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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.

 

Presidential hopeful Marina Silva is whatever you want — that’s why she is rising

That can surely be different in government if she wins — a scenario that is less and less unlikely. But so far presidential candidate Marina Silva has one important advantage over her competitors: she can make many Brazilians from opposite backgrounds believe that she actually represents their best interests and hopes. That is an asset she shares with hugely popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, unlike incumbent Dilma Rousseff and opposition’s Aécio Neves. The former Environment Minister’s victory depends on keeping that fresh air sensation for almost two months, despite having little time on TV. Although experts say she is likely to win, my experience covering politics for 10 years says this won’t be an easy ride.

If you are a liberal, Silva’s civil rights platform could be very forward thinking (in case she gets rid of some radical religious leaders). If you are a fiscal conservative, your eyes will twinkle with promises of an independent Central Bank and zero tolerance with inflation. If you believe social programs are essential, she is the living proof they are important. A hardcore evangelical faithful herself, she defends the State has to be secular. Some will notice the 56-year-old is a walking contradiction, weak on debating specifics and even a risk since she doesn’t the have willingness to negotiate with politicians in Congress. But as of now the two things that seem to matter to a big chunk of the electorate is to beat the Worker’s Party (PT) after 12 years and to try someone new.

Lula also charmed capitalists, socialists, rogues, conservatives, Christians, atheists and, in a different way, gathered support across Brazil’s political system so he could reach the Presidency in 2002. The main difference between him and the new Silva, though, is that his strength lies in a culture of empowerment of political parties. It is organic. He created PT as a union leader, a critic of political parties of the military rule (1964-1985), so he would become establishment much later. Although he had a decent shot at winning in 1989, his idea was always to make PT the only big leftist party in Brazil so he could aim higher. It took him four elections, and he could only do so by making conservatives and business leaders shake hands with former Marxists.

Since Lula used a large part of the PSDB liberal agenda, most of it enforced when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was president, Brazil’s opposition has been tepid in the last decade. It was perfect and dull. “You are using government to employ your friends!” “You did that too!” “You are bypassing Congress to give a blank check to the president!” “You did that too!” “Look at all these corruption scandals!” “You did that too!” “You are making dirty political alliances to remain in power!” “You did that too!” Brazilians are less and less interested in politics, but they have to see clear improvements. Since Brazil’s ascension now is less dramatic, President Rousseff is more of a manager than of a politician and the opposition offers little alternative, Marina Silva means change.

She means change for those who liked to see PT in office, but feel there is fatigue in Brasilia. She means change to PT critics who feel the PSDB agenda was stolen. She means change to anti-corruption activists that belonged in the protests, just as much as she does to many of those who screamed “no political parties” in the marches all over Brazil. (Truth be said, Marina Silva doesn’t even have a political party, her Rede Sustentabilidade had to join PSB so she and her colleagues could run this year). Her support grew because political parties are largely disfranchised from the expectations average Brazilians, specially in the wealthy Southeast. Although she shares the chameleon persona with Lula, her growth is not as organic because it is based on a feeling, unlike Lula’s.

Marina Silva is the product of a moment, not of the construction of a platform. Some will see that as a strength, others will consider it as a flaw. I think of it as a good asset for a candidate, and a terrible notion if kept by a president.

Since Lula and PT’s victory in 2002 anesthetized social movements and smaller political parties, discontent was channeled into the still mysterious June 2013 protests. Those protests died out, but left a feeling that there was something wrong with Brazil, although few people could say what it is. I can’t name anything that hasn’t been named for the last decades. Neither could politicians; there wasn’t any dramatic change in Brasília after the protests. Candidates nationwide vaguely talk about the protesters as if they were trying to grasp who these people were. If protesters could, according to polls, they would elect former Justice Joaquim Barbosa, who headed a heated trial on PT’s old corrupting scheme with allies. He has nothing to do with how politics are made.

In other words, Silva’s support is not organic, which could highly impact her hopes in the final weeks of the campaign trail, when dossiers fly around, governors use their base to bring votes to their favorite presidential hopefuls and TV time is even more essential. She might be seen as the only potentially transformative figure in Brazilian politics. But how could she govern? Doubts will be all over until October 26.

Although that is far from true, the Brazilian media have made this election all hers to lose. Elections are a very difficult business for a newbie, and Marina Silva wasn’t nearly as pressured in 2010. It clearly shows. Less than 24 hours after releasing her manifesto we noticed the first big political mistake of her campaign; she took back a pledge for a bill on gay marriage. Not a key issue to many Brazilians. But she did so because evangelical leaders threatened to criticize her publicly and withdraw their veiled support. That decision alone has allowed her rivals to ask how religion interferes in her policies. How much can she change if she is bound by spiritual values? And, more importantly, how will Brazilians believe her promises are to keep?

Many of those doubts were all over Lula until 2002. He gave signs, one by one, and waited until Brazilians were convinced he was safe. Silva has read that textbook and that has given her momentum to grow into the lead in the polls. But that was enough for him to get elected. To run the country, Lula went back to basics: he had to use political parties and old fashioned deals. His relationship with the Brazilian people wouldn’t be enough to spare him from impeachment when the mensalão scandal came out. How would Marina Silva deal with such circumstances? If there is one thing that separates her from Lula, it is the fact she repeals political parties. Good will is not enough to deal with them.

It is true that as an environmentalist she had support across the aisle even when affiliated with the PT. But she meant no risk to any establishment then. She tried to boost the Brazilian Green Party in 2010 to call it her own, but had to leave since it was much more conservative than she would like. After getting 20 million votes last presidential elections, finishing third, she embraced the third way platform by insisting she would govern with the best of the two opposing and leading political parties in Brazil, PT and Brazilian Social-Democracy Party (PSDB). She cannot assure that will happen. Her own party, Rede Sustentabilidade, doesn’t even exist and is now embedded in sort of leftist PSB so she could run for office this year.

Despite not saying much about specifics, she been recognized by left-wingers and right-wingers, catholics and evangelicals, poor and wealthy as someone who can be above divides. Her appearances since the tragic death of his ticket partner Eduardo Campos have often been moving. She is clearly a likable figure, which financial markets and social activists have clearly noted. But there is a reason for the polarization of politics in Brazil, one that Marina Silva doesn’t seem to grasp: it exists because those two parties have made a bigger effort in understanding how complex Brazil is. Her being accepted by everyone will surely end once she has to make a choice.

Presidents only thrive by making difficult ones.