The four most important moments of the Dilma Rousseff administration

The clue is in the title. Next Sunday President Dilma Rousseff is surely going to be judged by how she handled the economy — jobs and income are still what matters the most to average Brazilians. But those moments will also be there with many voters that picks her and those that choose opposition’s Aécio Neves. I picked one for each year.

1 – Firing her chief of staff Antonio Palocci (2011) – Rousseff always knew her most important minister was involved in dodgy deals. After all, he had a record. But she didn’t expect to let him go only six months after she took office. Palocci was accused of making millions as a consultant to big firms shortly before he became her national campaign manager in 2010. When the press found out, the campaign against him was irresistible. As soon as Palocci left, Rousseff lost a key channel with big money. To replace him, she chose little known senator Gleisi Hoffman, a technocrat crazy for budgets that she met during the 2002 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva campaign. After losing a close ally, she started a wave of “sweeping corruption away” in Brasilia: Rousseff fired six ministers due to similar suspicions until the end of that year. By December everyone knew that she wasn’t a puppet: she was the boss.

2 – Installing the Commission of Truth (2012) - Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula avoided taking that decision during all eight years they spent in the Presidency. A former Marxist guerrilla who was tortured and unlawfully jailed for years wouldn’t just look away. Although the commission doesn’t hold nearly as much power as she’d like, it has sparked huge controversy and resistance from the military — they still refuse to cooperate in elucidating crimes of the 1964-1985 regime. Leftists who were upset with Lula’s pragmatism started looking at Rousseff with a little more sympathy. Her popularity skyrocketed to 80%. She seemed to be the ideal person to bridge the poor that improved in recent years with the aspiring middle class that was fed up with corruption in the federal government. The final report of the commission will be published by the end of the year. If Rousseff is reelected, it is reasonable to believe she will add something extra to the already difficult relationship with the Armed Forces.

3 – National address during the protests (2013) - Like it or not, the wave of protests began when Rousseff told the mayor of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to postpone their transport fare hikes to the middle of the year. If that had happened in January, most students would be on vacation. In June, they were all waiting for the bad news to come. Although the turmoil didn’t begin aiming at her, part of the protesters surely wanted her to deliver more change than she actually did. Her super popularity vanished — by September of that year she only had the third of the electorate that always go with the Worker’s Party. It could have been worse: her national announcement embracing the movement could have gone completely different, since some advisers actually told her to put the Armed Forces against the most violent in the crowds. She just said no. But her popularity rose back to the levels of May 2013.

4 – Being booed in the World Cup opener (2014) - Jeers are not unusual to Brazilian politicians. But to get that at the World Cup opener with the addition of insults showed that the polarization in this presidential election would be tough to endure. Some insisted only wealthy Brazilians were booing the president, but they forgot to watch fan fests, where poor and middle class people did the same. It didn’t matter that much that suspicions on Brazil were proven wrong, all that really counted is that she would be judged by other elements, including her management of state-oil Petrobras — a company that Brazilian pensioners like to invest on. The World Cup could have been a boost in her popularity, but the boos in the opener made it all much more difficult. The candidate that could have bridged PT with the middle class was being thrown out by the traditional middle class.

Those moments explain a bit of the animosity in this presidential election.


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President Dilma Rousseff is a moderate. Her fans are a bit crazy, though

Many supporters gave up on President Dilma Rousseff’s reelection bid weeks after the June 2013 protests began. Her super popularity vanished and a claim to bring Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva back was fostered by politicians who dislike the fact she dislikes politicians. “She is too bossy,” “she doesn’t listen” and “she will soon be taking care of her grandson in Porto Alegre” were comments that people in the PT (Worker’s Party) had for her recently. Despite being the front runner since the beginning of the year, the sluggish economy made cracks on her fame as a country manager. Corruption scandals involving her party cast even more doubts. And then jet crash that killed Eduardo Campos and put Marina Silva in his place as third way candidate made it all more confusing. Winning became far from certain for the incumbent. But then a big chunk of social program fans changed their minds as the run-off started. They chose continuity over the conservative fans of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

Now Rousseff is neck to neck with Aécio Neves in a race that is likely to be too close to call until the very end, on October 26. It is fair to say it is basically her and Lula against everyone else — the president didn’t pick the endorsement of any of the losing candidates. But she has the final sprint advantage that incumbents usually get in the last week of the campaign trail. She also has a great councilor in spin doctor João Santana, one of the most talented Brazil has ever produced — he has done it for PT since 2006. Of course there are now cracks on the ruling coalition, since Neves drew the support of politicians in the centrist and famously corrupt PMDB — no matter who wins, PMDB always wins. But it is not irreversible, as long as she wins.

