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Brazil’s election: politics and personalities


Brazil’s election: politics and personalities

by Leslie Bethell*

On 3 October 2010, more than 100 million Brazilians will vote in Brazil’s sixth presidential election since the end of the twenty-one-year military dictatorship in 1985  – all of them free, fair and, for the first time in Brazilian history, based on universal suffrage. The 2010 election will be notable for the fact that it is the first of the six not contested by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the candidate of the Partido dos Trabalhadores [Workers’ Party / PT].

 Lula lost to Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989 and Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994 and 1998, but increased his share of the vote from 17% in 1989 to 27% in 1994 and 32% in 1998. He was finally elected president, at the fourth attempt, in October 2002. The election of a candidate of the left (although Lula was never strictly speaking a man of the left, ideologically at least, and the PT had abandoned the label “socialist” before the elections) is seen as representing an important landmark in the consolidation of democracy in Brazil. 

Overwhelming support of the poor

Lula was re-elected in October 2006, but with a radically different political and social base. He may actually have lost in the more developed south and southeast, including São Paulo, but Lula – though not, significantly, the PT – secured for the first time the overwhelming support of the very poor, and poorly educated, sections of society, heavily concentrated in Brazil’s north and northeast. 

Three months into the fourth and final year of his second term Lula has in all the major Brazilian opinion polls (Datafolha, Ibope, CNT/Sensus) an astonishing approval-rate (75%-80% – and 85% in the northeast), as well as an extremely high international profile (President Barack Obama has addressed  him jocularly as “the man” [o cara] and “the most popular politician in the world”).

Lula’s popularity can be explained in part by his personal history, and his extraordinary personal charisma and empathy with people, especially the poor. Indeed, the story is remarkable: the seventh of eight surviving children of a poverty-stricken rural family from the interior of Pernambuco in the northeast, with only four years of primary-school education, a former metal-worker and leader of the metalworkers’ union of São Bernardo do Campo in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, and one of the founders of the PT in 1980.

Economic growth

But Lula owes his esteem also to the results of Brazil’s steady economic growth in the first six years of his administration, combined with the macroeconomic stability inherited – and maintained – from the previous Cardoso administration. These have delivered higher levels of employment and higher real wages, a significant reduction of poverty and social inequality, and some modest distribution of wealth (mainly through conditional cash-transfer schemes, notably the bolsa família received by 11 million families [35 million Brazilians]). More recently, Brazil has survived the financial and economic crisis of 2008-09 better than most countries. 

 The succession

There was considerable discussion throughout 2009 about whether Brazil’s constitution could and would be changed to allow Lula to run for a third term in 2010. Although almost certain to win if he did run, he finally resisted the temptation and firmly ruled it out – a decision many regard as further evidence of the maturity of Brazilian democracy.

However, while not himself a candidate, Lula has gone to extraordinary lengths actively to promote, often in breach of the electoral law, his personally chosen successor Dilma Rousseff. More than one commentator has compared Lula’s imposition of Dilma – whom the PT, with some reluctance and some dissent, finally accepted as its candidate in February 2010 – to the famous dedazo of Mexican presidents during the period of PRI domination. 

Dilma, it has to be said, is a very problematic candidate. In the first place, she is not a historic petista. An ex-urban guerrilla during the military dictatorship, she was for twenty years an active member of the populist Partido Democratico Trabalhista [Democratic Labour Party / PDT] and joined the PT only in 2000. She did, however, serve in the PT-led state government of Rio Grande do Sul as secretary of energy; in the first Lula administration as minister of mines and energy; and in the second as head of the Casa Civil (i.e. the president’s chief-of-staff).

Dilma Rousseff is a 62-year-old technocrat, somewhat lacking in charisma and abrasively authoritarian in manner (though currently undergoing a major makeover), who has never before contested an election.  Moreover, in April 2009 she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer – a condition of which she has since been pronounced “cured”. This is not a subject much discussed in the media, but there remain doubts as to whether she is fit enough to undertake the rigours of a presidential campaign, and potentially assume the presidency in January 2011.

