Political influence growing for Evangelicals in Brazil

Luis Inacio da Silva is expected to become president in Sunday's second-round vote.

He's almost sure to win the presidency. So, Worker's Party (PT) candidate Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva is now concentrating on preparing for what comes next: governing.

Lula – currently polling at 61 percent versus 30 percent for his opponent, Jose Serra, ahead of Sunday's runoff – is preparing for life as only the third democratically elected president since the end of Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship in 1985.

The former union leader and three-time presidential runner-up is trying to form the alliances he will rely on if he is to get through Congress the social and tax reforms that are crucial if this continent-sized nation of 175 million people is to remain an island of relative stability in a troubled region. Crucial to that strategy will be wooing an increasingly powerful segment of this largely Catholic nation: Evangelical Protestants.

Evangelicals are overwhelmingly poor and conservative, but with the help of their radio stations, newspaper, and their preachers, they have organized the faithful into a powerful voting bloc.

Both presidential candidates have courted the movement looking for endorsements. With some 15 percent of Brazilians defining themselves as Evangelical their votes are increasingly coveted.

"They will grow because they have introduced a new variable into politics and are now seen as a force the candidates and parties will fight over," says Regina Novaes, a researcher of the Evangelical movement at Rio's Institute of Religious Studies. "They will have influence."

Evangelicals elected to office here – they now have 48 members in the 513-member House and four members in the 81-seat Senate – have promised to combat any breach of what they consider the word of God, and have vowed to oppose any attempt to legalize abortion, the death penalty, or homosexual unions. The Evangelical lobby in Congress now has enough bargaining power to ensure such laws are not passed and that will be their priority over the coming four-year term, leading Evangelists say.

"These laws have to go through Congress and with almost 60 Evangelicals, that type of law is not going to be approved," says Bishop Carlos Rodrigues, a deputy with the Liberal Party and leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the most influential Evangelical churches.

But while those issues are critical, they are not the only ones that matter to Evangelical voters. Many say resolving social issues is equally important and several say they would vote for non-Evangelical candidates dedicated to reducing poverty, crime, and unemployment before supporting Evangelical candidates who focused solely on faith-based issues.

"I expect Evangelical candidates to do things not for themselves, but to put society and other people first," says Carmen Freire, an Evangelical in the Rio suburb of Nova Iguacu. "I think politicians need to be more sensitive ... and less corrupt."

Evangelical leaders are split over whom to endorse in next Sunday's election. Mr. Serra – more conservative but represent the current government that Evangelicals say has done little to reduce the income disparities between rich and poor – or Lula, a candidate whose welcome promises of social change are tempered by the fear he may defend same sex-unions and other liberal issues.

So far, Serra has won the backing of the Assemblies of God, Brazil's biggest Evangelical church. Lula, meanwhile, has won the endorsement of Anthony Garotinho, the Evangelical former governor of Rio who got almost 18 percent of the presidential votes in the first round on Oct. 6.

That the two candidates have so vigorously pursued the Evangelicals shows how potentially influential they can be, experts say. Religious leaders say that influence will not diminish any time soon.

"It is the Evangelicals who decide elections in this country," says Joao Nunes dos Santos, the pastor at the Assemblies of God Evangelical church in the Rio suburb or Nova Iguacu. "We are on our way to taking power."

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