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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
Letter: Sao Paulo's balancing act
Sao Paulo skyline
Sao Paulo is Brazil's biggest city
The Letter comes from the largest city in Brazil - chaotic, gridlocked Sao Paulo, where a sprawling and unwieldy election campaign is under way.

Adhemar Altieri leads us through some of the intricacies of a country where voting is mandatory, and a city where they once elected a rhinoceros as mayor.

Staying on the move in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, is no easy task.

But the guys on motorbikes manage to do it. A Sao Paulo trademark, they're known as "motoboys".

Tens of thousands of them whizz across the city at top speed every day delivering parcels, documents - anything that has to get someplace quickly and is small enough to fit in their backpacks.

How do they move quickly in a sea of traffic?

After all, Sao Paulo is a place where gridlock isn't just a word - traffic jams over a hundred kilometres long are not uncommon.

They do it quite simply by riding at full speed between the lines of cars.

This often means sore knees, elbows and even foreheads as motoboys sideswipe cars and take out sideview mirrors as they go by.

Hundreds of these low-income road warriors are involved in accidents every day and many don't just end up in pain.

An average of one motoboy dies in Sao Paulo each day.

Road rage

Hovering high above are those with hefty enough bank accounts to keep their distance from all this.

The number of helicopters in use in Sao Paulo is second only to New York and there's hardly an office block in town without a helipad these days.

Traffic in Sao Paulo
Traffic jams over a hundred kilometres long are not uncommon in Sao Paulo
Traffic is easily one of the biggest complaints you hear from the people of Sao Paulo.

They're fed up and you can't blame them.

It's gotten so you can't promise to be on time for anything during the day.

No wonder dinnertime in Sao Paulo is usually around 8 pm - that's when most people manage to make it home from work.

Is anyone even trying to do something about it?

If anybody does have a solution for mega-traffic now is the time to speak up because it's election time in Sao Paulo.

Nationwide municipal elections are set for October, so campaigns are in full swing throughout Brazil.

Is democracy working?

Sao Paulo is one of the biggest urban sprawls on the planet.

It's the largest and richest city in Brazil - capital of the wealthiest state in the country.

About 18 million people live in this bustling concrete jungle.

And elections have once again become routine since the last military dictatorship came to an end in the 1980s.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazilian President
Lula's victory put the left in power for the first time in more that 40 years

Which is great - except that it's not really clear what democracy has achieved here.

Look around Sao Paulo, and the question becomes: What have this city's elected officials been up to for the past two decades?

Massive, cluttered Sao Paulo is a tribute to poor planning and lack of discipline, with pockets of sanity here and there.

For example, the street system - or lack of it. Streets often change names halfway along.

Most residents, when asked, have no idea which way is north or south.

Novel solutions

As with most of Brazil, social extremes provide sharp contrasts.

Shantytowns built out of cardboard and scraps of wood where there's no sanitation or running water fill the spaces between the smarter neighbourhoods.

They look like they belong in an American suburb complete with a Blockbuster video store, a McDonald's and a mall with a Paramount movieplex.

The way the city has been thrown together is most visible in the unorthodox solutions adopted to ensure some level of traffic flow.

Sao Paulo slum area
Slums are squeezed in between smarter areas

Elevated freeways and overpasses for example are often squeezed so close to buildings that you can tell from your car what people are watching on television in their apartments.

City services are mostly below par.

But the current city administration has at least come up with a new take on education.

It's building better-equipped schools, with swimming pools and sports facilities - that double as community centres and stay open in the evenings and weekends.

They've been given a lovely name: Ceus, a word that means heaven in Portuguese.

The trouble is there aren't enough of them.

Critics have jumped on this fact, with lines like: "Ten percent of students get heaven while 90% study in hell".

Competitive politics

So there's no lack of local issues in Sao Paulo.

And yet, this year as in other election years it seems the city's endless to-do list will again be overlooked.

Because often, the mayor of Sao Paulo has ambitions that reach far beyond this one city.

Many see the job as a springboard for a much bigger job in Brazilian politics.

And this year, there's an added ingredient that makes it an even nastier struggle.

Marta Suplicy
The current mayor of Sao Paulo - Marta Suplicy - is a member of Lula's party
The incumbent mayor, who's seeking re-election, is a member of the same party as Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Winning in Sao Paulo is considered vital for Lula's own ambition to seek re-election in 2006.

Brazil's media are using an interesting term to describe the scenario.

They say the campaign in Sao Paulo is being "federalised".

So it's hard to imagine the main candidates actually thinking about issues like Sao Paulo's chaotic traffic situation, or any other big city problems for that matter.

Like other elections before it, this one is not likely to bring much relief.

Voting frenzy

When the healthy habit of voting returned to Brazil in the 1980s, systemic problems that existed even before the military took power re-emerged.

Self-serving politicians added a few more quirks over the years, and now you've got a real life electoral Frankenstein.

Compare some of what voters must contend with in Brazil to the last time you voted.

For start, in Brazil, voting is mandatory. You have to vote.

If you don't you could be fined and you won't be able to do things like get a passport or start a business until you explain why you didn't show.

Another thing, there are no voting districts.

A candidate for city council can gather votes anywhere in the city.

