Brazil`s burgeoning middle class divided ahead of poll

Tens of millions of Brazilians have swelled the middle class over the past decade, benefiting from an economic boom and the social inclusion policies of President Dilma Rousseff`s Workers Party.

Sao Paulo: Tens of millions of Brazilians have swelled the middle class over the past decade, benefiting from an economic boom and the social inclusion policies of President Dilma Rousseff`s Workers Party.

But, with the economy now having fallen into recession, it is unclear whether they will vote for the status quo in Sunday`s election.

Rousseff continued her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva`s welfare programs, which targeted the poorest classes, reduced extreme poverty and widened access to consumer credit.

With a monthly salary of between 900 to 1600 dollars, the middle class today accounts for 100 million Brazilians, half of the population of this Latin American giant and about 60 percent of the electorate.

In all, 40 million have joined the middle class since Lula first took office twelve years ago.The shop windows of a luxurious mall in Sao Paulo are stocked with all manner of items, from a pair of shoes to a fridge to a holiday weekend, all payable by credit in installments.

"It`s incredible how Lula improved our lives. We have access to so many more things," says Daniel Alves, a 33-year-old bank employee, browsing the shop windows.

"Before, a family would keep the same car for more than 20 years. Now, a car we bought five years ago seems old to us."

Daniel has always voted for the PT but this time he`s opting for Lula`s former environment minister Marina Silva, now standing on the opposition Socialist Party ticket and lying just behind Rousseff in the opinion polls.

"Brazil needs to return to growth and attract investment. We need change," he says.

Following strong growth during the Lula years, the world`s seventh largest economy has slowed significantly under Rousseff.

Rising inflation has cut the average consumer`s spending power and interest rates increased.

Many indebted families are still paying regular installments for their first television or family car.

To make matters worse, the economy entered recession in late August.

Rousseff`s main rivals, Silva and Social Democrat Aecio Neves, slam the government`s economic performance and say they would deliver lower inflation and interest rates.Above all else, the middle class is demanding better public services, echoing the mass protests of 2013 which called for improvements in healthcare, education, and public transport.

"It`s a segment of the population that has had access to greater consumption and to education, whose lifestyle was greatly improved and continued to improve, at least up to the beginning of the Rousseff administration," Mauro Paulino, director of the research institute Datafolha, told AFP.

"Now, their situation has stagnated and they`re divided between gratitude for Lula and the desire to move on up the ladder. Their vote will mirror this hesitation," Paulino forecast.

Cida Alves, 46-year-old visitor to the mall, complains: "Our life has improved, without a doubt. But public healthcare is terrible, you never get treated quickly."

She believes, all the same, that "the PT deserves another chance."

Rousseff has been defending her corner by saying that if she is not re-elected much of the social progress delivered by her party will be lost.

Social policies such as the Bolsa Familia, which provides payments for low-income families provided they send their children to school, the regulation of underground labor markets and the more widespread entrance of women into the workplace have all contributed to the growth of the middle class.

"The middle class vote isn`t ideological but pragmatic," says Renato Meirelles, president of the research institute Data Popular.

He suggests younger voters might more easily lay blame for current economic woes at the PT`s door than older voters as they may forget about the party`s role in reducing poverty.

"The older generation has a sense of gratitude," he told AFP. "But the younger voters don`t have this memory and don`t know how Brazil was before."


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