Brazil's democracy depends on education of poor majority

``I really don't know what democracy means, but I think it is when the people get what they want,'' says a young woman with a second-grade education living in the Santa Marta favela here. The poor majority of Rio did get what they wanted: Their votes helped put the governor in his palace under Brazil's new opening to democracy. His palace is situated on the same hillside as Santa Marta, a shantytown of 13,000 residents.

This nation's poor majority have the most to gain from the new democracy and yet know the least about it, say political scientists. And, they agree, without the political and especially the economic enfranchisement of the poor, democracy will not last here.

Previously run by a small wealthy elite, Brazil was handed over by the military regime last year to a government picked by an electoral college.

Along with the reins of power, the civilian government inherited its toughest problem -- the economy. There is an enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor. Fifty percent of the population makes 30 percent of the income; a tiny 1 percent of the population earns another 30 percent. The government also faces double-digit monthly inflation, and a $100 billion foreign debt.

Though the Brazilian economy grew by more than 8 percent during the first year of democracy, and wages (after accounting for inflation) went up at all economic levels, this pace cannot be maintained without political expertise to moderate and direct the growth, analysts say.

For a start, says Helio Jaguaribe, director of the Institute of Political and Social Studies here, massive free food programs must be instituted, a minimum of 6 percent annual economic growth established, and social welfare must be incorporated into the new constitution.

The present Constitution is to be rewritten at a 1987 constitutional convention.

Attention at top levels of government is focused largely on this fall's legislative elections, which will determine who the delegates to that convention will be. Among other things, the new constitution will set the date for the next presidential election. The date agreed on will determine the period of President Jos'e Sarney's tenure, the length of which will also indicate the extent of support that Mr. Sarney enjoys.

Meanwhile, social workers here say that politicians are now courting the vote of the poor -- which is something very new. President Sarney was able to double social welfare programs to $2 billion in the past year. However, his legislation on agrarian reform for the benefit of peasant farmers at the expense of large farming operations, though successful, took some time to pass. Critics said the law hadn't been well formulated.

``One of the flaws of democracy is if it chooses a fast pace [in social reform] it will create enemies who will say democracy is creating communism,'' says Walter Barelli, director of a labor union-sponsored research group in Sao Paulo.

The poor may be able to elect a governor or a mayor -- as they did in Sao Paulo -- but political scientists widely believe this to be more of a response to populist rhetoric, than serious political organizing by the poor.

Not having voted for over 20 years, or even picked between parties, Brazilians respond more to personalities than to political party labels, says Guillermo O'Donnell, a respected Latin American scholar. Consequently, politicians ``change parties like changing shirts,'' he says. Sarney has been a member of three parties, and some of his ministers have been members of five different parties.

So, while politicians are attempting to develop party identity and loyalty, there is a vigorous embrace of democracy at the grassroots level. Even school principals campaign for office and are subject to popular vote. And those losing elections at any level no longer claim foul play at the ballot box. C. G.

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