play by the rules," says Enrique Obando, a Peruvian political scientist studying in the United States.
Peru's Fujimori comes under the sharpest criticism for his handling of the issue. First elected to a five-year term in 1990, he pushed through a new Constitution that allowed him to sweep to a second term last year. Now the president and his partisans say Fujimori should be able to run for a third term in 2000 - or what might be called a "second second term" - because the constitutional change came when he was already in his first term.
That circuitous thinking was set back Jan. 21 by Peru's supreme court, which ruled that Fujimori cannot use the amendment to seek a third term. But congressman Jorge Avendano warns that, while "the court's decision must be respected" for the good of Peru's democracy, Fujimori could still seek a referendum or a constitutional amendment.
The outcome of the continuing hostage crisis in Lima, where Tupac Amaru guerrillas still hold 72 hostages, could determine Fujimori's fate, observers say.
In Argentina, Menem's fall from the heights of popularity he attained with his reelection last year has led most observers to conclude that any chance of a third term is dead. But others say Menem would still like to write his own "comeback" chapter if the Argentine economy improves significantly before 1999 elections.
Just as Fujimori won reelection on the argument that he was the only person capable of addressing the country's economic crisis and dealing with guerrillas, Brazil's Cardoso is arguing that without him, the stability that made an inflation-slaying program work would be lost. And some analysts agree.
"Without Cardoso in there, his economic program will be either watered down or thrown out," says Eduardo Gamarra, a South America specialist at Miami's Florida International University. Warning against lumping Latin American countries together, he says Brazil's reelection debate "is about the right to keep a good leader and the need for political stability to keep long-term [economic] policy shifts going."
Calling 1997 the "acid test" year for Brazil's economic reforms, David Fleischer, a political scientist at University of Braslia, says the Cardoso government "has had to interrupt the reform process to get reelection [approved], but they need reelection to keep the reform process going."
Cardoso is pushing this view hard. Referring to his plans to visit Europe next month, Cardoso said the reelection decision is needed to demonstrate abroad Brazil's stability and commitment to economic reforms.
Cardoso's reference to international concerns has fed criticism that the push for reelection is part of an international strategy to take over Brazil's state-owned riches by using Cardoso to keep privatization programs going. Also raising eyebrows are the political "sweeteners" the president has doled out - everything from traditional pork-barrel projects to political appointments - to try to reach the three-fifths majority he needs in the lower house.
Paolo Maluf, former mayor of Sao Paulo and a likely presidential candidate, says the presidential palace "has turned into a checkout counter."
Not everyone is convinced that Brazilian reform depends on Cardoso, and they worry that the idea that it does only reinforces a damaging personality cult. One leader making all the difference "might have been true before the end of the '80s," says Mr. Obando, "but now there isn't that big a difference between the right and the left. No one is talking about returning to socialism," he adds. "Everybody accepts capitalism, smaller government, and the need for reform."