THE campaign for Brazil's Oct. 3 presidential election has become a heated battle between the political left and right, and self-styled champions of the poor and middle class.
Brazilians hope to elect a president who can reduce last year's 4,000 percent inflation, huge unemployment, and widespread corruption by government officials. Brazil has the widest gap in the distribution of income between rich and poor in South America, and every major candidate talks of providing more income to the poor.
Recent public opinion polls show the field of nine candidates narrowed to two major contenders: Socialist Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union leader with a solid base among the working class, and former Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a Social Democrat who heads a coalition of center and conservative parties with strong backing from the middle and upper classes.
Victory will hinge on capturing the middle class and workers not yet committed to a candidate.
When the campaign began, the two major candidates offered starkly different visions of how to solve Brazil's problems. Mr. Cardoso advocates pro-US, free-market solutions such as privatizing state enterprises and balancing the federal budget.
Mr. Da Silva counters that such efforts to stabilize the economy are in effect ``stabilizing poverty.'' He advocates a populist socialism that would restore cuts to social services and stop privatization policies, which he says will put money in workers' pockets and stimulate development.
For months, Da Silva led in the opinion polls by as much as 30 percent. Recently Cardoso has pulled ahead, with around 40 percent of voters' backing, according to three major polls.
In a Monitor interview, Da Silva conceded that his support has slipped, but said, ``It's only temporary. The race is really beginning now in earnest.''
Cardoso-backers say their candidate has pulled decisively ahead, based on the success of the government's anti-inflation efforts. As finance minister, Cardoso implemented a stringent economic plan that tripled prices of some consumer goods, but stabilized the currency, and has so far halted further inflation.
Brazil's 50 percent inflation in June dropped to 6 percent in July after the plan was enacted. Inflation is expected to run between 1 and 4 percent in August.
Cardoso's chief fund-raiser Luis Bresser, says of Brazil's 12 economic stabilization plans since 1979, ``This is the best one. That is the main reason for Cardoso's massive increase in popular support.''
But some Brazilians remain skeptical. ``Every time there is an election, they have an anti-inflation plan,'' says cab driver Elijho Mendes. ``Then we get big inflation right after the elections.''
Da Silva seeks to capitalize on such sentiments. Basic food supplies for one month now cost the equivalent of $111, says Da Silva aide Tom Thimoteo. But some 30 million people, ``working at the minimum wage earn only $71 per month.''
Employees at a Caterpillar factory 90 miles north of Sao Paulo express almost evenly divided opinions on the two men. One worker opposes Da Silva, saying, ``He has only a fourth-grade education. Cardoso was a university professor.'' He also expresses skepticism about the leftist parties supporting Da Silva's coalition.
The Cardoso campaign seeks to utilize such sentiment, characterizing Da Silva as a captive of ultra-leftists. The Workers' Party and its electoral coalition includes a number of communist parties.
Da Silva's backers call such attacks red-baiting and say that the electoral coalition enjoys a broad base of support. Even his opponents concede that Da Silva has moved toward the political center this year, having moderated a number of militant stands taken during the Workers' Party convention in April.
In the past, the Workers' Party has called for renegotiating Brazil's foreign debt and for eliminating speculative investments by foreigners, which do not produce jobs. But Da Silva says the current government has negotiated a debt-repayment package, and he implies he would not attempt to open up the issue again.
``My new government will change the debate about the debt into a political issue, not an economic one,'' he says. ``I will try to sensitize the foreign governments who have lent us money about the social problems of Brazil.''
The Cardoso campaign is solidly in the free-market camp. As finance minister, Cardoso oversaw negotiations with multinational lending agencies and has promised to balance the federal budget and continue privatizing state-run companies.
Brazil's military and business elite seem prepared to accept the election results, regardless of the outcome.
``We are a mature democracy now,'' says Noemio Spinola, head of Sao Paulo's agricultural commodities exchange. The victor will have his power checked by congressional opposition, he says. Both campaigns say no one will win an absolute majority in the first round of elections and that they expect a tough, two-man runoff election on Nov. 15.