THE Dec. 17 presidential election in Brazil, the first direct one in nearly 30 years, gave a victory to conservative Fernando Collor de Mello over labor leader Lu'is In'acio ``Lula'' da Silva. This second-round balloting capped off a series of ``transitional'' elections that since 1982 have renewed the elected leadership, as voters tended to reject personalities and policies left over from the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985.
In the Nov. 15 first-round results, candidates representing the coalition behind the discredited Sarney administration gained a mere 5 percent of the vote. The top four front-runners all came from minority parties with reformist slogans and together polled 71 percent of the first ballot total of valid votes.
The characteristics, mood, and choices of Brazil's electorate of 82 million provide some insight into the social circumstances within which Collor will govern. Above all, it is a bifurcated society in which nearly three-quarters of the electorate survives on an income of $75 a month or less, while most of the better-off quarter earns well over that amount.
The candidates of the right and the left each received roughly equal vote shares. During the coalition-building, Collor's adherents came predominantly from center-right ranks, including supporters of the former dictatorship, and Lula's gains came from progressive and leftist sectors. Polls showed Collor's greatest support came from the more conservative interior and the smaller cities, from the frontier Amazon and Center-West regions and the poor Northeast. Lula was somewhat ahead in the developed and modern South and Southeast and well ahead in the large cities. Both candidates drew support from all social classes.
Brazilian voters have weak party loyalties and are increasingly less amenable to voting according to manipulation by traditional political bosses. The mood of the electorate was moderate in view of the current economic situation. Major concerns expressed include inflation, unemployment, declining living standards, crime, and government corruption and ineffectiveness, all themes to be pressed upon the incoming administration scheduled to take office on March 15.
Voters are mistrustful of politicians and impatient for reform of the system that has caused so much personal economic sacrifice. The nation has not yet polarized, nor has the public given up on democracy because of its pessimism and disillusionment with the first civilian administration after two decades of military rule.
During the campaign, however, serious issues were raised about the governability of Brazil, which operates under a 1988 constitution still to be fully implemented, borders on hyperinflation, and is burdened by internal and foreign debts on which even the interest payments cannot be made. Just as President Sarney's popularity plummeted as inflation raced out of control, so Collor must produce short-term results on long-term problems if he is to govern. At the very least, Lula's strong showing serves as a warning to the privileged classes to address seriously what Brazilians refer to as the ``social debt.''
Brazil's unstable party system reflects voter preferences well in elections, but has been less capable of forming a workable legislative consensus. Stability under the newly enhanced role for Congress demands a mixture of party discipline and compromise uncharacteristic of either Congress or the party system. Collor's Gaullist-like campaign stance of being above party, in direct touch with the nation, and unwilling to compromise, is a style unfavorable for effective relations with Congress. Collor could adopt some surprisingly populist solutions if he follows the social democratic line that he tried to identify with during and after the campaign.
Political discourse in Brazil is still much more affected by national memories and personalities and by the national position in the world than by Northern Hemisphere theses about the ``end of history,'' or the reappraisals of Marxism and capitalism. Brazil, which has had its political ``openness'' under five years of civilian governance, is now very much due for a perestroika. Radical restructuring of the state for efficiency and social performance is as necessary in Brazil as in Eastern Europe, for reasons of social justice and international economic competitiveness. Yet the intractability of the statist Brazilian system, nominally capitalist, may be just as great as that of some East European states and may require just as much public pressure and hard work to overcome.