Brazil’s big election: Dilma vs José

Brazil's presidential election is moving to a climax. A victory for the favourite candidate Dilma Rousseff would also be President Lula's, says Arthur Ituassu in Rio de Janeiro.
Arthur Ituassu
14 September 2010

Brazil’s nationwide elections on 3 October 2010 will see more than 130 million voters choose a president to succeed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as well as governors, fifty-four (of eighty-one) senators, 513 members of the national legislature, and more than 1,000 state representatives. But this year’s election is important for more than its size: for it will be the first since democracy was re-established in Brazil after two decades of military rule (which ended in 1985), and the first time since 1989 that voters will not have Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as an option to vote for. All in all, this is one of the biggest celebrations of democracy in the world.

But even if Lula is officially out of the contest, the departing two-term president is not out of the game. Very much to the contrary: after eight years in office, with almost 80% of Brazilians rating him as a “good” or “excellent” president, Lula’s enormous legacy will transcend the particular acts of his government and substantially mark the Brazilian political scene for the next decade and even more (see "Brazil's new political identity", 2 November 2009).

The first and most direct political manifestation of this legacy is almost certain to be the election of his favoured candidate Dilma Rousseff to the Brazilian presidency. Rousseff, like Lula himself a long-term militant of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party / PT), is in current opinion-polls running twenty points ahead of her main adversary, the experienced José Serra (who represents the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party / PSDB).

Dilma Rousseff’s approximately 50%-30% lead over José Serra will, if spoiled or blank votes are excluded, ensure this daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant a first-round victory in what will be the first election she has ever fought; this, moreover, against a candidate who has been governor of São Paulo; federal representative of São Paulo state in the Brazilian congress; mayor of the city of São Paulo; and successively minister of planning and health in Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government (1995-2002).

The candidate

Dilma herself would agree that she owns her (probable) election mainly to Lula's political charisma and promotion. But other factors underlie her candidacy. In particular, a major series of corruption scandals in 2005 - the so-called mensalão - led to Lula’s enforced sacking of his chief-of-staff José Dirceu and finance minister Antonio Palocci, both of whom were leading figures in the race to succeed him (see "A big mess in Brazil", 16 June 2005). This created the opportunity for Lula to choose a candidate who could sustain a challenge to the then most likely rival: the popular Minas Gerais governor Aécio Neves, also of the PSDB.

Here, the president's judgment of how politics work in the federal context was perfect. Both before and after the military regime, and within Brazil’s modern democratic context, three states - São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul - have historically competed for control of the government in Brasília. Before the coup d'état in 1964, an alliance of Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul had kept São Paulo - the richest and most populous of the three - out of power by for almost thirty years (with the exception of the nine months of Jânio Quadros's presidency in 1961). But after the dictatorship and the transitional government of Itamar Franco, a very powerful politician from Minas Gerais, the paulistas have secured a hold on government for sixteen years, with the consecutive two-term presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and of Lula himself.

The loss of José Dirceu and Antonio Palocci meant that two strong politicians from São Paulo were unexpectedly out of the running (Dirceu was born in Minas, but his entire political career had been built in São Paulo). In this context, Lula knew that yet another candidate from São Paulo would be likely to provoke a negative nationwide reaction - in part because the paulistas are seen in various Brazilian regions as “ethnocentric” (even where people don't know what this word really means).

The president, given a free choice, nominated Dilma Rousseff - then minister of energy - as his new chief-of-staff and probable successor. In the context of this regional rivalry, Dilma had the inestimable value of having been born in Rio Grande do Sul and raised in Minas Gerais! At the time, she was scarcely known to the Brazilian public, had never contested an election, had little in the way of a political identity - and thus was able to acquire some of Lula’s enormous political capital and grow her own under his shadow (see Leslie Bethell, "Brazil's election: politics and personalities", 16 April 2010).

The fact that Dilma Rousseff is a woman both gives her added recognition and links her “novelty” very strongly to Lula's own political identity as a changemaker in Brazil. If she wins, she will become Brazil’s first woman president. But, most of all, Dilma was the perfect choice to face the candidate Lula feared the most: Aécio Neves of Minas Gerais. It is not by chance that Dilma has said more than once during this campaign that though her heart is in Rio Grande do Sul, her thoughts come from Minas Gerais.    

The choice

What happened then within the PSDB made Lula’s promotion of Dilma Rousseff seem not merely artful but touched by grace. The party made the huge mistake of deciding its presidential candidate in a closed and elitist meeting in São Paulo, and even more by choosing a paulista (José Serra) against a mineiro (Aécio Neves). The result and the way of reaching it exposed both the paulistas' hegemonic behaviour and the divisions within the PSDB.

In addition, this was a gift from the PSDB to Lula and Dilma, for it allowed them to portray themselves as national and inclusive, and their party adversaries as mainly paulista and privileged. In practical terms, the consequence was that Aécio Neves decided to run for senator and will be easily elected in Minas Gerais (the second largest Brazilian state in the number of voters), but the mineiros will probably vote two-to-one in favour of Rousseff over Serra.

Then too, Serra's campaign became mired in a the same ambiguity about the PSDB’s political message that had handicapped it in 2002 and 2006 (when successive paulista candidates, José Serra and Geraldo Alckmin, lost to Lula) - namely, its inability to defend Fernando Henrique Cardoso's record and political legacy to Brazil. Against the PT's strategy clearly to compare Lula's and “FHC’S” governments, PSDB aspirants avoid the issue, and fail to champion the latter’s major and honourable role importance in Brazil’s economic stabilisation.

Lula on his own account has a lot of political support in the poorer regions of Brazil’s northeast and north (see "Brazil: democracy vs poverty", 29 July 2010). This is due mainly to his social programmes for these areas, but it’s also the case that politicians and voters here are very suspicious of the paulistas’ overbearing attitudes - and  they could definitely unite around Dilma Rousseff and against José Serra and the PSDB. In fact, it is easy to envisage even the PSDB's candidates across Brazil wishing to be linked more with Lula than with Serra, whose party has practically abandoned him.

Lula’s political wisdom and the PSDB’s errors will probably ensure both that (via Dilma Rousseff) he wins once more in the 3 October elections, and further deranges the opposition for at least the next few years. It may be for Aécio Neves to start the work over again, though it is far from clear that is what he really wants. Meanwhile, Brazil will be living with a new combination of continuity and change.

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