And winner of Brazil’s presidential elections is… Lula da Silva

In the end of 2002, former British PM Margaret Thatcher was asked at a dinner: “What was your greatest achievement?” Her answer was a shocking one: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” Look at the three main contenders in Brazil’s presidential elections and a similar picture will be there. Brazilians have three main choices and all of them have a lot to do with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Like him or not, he is Brazil’s most important voter and no one will win elections by being a critic of his legacy.

Before Lula took office, his party would lose election after election because their social platforms were seen as too expensive for a country where hiperinflation was seen as the main problem. Now, Brazil’s social programs are so important that even the opposition wants to make them permanent, put them in a proper amendment to the Constitution if needed. Although criticizing the benefits does get some Congressmen elected, no one holding a major job in the Executive can actually do it by being anti-Lula. Opposition members that are critical to the former president on the microphones will admit off the record that they like him.

Lula’s favorite and incumbent Dilma Rousseff might lose the elections, no doubt. But his social agenda is very likely to be untouched for a long, long time — so have said opposition’s Marina Silva and Aécio Neves. That alone keeps the former president as a competitive and likely candidate for the 2018 elections. If Rousseff wins, a lot of it will be credited to her mentor. If she loses, those who insisted Lula should have been the candidate this time will be even stronger in the Worker’s Party  (PT in Portuguese). The man himself has already said the opposition should worry because he will be healthy in 2018.

Neck to neck with Rousseff, Marina Silva is a former Lula minister who stayed in the job despite all corruption scandals involving the Worker’s Party and Lula’s administration in the first term. Her most compelling political ad so far shows her making a strong defense of Bolsa Família, Brazil’s most important social program. Some Brazilians call her “Lula in a skirt” since she embodies two opposing traits that make a very strong candidate in Brazil: she is seen as a woman who is strong and weak at the same time (spin doctor João Santana calls it quite vulgarly by the “fodão fudido” persona. Besides, she has already promised to stay on the job for just one term.

Although he is lagging behind in the polls, Neves is Lula’s closest friend in the biggest opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB in Portuguese). After the votes for kickbacks mensalão scandal in 2005, Lula fostered the idea of creating a new political party with Neves and Eduardo Campos — the candidate that died in a jet crash and put Marina Silva back in the campaign trail. The new political party would be a moderate one that brought together politicians that were allegedly tired of the polarization between the PT and PSDB — a platform that is currently used by Marina Silva. The party didn’t come out, but Neves and Lula remain friends.

In 2010 some of that spirit was already there. Opposition’s José Serra avoided taking swipes at Lula untill the very end, although he was much more critical to the federal administration than Neves ever was. With Lula approval ratings at about 80%, the PSDB candidate ruled against upfront attacks. He even made a political ad in a make believe favela, with a samba group singing “when Lula da Silva is out, I want Zé (informal nickname for José) up there”. Marina Silva was also very cautious then and praised Lula’s social policies at the same time she defended economic reforms promoted by PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso — a defense Serra didn’t make.

Part of the criticism for Rousseff’s no more than average performance — that’s what Brazilians say in the polls — should clearly belong to Lula. Her first two years in office were blurred by corruption allegations involving politicians appointed by Lula or his allies. Brazil’s sluggish economic figures have a lot to do with mistakes noticed in 2009 and 2010 — creative accounting, heavy public investments in faulty companies like those of former billionaire Eike Batista and mismanagement at oil giant Petrobras. But his policies and political muscle have made the opposition change their minds about what Brazil needs.

That is a rock solid win for a man who, no matter who wins this time, will have a friend in the Palácio do Planalto and an enduring legacy that no one will be bold enough to dismantle in the next few years. And when that actually happens, it won’t be by challenging his achievements; it will be for reshaping his policies just like New Labour did to Thatcherism. Doubts will lie on whether lulism will actually outlive Lula. Hints so far show a very loud yes.

 

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Brazil presidential hopefuls face tough challenges until October 5

From the dullest presidential election in Brazil’s recent democratic history to a thriller of unpredictable consequences. Marina Silva, Dilma Rousseff and Aécio Neves are set for the month that really matters in the campaign trail. All three have gigantic hurdles on their way to the Palácio do Planalto, though. I have insisted it is too early to call, despite the fact Neves is lagging behind in the polls and Silva is so far the clear favorite in a run-off. The reasons are many. One that affects everyone is the lack of real enthusiasm for any of them — the battle for votes is fierce, but this is one of the quietest elections ever.

Center of right Aécio Neves is the candidate facing the most difficult barriers. The main one is time: he is about 20 points behind Silva and Rousseff. Some of his voters and allies have left him for the former Environment Minister, since Silva is widely seen as a better challenger to the president. In his home state Minas Gerais, which he governed for two terms, Neves is polling third — a major embarrassment. His candidate in the Minas race is about 10 points behind the leader, a former Belo Horizonte mayor who is best friends with Rousseff since they were teenagers.

Desperate times demand desperate measures…

His campaign is much shorter on money: Rousseff raised R$ 123 million (about US$ 55 million), a bit more than Neves and Silva combined. He is now being scolded by his rivals in debates, which affects his intent of looking presidential. Neves also faces the lack of enthusiasm for his campaign in the key state of São Paulo — bear in mind governor Geraldo Alckmin is a likely presidential hopeful for 2018. In the Northeast, he is reduced to shambles: 2% of the vote in Pernambuco state is the most shocking number for the senator. His attacks on Marina and Rousseff could give him some votes, but also a lot more rejection.

President Rousseff has more time than Neves to fight back, since she is very likely to be in the run-off on October 26. But the challenges are enormous and her chances of not being reelected are much higher than a month ago. Her main adversary is the huge rejection her Worker’s Party has in the key states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — she is far behind Silva in both. The other big challenge for her will be the economy; Brazil is in a technical recession, growth was little throughout her administration and her denial of bigger inflation has infuriated many voters. Financial markets are all betting against her.

There is also the Petrobras kick-back scandal, which could grow in the next weeks and affect key members of her base. Veja, a magazine that is widely seen as an adversary of the Worker’s Party, named a minister, the Speaker of the House, the head of the Senate and more than 20 Congressmen as corrupted officials.  They all denied the accusations. The magazine has also named Eduardo Campos, former governor of Pernambuco who died last month — Marina Silva is his replacement in the race. The anti-PT feeling, plus the glitches in the economy and the corruption scandal will be a major drag for Rousseff.

For Silva, dog days have begun too. She is the daily target of attacks by Rousseff and Neves, but unlike these two she has little time on TV to answer — that will change in the likely run-off. Members of the campaign who were closer to Campos are still leaving her camp — some see her as intransigent, others call her a flip-flop for her changing opinions on gay rights and amnesty for crimes committed in the dictatorship. Enthusiasm for her was begun to wane among the most liberal Brazilians. Every move she makes is now being scrutinized and she will have media pressure like never before. Negative headlines are at full speed.

The now favorite to win won’t have the help of many governorship candidates, which could prove decisive in the last few weeks of the campaign. Social movements are speaking out against her — they also did against Rousseff and Neves, but Silva was usually spared. Although financial markets see her as a better choice than reelecting the president, many players will be wondering whether she will have enough support to make reforms or not.  Although she leads in all polls, Datafolha showed that most Brazilians still think Rousseff will win — which shows Silva’s need to look more presidential.

Not an easy ride for any of them. Be sure that anyone who predicts the outcome at this point is completely clueless or entirely biased.

 

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