Lula’s initial choice of, and continued support for, Dilma is an indication of the generally poor quality of PT ministers and PT leadership in congress and the paucity of PT politicians with experience as state governors – as well as the extent to which the president has distanced himself from his own party in recent years. 

The big political question is: can Lula transfer his immense popularity and the popularity of his government (which has 70% approval) to Dilma? He is working hard at it, with full media exposure, linking her on every possible occasion to the administration’s key strategic plans: the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento [Programme of Accelerated Economic Growth / PAC], with its massive infrastructural investment; expenditure on social programmes, especially the bolsa família; and the nationalist sentiments surrounding the discovery of offshore pre-sal oil (Brazil’s “passport to the future).

There are some signs that Lula’s promotion is beginning to work. Dilma’s opinion-poll ratings have risen from below 10% to around 30%.  

Lula would like the 2010 election to be a plebiscitary election: for or against him (and his chosen candidate), for or against nosso projeto [our project], for or against the people [o povo], for Lula’s record against that of his predecessor “FHC”. It will also be “the economy, stupid”, and social justice. 

But Dilma will have to do more than simply identify herself with Lula and his legacy, delivering in effect um terceiro mandato de Lula [a third Lula mandate] – and keeping the seat warm for Lula’s return in 2014. To win, she must make herself more appealing than she has so far to the mass of Brazilians and present a programme for government post-Lula. She will need, as did Lula, the support of the small parties: of the left and the right, but above all the centre – especially the Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (PMDB). This is  the biggest party in Brazil (in number of federal deputies, senators, governors, state deputies, mayors and local councillors); it has not fielded a candidate for the presidency since 1994 but it plays a decisive [25] role in elections – and in government. 

The opposition

The consideration of the opposition’s chances starts with the centre/centre-left Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira [26] (PSDB), the so-called tucanos. Every presidential election since 1994 has come down to the PT (Lula) vs the PSDB (Cardoso in 1994 and 1998, José Serra in 2002, Geraldo Alckmin in 2006) – significantly, all of them, including Lula, from São Paulo. 

There were two strong candidates for becoming the PSDB presidential candidate for 2010 —  the governors of Brazil’s two most important states (by size of economy, population and electorate). Both are high-profile figures. The 68-year-old José Serra is a senator, minister under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (especially successful at health), a defeated presidential candidate in 2002, elected mayor of São Paulo in 2004, governor of São Paulo since 2007. The 49-year-old Aécio Neves is the grandson of former president Tancredo Neves, who had been governor of Minas Gerais and was one of the leading figures in the transfer from military to civilian power in 1985; Aécio himself has been governor of Minas Gerais since 2003.

Serra is well known, experienced and recognised as a competent minister and mayor/governor of São Paulo, but like Dilma seen as lacking charisma and the common touch (despite an Italian immigrant family background almost as poor as Lula’s). Aécio Neves is by far the most successful and popular of Brazil’s state governors, and he is not a paulista. But he has something of a reputation (deserved or not) as a less than serious politician; and he so far lacks a national profile. 

After a good deal of speculation that Serra would in the end not run, the PSDB finally announced [30] that he will be its candidate; on 31 March 2010 he stepped down as governor of São Paulo. If it is to win, the PSDB will need to be united, with the solid support of both São Paulo and Minas Gerais. (Aécio’s role is crucial here, whether or not he finally agrees to be Serra’s vice-presidential candidate as many would wish.) It will also need the continued support of the centre-right DEMs (Democratas, until March 2007 the PFL Partido da Frente Liberal [31]) and the PPS (Partido Popular Socialista [32], the former Communist Party), and some support from at least part of the PMDB. The pro-Serra stances already adopted (for different reasons) by Orestes Quércia, former governor of São Paulo, and Jarbas Vasconcellos, senator and former governor of Pernambuco, are interesting in this respect. 

