With a raspy voice that could all but wake the dead, the Brazilian horror movie producer Coffin Joe implores television viewers to elect him to Sao Paulo's city council.

Dressed in black with a top hat, cloak and beard, he relies on TV time paid for by the government to attract voters.

The 68-year-old actor has no political experience.

But taking advantage of election laws, he and other political neophytes are likely to win many of the city council and mayoral seats being contested in more than 5,500 cities nationwide on Sunday. He represents the obscure Christian Workers' Party.

"I am the top dog of my party. I joined it because I would not have to toe the party line," he said. "I need to get only half the votes my competitors from big parties need to win."

Brazil became one of the world's largest democracies when it returned to civilian rule two decades ago. Efforts to build a mass democracy were embedded in the 1988 constitution.

It guarantees candidates from even the tiniest parties free TV time. There is no district voting. Members of small parties need fewer votes to win election than those from larger ones. The rules perversely encourage party proliferation where there are already dozens. Consensus-building suffers.

The result: Brazilians long repressed by dictatorship have turned their country into a colorful, if not chaotic, caldron of ideas. Politics are at their most outrageous and democratic, for better or for worse, at the local level.

Katia Tapety, a transvestite whose legal name is Jose, is running for vice mayor in Colonia de Piaui, a poor town in Brazil's northeastern desert. She is serving her third term as a city council member from the Socialist People's Party.

In the state of Minas Gerais, a dwarf known as Anao do Pedrao is running for city council, O Globo newspaper reported. His slogan? "The tiniest of the bad choices out there."

Being different has proved to be an asset in Brazilian politics. Voters are legally obliged to vote and often cynically cast votes for oddballs in protest.

Eneas Carneiro of the Party for the Restoration of National Order captured 1.5 million votes in 2002, the most of any candidate, when he ran for Brazil's lower house.

People found the 64-year-old balding cardiologist, with his thick glasses and long black beard, amusing as he shouted his name on TV.

Joke voting has its costs, though. Thanks to Brazil's system that awards seats on the basis of total votes for a party, Eneas brought along five of his cronies, one of whom gained just 275 votes.

Comedians spoof candidates' outrageous ideas. The nightly satirical TV show "Casseta & Planeta" created a candidate from the Brazilian Computer Graphics Party who developed a computer program to prettify the appearance of hundreds of shantytowns ringing Rio de Janeiro.

Despite all the democracy, or perhaps because of it, Brazil has struggled to pass reforms enforcing party discipline and impeding the formation of new parties.

A bill this year to cut the number of city council members to save millions of dollars in public funds was watered down by a National Congress fearing it would weaken local political machines.

Establishing consensus is difficult in a country of continental proportions, vast disparities in wealth and one of the highest ratios of elected officials to citizens in the world.

Still, democracy is consolidating at the federal level, even as local politics get stranger. The 2002 election marked the first transition between two democratically elected presidents since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship.

"National politics are maturing, but the local races are becoming tackier," Helio de la Pena, a writer and actor for "Casseta & Planeta." "They are like no-holds-barred professional wrestling."