Rousseff has put forward some leftist agenda to oppose Neves, proving she is more ideological than her pragmatic mentor Lula. She pledged to pass a bill to criminalize homophobia and is pushing hard for a political reform that bypasses the conservative congressmen just elected. But she is surely a moderate on other platforms — she developed her own model to privatize airports, roads and pre-salt oil fields, made compliments to opposition members and is a fan of the press, unlike her shadowy predecessor. In her first year she fired six ministers due to corruption allegations, a trend that neither Fernando Henrique Cardoso or Lula were keen while in her office. She never opposed tough fiscal policies. Although she accepts higher inflation than speculators and economists enjoy, she won’t finish with the old PSDB macroeconomic tripod — primary surpluses, floating exchange rate and inflation targets.

To make her rival Marina Silva drop points in the polls and fight the fight she fights best with the PSDB, Rousseff charged against the environmentalist like a bulldozer. She labeled her adversary as being a flip flop, too weak to govern, traitor of the left, a neoliberal and many others. Neves also ran attack ads on Silva, but still got her support for the run-off because the president really had a go at the other female hopeful. Once Silva was out, Rousseff started comparing the 12 years of the Worker’s Party in the Palácio do Planalto to the eight of the PSDB. Doubts on whether her male antagonist would keep social programs and plentiful credit in state banks became daily discussions among Brazilians. It is surely tight now in the polls, but most bets are on the incumbent for the fact that PSDB left government in 2003 with very bad reviews by the Brazilian public, despite key reforms that still resonate in the economy.

Rousseff’s agenda for Brazil isn’t that different from Neves’ — before the campaign trail they even used to be friends. There would surely be combat to inflation in a reelected government, but keeping jobs would be the president’s priority — which could mean heavier fiscal burden. If she wins, it will be hard to keep state banks spending as much on housing as do now for the next two years, experts say. The easy money to finance big business also seems to be gone. But Rousseff knows that if she reduces social spending that is so identified with the PT, there would be a massive turmoil in the country and in her alliance with Lula, who could run in 2018. She is also aware that she would need political support from a conservative Congress to make any meaningful reforms. If you add those elements, despite her temper, it is reasonable to believe her reelection would mean a lot of continuity with some change.

That is not what a big chunk of Rousseff’s base expects, though. Her communist background got a lot of attention since she took office, in 2011, which made many PT fans reinforce their attacks on the opposition as if they had the monopoly of the heart. It is as if Rousseff and Lula were keeping Brazil free from the United States (hello, NSA) and the influence of speculators. These supporters also believe that corruption scandals, including the mensalão, are made up by the press because the media hate their party — as if the Worker’s Party weren’t governing with a very, let’s say, odd coalition. No doubt all those assumptions are just pathetic (if you believe in any of them, please, try reading another blogger). But Brazilian make believe Bolsheviks, who think they can make a revolution by buying a part of the bourgeoisie, have lost grip with reality. Instead of bringing their ideas forward, they raise the volume against a center of right opposition that isn’t nearly as narrow-minded as Brazil could have.

That makes Rousseff’s role even more important now. If she wins, she will have to deal with the expectations of leftists who want some revenge for all the criticism they endured in the last 12 years. As a moderate, she will be either forced into respecting social improvements or into a more liberal agenda that makes Brazil more appealing to foreign capital. A mix of those two is probably for the best. With a conservative Congress a few meters away, her moderation would be often challenged and concessions would have to emerge — don’t forget that if PT wins the Presidency, Neves will be strong in opposition thanks to the expectation of facing Lula for the job in 2018. The powerful São Paulo governor, conservative Geraldo Alckmin, not a moderate at all, will also be pushing against her if she is reelected.

If Rousseff loses, she will basically go home — everyone in her close circle of friends admits that. That will also mean a steeper hill to climb for Lula, in case he really wants to return to the Palácio do Planalto in four years time. Neves would be strong for a reelection campaign. Well, the country is already split anyway. The former president is surely pragmatic and popular with lower income voters, but it is Rousseff that looks more like the person who can bridge the poor with Brazil’s aspiring middle class. Good news is that she doesn’t take orders even from her mentor, yet less from wacky fans.

Also in this blog: Opposition’s Aécio Neves is a moderate. His fans are a bit crazy, though


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