BOGOTA — The crucial question in Brazil's presidential elections, set for Sunday, is whether or not the country will remain the political and economic third way it has become. Will this "alternative socialism" – distinct from various offerings from both the traditional political Right and Left – keep its standing in the world established by the independent foreign policy forged by the PT or Workers Party governments since 2003?
At the heart of the Brazilian alternative is social inclusion. The tallying of its success are by now familiar: some 40 million people have come out of poverty through policies to extend public services to marginal zones and direct aid programs like Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance). Extreme poverty is almost a thing of the past, afflicting less than 1.5% of the population now, as is hunger (the World Food Program has just removed Brazil from its hunger map).
As a result, what was formerly the world's most unequal country has seen the rise of a new middle class of some 200 million people who for the first time, have access to decent jobs and salaries, with average income having grown 87% in the past decade.
Understandably, the great majority of these people will be voting for Dilma Rousseff, especially in formerly neglected regions like northeastern Brazil, comparable in its situation to Chocó in Colombia or Chiapas in southern Mexico. The PT also enjoys the ample backing of about 50% of Brazilians who consider themselves descendants of Africans, and who are finally entering universities thanks to affirmative action programs.
In these and other policies like strengthening public education, the PT has gone against conventional economic recipes of the center-right, whose incarnation is Dilma's opponent, Aécio Neves. It has even managed to add to its recipe measures like the conditional transfer of resources to poor families, something the World Bank used to consider unfeasible but is now actually recommending.
Not like other Latin lefties
Brazil has also become an alternative form of left-wing government in Latin America. It has progressed toward social inclusion without weakening civil liberties, in contrast with Venezuela and Ecuador. It has shown that there is no need to keep a leader in power indefinitely, like in Nicaragua and Bolivia. It has avoided the level of macroeconomic imbalance that has shaken Argentina and Venezuela.
Yet the alternative is showing signs of profound wear and tear, which explains the bitter tone of the campaign. The endemic corruption of the country's fragmented political system, which the PT has fed, requires constitutional reforms.
As elsewhere in the region, the economic model of exporting minerals and raw materials, and the blatant social and environmental damage it causes, are facing rising criticisms. It will soon be time to pay for the debts and inflation derived from a decade's unchecked consumer habits. And the same, empowered middle class has mobilized itself against the state's inefficiency, evident to anyone using the public health service or trying to connect to the Internet.
The Brazilian alternative is half-way to its goals. Let us hope it has time to mature and adjust its course.