Brazil's presidential election on Tuesday was not as free and as open as it could have been. Still, the selection of Trancredo Neves as the nation's first civilian president in 21 years is a crucial first step in a return to democratic government in that important South American country.
For the last two years Brazil's military government had been under pressure to allow all of the country's voters to select their new president. The Brazilian generals were fearful, however, that a popularly elected political leader might turn against them, as Argentina's President Raul Alfonsin did to his country's former military rulers last year. So, despite massive public demonstrations in Brazil's major cities, the generals opted for a presidential vote by an electoral college controlled by pro-military political parties.
But this safe game plan was upset when the pro-military parties nominated a weak, unpopular candidate and opposition parties rallied around Neves, a veteran liberal but pragmatic politician who was nominated by the Brazilian Democratic Movement. On Tuesday many otherwise pro-government electors cast their ballots for Neves. Fortunately, Brazil's new president has gained a reputation during his public career as a politician who can make the system work, and this has reassured the military, whose leaders have pledged not to interfere with his inauguration next March.
The first order of business facing Neves will be working with Brazil's congress to write a new constitution, and he has promised that it will include a provision for the direct election of Brazilian presidents in the future.
But the biggest challenge that Neves will face during his six-year term will be steering Brazil's economy through rough economic waters without running it aground. Brazil is potentially an economic giant, but the country's recent development has been slowed by the burden of a $100-billion foreign debt made even more onerous by high interest rates. Like Mexico, Brazil's new government must work out a repayment strategy that deals with short-term debts while providing enough leeway for future recovery and growth.