BRAZILIAN voters will choose as president this Sunday either a socialist union leader or a wealthy populist who has run against the country's establishment. Missing from this first direct vote in almost 20 years is the middle of the political spectrum. The centrist parties found themselves at the bottom of the heap in the first round of voting on Nov. 15, blamed by millions of Brazilians for their support of a government incapable of halting rampant inflation or addressing dire economic and social problems.
The Dec. 17 election, which will complete a gradual return to democracy that began in 1978, is expected to be close. It pits Luis An'acio da Silva - known as Lula - of the Workers' Party, against Fernando Collor de Mello, a former state governor and corruption fighter who created the National Reconstruction Party expressly for his presidential run.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Mr. da Silva has been closing in on Mr. Collor's initial 10-point lead in the opinion polls. The latest opinion polls released yesterday indicated a difference of one point between the two candidates, with Collor showing 46 percent of the intended vote and Da Silva, 45 percent. It's a tossup, analysts say.
No matter who becomes the country's first popularly elected president since 1960, the risks for Brazil are big. Analysts say that the danger with Collor is his personalist approach. If his policies don't work, ``he could appeal to the people [to move] against Congress, institutions, legal forces,'' says Jos'e Augusto Guilhon, head of the University of Sao Paulo's political science department. ``Look at the language he uses: `I and the people.'''
Da Silva, analysts say, would have to deal with pressure from supporters whose political stripes range from communist to social democrat.
``If things go badly he won't get much cooperation [from politicians], and the radical left may push harder,'' says Bol'ivar Lamounier, a political scientist with the Sao Paulo Institute of Economic, Social, and Political Studies. He adds that radical supporters could push da Silva to take stronger action on issues such as land reform and income distribution, provoking a reaction from the right.
The candidates share some attributes. They are the only two serious young newcomers among the 21 candidates who ran in the first round. Political analysts say this shows that the voters, disgusted with the current government of President Jos'e Sarney, want change.
Mr. Sarney's shortcoming was his failure to tame inflation, which came to more than 171,000 percent over his five-year term and is expected to reach 50 percent this month. Sarney was unable to stand up to politicians and businessmen who benefit from profligate government spending, the main cause of inflation. Also during his term, Brazil's already huge gap between rich and poor widened even more. (See Brazil economic story, Page 8).
The two presidential candidates are the fruit of 21 years of political repression under a military government that gave up power in 1985.
Da Silva began organizing Sao Paulo factory workers in the late 1970s, outside of the government-controlled union framework. He led three major strikes, and the military put him in prison once. His grass-roots movement evolved into the Workers' Party, which last year won several key mayoral races and has a small congressional presence. The party also has strong ties to the progressive wing of the Roman Catholic Church, which organizes many poor communities in Brazil.
The Workers' Party stands out among Brazil's political parties because it has a loyal following and a fairly clear ideology. Most other parties center around a particular politician and function only at election time.
Da Silva's election platform calls for deep change. He believes that Brazil should concentrate its vast natural, industrial, and human resources on economic development and better income distribution. This means stopping payment on the $111 billion foreign debt and rerouting farm and industrial production to local consumption. Over the past decade, Brazil has focused much of its economy on selling exports to pay interest on the debt.
Collor's support comes largely from Brazil's legions of uneducated poor, a legacy of a military government that critics say did not invest enough in health and education.
The son of a rich politician and media mogul, Collor makes vicious attacks on the Sarney government and promises to do away with corrupt, overpaid government officials and workers. His candidacy has also benefited from news coverage on TV Globo, Brazil's main television network, with which he has family connections.
``Lula's public statements are censored,'' says a Globo news reporter, ``he isn't shown talking about poor versus rich or capital versus labor.... So the candidate doesn't appear on television the way he really is.''
Collor's election platform reasons that more money can be spent on social needs once the government is trimmed back and put on a more moral track. He favors privatization of many state-owned companies and better tax collection. His proposal on the foreign debt is a novel one that won't be likely to please bankers: to remove the federal guarantee on the debt and allow each debtor to negotiate with each of its creditors.
A skilled communicator, Collor says his only commitment is directly to the people. To keep his campaign promises, Collor is counting on the legitimacy and credibility that this first direct presidential election is expected to provide the victor.
Brazil's lower classes will decide the election, since 75 percent of the electorate are poor. But most of these voters appear reluctant to choose da Silva, a lathe operator who, like many Brazilians, speaks Portuguese with many grammatical mistakes.
``People are afraid of the Workers' Party. They are afraid of strikes, because they mean violence and losing jobs,'' says Prof. Lamounier. Collor's campaign has played on this concern.
Research shows that da Silva's supporters are mostly skilled urban workers and low-income residents in areas where the Catholic Church is active. These types of voters are still a minority among Brazil's poor, most of whom are illiterate.
Da Silva has recently gained crucial support from Leonel Brizola, a socialist who placed third in the first round of the election.
In the final days of the campaign, da Silva has tried to put Collor's sincerity in question and win over the uneducated poor.
``I know what it's like to be poor,'' he told television viewers last week, ``so I can change the lives of the poor.''