A protest in Brazil

BRAZIL's democracy, only three years old, has been bruised by economic crises. Last week its people cast ballots in nationwide municipal elections, as they are required to do by law, and their response to the country's difficulties was clear: We've had enough. Voters turned sharply away from the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party of President Jos'e Sarney and toward left-leaning parties. A ``throw-out-the-rascals'' mentality was at work, as it has been in much of Latin America. Brazil's weakening political center is mirrored in the decline of Mexico's longtime ruling party, in the rise yet again of Peronists in Argentina, and in the fall from political grace of Peru's President Alan Garc'ia.

Inflation, debt, and economic mismanagement are driving Latin Americans to grasp after any governmental option at hand. They could go left or right, depending on which brand of populism sells best, or they could beckon that familiar restorer of order, the military.

Brazil, though laboring under an inflation rate of more than 700 percent a year, is still a distance from that brink. Its voters have called for change - and in that sense Brazilian democracy is working. Leftists like Leonel Brizola of the Democratic Labor Party are now seen as strong contenders in next November's presidential election. That will be Brazil's first direct election of a national leader since 1960.

The central question between now and then has to be whether any president, of whatever leaning, can muster the political courage to make the hard decisions needed to stabilize the economy.

Another issue is Brazil's foreign debt burden. The Sarney administration has tried to work with creditors to reschedule debt and keep pace with interest payments. But the next president, pressured to devote more resources to helping struggling Brazilians and less to paying off bankers, may choose not to.

The government is trying to put together an anti-inflation plan. An austerity program to bring the country's budget deficit down to zero is one approach; a wage and price freeze is another. Either could be politically treacherous, and it's doubtful Mr. Sarney will take the risk.

But someone will have to. The country needs a leader who has both the popularity and the will to impose fiscal responsibility and shepherd the country toward stability. Mere populist zeal won't suffice. Brazil, with plentiful natural resources and a sizable middle class, should be able to able to show its poorer neighbors how this transition can be made.

The United States and other industrialized countries should waste no time in aiding the process of economic recovery by developing effective debt relief policies. This would give Brazil and others the maneuvering space needed to rebuild.

The Brazilian people have registered a protest. The country's generals heard it, and they're waiting to see if the power gap left by ineffectual civilian government becomes so wide they have to fill in. Industrialists and bankers, inside Brazil and out, heard it and shuddered. Decisionmakers in foreign capitals, especially Washington, heard it too. A constructive response is needed.

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