But the central problem for Serra is how to design an election strategy to deal with the Lula phenomenon. It cannot be an appeal to a desire for a change (which certainly helped Lula in 2002 after eight years of FHC), a mere alternation of power, since most Brazilians do not seem to want change. So it has to be a proposal to move beyond Lula, to do even more than Lula in terms of economic growth and poverty reduction (and it should be remembered that Serra has always been regarded as more “leftist”, more “developmentalist” than most tucanos), and to do it more competently – certainly more competently than Dilma, who lacks Serra’s executive experience. Dilma is not Lula, as Serra will no doubt point out at every opportunity.

The highlighting of corruption and of Lula’s close relations with some of the more unsavoury elements of the old regional “oligarchies” will not resonate with most of the electorate, especially the poor, but there could be a political dividend in pointing to the abysmal state of primary and secondary education in Brazil (especially compared to Brazil’s principal competitors). Serra also needs a programme for government that includes the fundamental tax, labour, pension, political and other reforms that Lula´s supposedly “transformational” administration failed to introduce and fresh ideas for dealing with organised crime and guaranteeing citizen security in Brazil’s major cities. 

The prospect 

Dilma and Serra will not be the only presidential candidates. A dozen minor party candidates will be largely irrelevant. But, if he stands (and this is still not certain), Ciro Gomes of the PSB (Partido Socialista Brasileiro [38]) – but don’t be misled – will play a significant role. As the candidate of the PPS, he came third in 1998 and fourth in 2002, each time with 11%-12% of the vote. Marina Silva [39] too will be a player; she was until Lula’s minister for the environment, and is the candidate of the Partido Verde [Green Party]. Both Ciro and Marina can take votes from Dilma and Serra, and if it comes to a second round (on 31 October) their votes become crucial.  

It’s important to recall that on 3 October 2010 there are also elections for governorships in Brazil’s twenty-six states and the federal district; for congress (513 federal deputies in the chamber of deputies, and fifty-four senators [two-thirds of the whole]); and for 1,057 state deputies in the state assemblies. Here, no dramatic change is expected. The governorships will be shared between half a dozen parties. There is likely to be a further consolidation of the three or four big parties in Congress: the PMDB, PT, PSDB, and perhaps DEMs, each with sixty-five to eighty-five seats in the chamber and ten to twenty seats in the senate, plus six parties with twenty to forty seats in the chamber and up to five seats in the senate.   

But attention, especially international attention, will be focused on the presidential race: Dilma vs Serra. Most opinion-polls have for more than two years given Serra a huge lead (40%-45%) over all other potential presidential candidates. But as Dilma has risen in the polls in recent months, Serra’s support has declined to nearer 35%. He remains ahead in all regions except the northeast and, interestingly, ahead among women voters. And, unlike Dilma, he has only just begun his campaign – with Aécio, it seems, fully on board. The first poll since the official start of his campaign, published by Datafolha on 17 April – puts him ahead of Dilma by 38% to 28%. 

At the moment, therefore, the election is still Serra’s to lose. But there are six months to go. Lula’s influence on the final outcome cannot be underestimated: because of his huge personal popularity, and his use of the government máquina in favour of his still less-than-convincing chosen successor.  

*Leslie Bethell is emeritus professor of Latin American history, University of London; emeritus fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; honorary research fellow, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London; senior research associate, Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil, Fundação Getulio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro; and senior scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC. 

He was the founding director of the Centre for Brazilian Studies [54] (1997-2007) at the University of Oxford. The final volume of his twelve-volume Cambridge History of Latin Ameria – Vol 9, Brazil since 1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1984 – ) was published in 2008. He is currently living in Rio de Janeiro.

This article was first published in OpenDemocracy’s-election-year-politics-and-personalities


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