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Brazil's Famed Leader Tries to Write Himself a Second Chapter in Power

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There are no campaign signs or TV spots, no barbs from the opposing candidates - and the Constitution doesn't even allow it - but Fernando Henrique Cardoso is running for reelection.

Brazil's popular president is trying to do what Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Argentina's Carlos Menem did before him: buck a continent's institutionalized wariness of dictatorship to strike down a constitutional ban on presidential reelection.

President Cardoso, revered by many for having conquered inflation that once ran at 100 percent a month, will probably get his way. But passing the needed constitutional amendment is proving to be more time-consuming and politicized than he would have liked. The president has threatened recourse to a referendum if Congress doesn't act soon.

Cardoso is getting his wish: A lower-house vote was set to begin Jan. 28, with a less-crucial Senate vote to follow.

Meanwhile, Cardoso's reelection bid, along with rumblings that Presidents Fujimori and Menem would like to change their Constitutions yet again to seek third terms, is stirring a debate throughout Latin American countries that have only recently thrown off the yoke of dictatorship.

Some observers point to President Clinton's reelection in the United States and say Latin American voters deserve the right to pass the same judgment on their presidents. Brazilian polls show about a 3-to-1 majority in favor of reelection, with about 60 percent of voters saying they would vote for Cardoso, whose term ends in 1998.

But others argue strongly that Latin America's democratization process is not yet strong enough - especially in a region that coined the term caudillo, or all-powerful leader - to dispense with the reelection taboo.

"One of Brazil's biggest problems is the faith in personalities rather than institutions," says Claudio Contador, a political analyst in Rio de Janeiro. "It's the idea at the beginning of dictatorships."

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