Split Over Sarney a Threat to Unity of Brazilian Party

Times Staff Writer

Brazil's biggest political party, once firmly united against military rule, is breaking up in stormy controversy over its relationship with President Jose Sarney and his unpopular administration.

The troubles in the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, or PMDB, reflect a panorama of political confusion in Brazil as the largest country in Latin America moves toward full democracy. Sarney's successor is to be chosen late next year in the country's first direct presidential election since 1960.

Sarney is a member of the PMDB, but party leaders have been unable to agree on whether to support him, and an opposition faction bolted the party in June to form a major new party, the Social Democrats. Further splintering is feared as "moderate" and "progressive" wings prepare for a confrontation at the party convention in August.

Direct Vote Drive

In the early 1980s, the PMDB led a campaign to restore direct presidential elections after years of military rule. There has been no such election, but in 1985 the PMDB won a presidential election in the electoral college. Sarney was its candidate for vice president, and when President-elect Tancredo Neves died before he could take office, Sarney became president.

Under Sarney, the economy improved, but when the economic bubble burst and inflation soared, Sarney's popularity plummeted. He gave up any hope of getting the unified support of his party and nurtured a congressional alliance of the center-right, the so-called Big Center, which brought together members of the PMDB, the Liberal Front and the previously pro-military Social Democrats.

The crucial test for the Big Center was a vote last month by the Congress, acting as a constitutional convention, on how long Sarney's transitional government would last. The left wing of the PMDB wanted elections late this year, but the Big Center prevailed, adopting a constitutional provision setting elections for November, 1989, and keeping Sarney in office until March, 1990.

That split the PMDB, however. Its left wing withdrew to form the Brazilian Social Democracy Party and took with it nearly 50 of the party's deputies and senators.

Sarney's Negative Aura

In next year's presidential election, the new party will lack the considerable advantage of government power and resources to bolster its campaign. But its candidates will not be saddled with the negative aura that has grown around Sarney.

Among those who bolted the PMDB is Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was the party leader in the Senate, and Mario Covas, the party's leader in the constitutional convention. Covas is expected to be the new party's candidate for president.

A leading presidential contender for the PMDB is Ulisses Guimaraes, the party chairman. But Leonel Brizola, a firebrand politician with no present party affiliation, is widely regarded as the man to beat. He organized the left-wing Democratic Labor Party and was a brother-in-law of the late President Joao Goulart, whose left-leaning administration was overthrown by the military in 1964.

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