With more than 30 political parties active in Brazil, in a city like Sao Paulo you end up with literally thousands of candidates for council.

Comic relief

Nicknames are used because they're easier to remember than the long and complicated names many Brazilians are blessed with.

And they do provide some comic relief.

Every election produces a memorable collection of strange and weird characters seeking office.

This year's crop includes Sparky Birdcage Newton, who happens to own a pet shop, and Jerked Beef Round Reggie because of his rotund physical appearance.

Biscuit Tony sells cookies and there's even a Madonna running for council. And then there's Rubinho.

Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello
Rubens Barrichello might pick up the odd vote amid the confusion

His actual name is Rubens - just like the Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello, who is very well known in Brazil - and, well, you might pick up the odd vote from someone who likes Barrichello and wonders if he quit racing to go into politics.

Each candidate is also assigned a number.

And the numbers are a story in themselves.

Nice round numbers with lots of zeros, easy to memorise, usually belong to big name candidates.

Messy numbers with no pattern, harder to memorise, generally belong to newcomers, or small fish in the political pond.

Informed choice?

As they attempt to understand what candidates for the city council stand for and make an educated selection, voters get little help from the news media, because there are restrictions on election coverage.

It's not meant to be censorship, more like an effort to ensure balance.

The key aspect of the law is that it imposes equal airtime for competing candidates.

So a candidate cannot be interviewed on air unless all the other contenders are also heard, and given an equal amount of airtime.

Airing one candidate in a news programme and not all the others means a stiff fine for the offending station.

It's impossible to comply with this requirement when thousands of candidates are involved.

So stations simply stay away from coverage of council elections, and concentrate on the contest to be mayor - where the numbers are more manageable.

Candidates actually don't mind this, because Brazilian law also ensures free airtime for political advertising.

There are two one-hour slots every day for this purpose.

Which is a great deal for politicians, who can say what they like and don't have to put up with probing questions from reporters.

Voting online

The supreme irony amid all this is that Brazil has one of the most sophisticated state-of-the-art computerised voting systems in the world.

There's a small terminal in each voting booth and voters simply punch in a candidate's number and then press the confirm button.

Once that's done the vote is cast, and since voting terminals are online, vote counting is very quick.

Even in national elections, with 80 or 90 million people voting, Brazilians know the results before they go to bed.

Laptop computer symbolising online voting
Brazil has one of the most sophisticated voting systems in the world
The system is a good one, and Brazilians know it.

As I'm sure you can imagine, there were more than a few snickers here back in 2000 with the George W Bush-Al Gore fiasco in Florida.

Voting terminals put an end to paper ballots, and that also eliminated one of Brazil's more colourful election traditions.

Protest votes, or written messages on the ballots are gone now.

Writing a nasty comment, or voting for a television actor or football star was one way people reacted to being forced to vote if they didn't like their options.

Political reform

There was a famous episode in the 1950s when the voters of Sao Paulo rallied en masse to vote for Cacareco, the rhinoceros at the Sao Paulo zoo.

It's widely believed that he actually won, but officials made sure that the actual voting figures stayed under wraps.

Cacareco even went on to inspire the foundation of the Rhinoceros Party in Canada.

For three decades, it offered voters who didn't like the system an alternative choice.
A dealer at the Bovespa exchange in Sao Paulo
Economic fears are making people more aware of their vote

So given the mess, are there any serious attempts to remedy the situation?

Well, people have been tabling proposals for reform since the early 1990s but only a handful of politicians pursue this with any real energy.

There's so much that needs doing in Brazil that it's easy to push another priority to the top of the agenda and shove aside political reform yet again.

But a study released just recently says voters are becoming more aware of the importance of their decisions at election time, and are identifying the system itself as a problem.

Economic crisis

And what's making them more aware is their finances.

The last few years have been marked by falling income levels, at the same time that galloping inflation has been controlled.

That combination has made Brazilians painfully aware of how much less they can do with their money.

That's making voters far more demanding and sceptical when it comes to politicians, their promises and especially their methods at election time.

As it stands, this is an electoral system where money talks.

The bigger the campaign, the more votes you gather, and the better your chances.

Mandatory voting is also a huge factor.

One can only wonder what would happen to Brazilian politics if candidates were forced to address only people who choose to vote.

With voters waking up and smelling the coffee, awareness can easily become pressure and Brazil's politicians might soon have to give up their sheltered routine and submit, at last, to some real scrutiny.

In fact, the pressure is already building.

There's a button on those wonderfully precise and efficient voting terminals the government doesn't like to talk about.

Protest votes

Right beside the confirm button is the blank button.

Press that one, and you vote for nobody.

It's not nearly as satisfying as writing a piece of your mind on a paper ballot but it does the job.

There are websites in Brazil these days, promoting the virtues of voting blank or - if you want it to look more premeditated - entering a non-existent number which doesn't belong to any candidate.

Do that, press confirm and your vote is null and void.

Last time about some 5% of voters chose to do nothing with their vote.

The question is: how many more blank votes will it take before politicians get the message and begin to seriously consider political reform?

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada and the United States. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent 10 years with CBS News reporting from Canada and Brazil.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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