SAO PAULO, BRAZIL
BEFORE the campaign officially ended Sunday, candidates in Brazil's first presidential election in 29 years had covered the country and drawn some of the largest crowds in its political history. Two million people a week attended election rallies in the final stages of the campaign, according to press reports.
The field of 21 candidates had narrowed to about four principal contenders. And the television personality who stunned the nation by jumping into the fray weeks before the vote and capturing the lead was ruled out of the race.
But despite the lively crowds, frenetic rallies, and campaign surprises, the majority of Brazilians seem to expect little from today's historic vote. Many appear resigned to the idea that their lives will hardly change.
``If the election were to provide a future, it would be good,'' says Josenildo Diniz Silva, a supermarket worker in the poor northeastern city of S'ao Lu'is Do Maranhad. ``There's no way out for Brazil. The country has already lost. It's just going to get worse.''
``The hopeless [poor] are more realistic than the elite, because the space for economic change is very small,'' says political scientist Walder de Goes, of the University of Bras'ilia. ``Very little will change indeed, especially in relation to expectations. The masses want rapid change.''
The country's economic situation is dire. Inflation is running at nearly 40 percent a month. Brazil tops the World Bank's income-gap list: The richest one-fifth of the population owns 33 times the wealth of the poorest 20 percent. The country pays more than $10 billion a year on a $111 billion foreign debt, the third-world's largest.
Most of the presidential candidates promise to reverse this downward slide. But few voters seem to have confidence that any of the politicians has a solution to the persistent problems.
``It's just a change of dog collars,'' says Jos'e Lu'is Pregna, an auto-body worker. ``The country has always been governed by the same people.''
Brazil's economic problems and its lack of experience with democracy have brought its voters to a difficult choice among four frontrunners.
Fernando Collor de Mello, a young and energetic scion of a powerful family, leads the pack with 27 percent in the latest opinion polls. His promise is to clean up government. His only experience is a term as governor of a small poor state, and his policy statements have been vague and Messianic.
Leonel Brizola, a former political exile and governor of Rio de Janeiro, presents himself as a socialist and champion of the poor, but has also provided few clues as to his plans for helping them. Mr. Brizola's popularity is centered in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande Do Sul, two states where he has served as governor. He has 14 percent in the latest opinion polls.
Lu'is Ign'acio da Silva is the candidate of the Workers' Party, which rose out of a Sao Paulo union movement in the 1970s. The party boasts up to 15 percent in the polls. His well-defined socialist platform clearly favors workers over capitalists. Mr. Da Silva recently held office as a federal deputy in Congress.
Support for Mario Cov'as, a center-left moderate, has been growing in the last two weeks. His social democratic platform has so far attracted up to 11 percent of the electorate. Mr. Cov'as, a senator, helped found the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, which last year broke away from President Jos'e Sarney's Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
Some differences in degree and priorities exist among the candidates' approaches in the areas of social needs and the foreign debt, says Mr. Goes.
But the critical economic situation, the complexity of Brazilian politics, the international context, and the spread of liberal economic policy ideas among the elite leave few real choices for the next president, Goes adds.
This is why most political candidates, he says, favor an orthodox economic stabilization program that would cut government spending, privatize state-owned companies, and reduce measures protecting Brazilian industry from imports.
But most political analysts here agree the government must also spend more on the country's huge social problems and get more aggressive on the foreign debt.
Of the country's 82 million registered voters, 75 percent are poor. Nearly 70 percent never finished elementary school.
According to the World Bank, only 44 percent of government spending goes to the 65 percent of the population earning below the minimum wage. Without access to health care, education, unemployment compensation, or adequate housing, Brazil's poor haven't previously thought of themselves as constituents.
A recent study by the independent nonprofit Contemporary Culture Studies Center found that 75 percent of those interviewed agreed that politicians' top priority is either ``to get rich using public funds,'' or ``to help friends and relatives.''
Some 19 percent think a military government is preferable to democracy in some cases, while 22 percent see no difference between dictatorship and democracy.
``I think it would be better if we could have a military government and vote,'' says Mr. Silva, the supermarket worker. ``When they were in power, prices didn't go up every day.''
Pessimism about both politicians and politics has built up over many years. From 1964 to 1985, the military ruled Brazil, closing Congress at whim and appointing state and local officeholders. Opponents were jailed, tortured, killed, or exiled. The press was censored. Before 1964, there were only a few brief periods of democracy. Since 1985, President Sarney - a civilian but not popularly elected - has alienated many Brazilians by failing to curb government waste or tame inflation.
The political system has also developed on the basis of favors. Some Brazilians, fed up with corruption and public waste, want a crusade. ``If I were president, I would get the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force together and I would say, `You will govern with me,' and I would cut out all the councilmen and senators,'' says Mr. Pregna. ``With the money they pay people I would pay the country's foreign debt.''
Yet Brazilian politics are changing. The new Constitution gives greater power to Congress and local government, making politicians more accountable. And many Brazilians are beginning to demand more from their elected representatives. The new president elected in the second round of voting on Dec. 17 will surely note that change.