In a country as regionally minded as Brazil would
it make sense to have a joint Northeastern
A Tasso Jereissati-Roseana Sarney ticket
would stick in the craw of a lot of people.
By John Fitzpatrick
The starting bell was effectively rung at the end of October for the fight between the two main PSDB (the party of
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso) presidential contenders. The governor of Ceará state, Tasso Jereissati, was quicker
off the mark than the health minister, José Serra, and even outmaneuvered him in his São Paulo base. Serra hit back quickly
and although he did not exactly float like a butterfly and sting like a bee the opening minutes showed that this contest will
be entertaining and pretty evenly matched. One thing is certainit will not be settled by a knockout but go the full 15 rounds.
For the moment the initiative is with Tasso Jereissati who has practically parked his tanks on Serra’s lawn. First of
all he turned up in São Paulo to be feted by 1,500 admirers who think he should be the PSDB’s (and hopefully) the
government’s candidate. Among these supporters were the family of the late PSDB governor of São Paulo state, Mário Covas. Had
Covas survived his battle with cancer he would probably have been the PSDB candidate. Now he is giving Jereissati his
blessing from the grave. Other supporters are believed to include Covas’ successor as governor, Geraldo Alckmin, although he
has not voiced any public support, and a group of well-connected politicians and backroom boys who have created an
informal election committee.
For a Northeasterner like Jereissati this is not a bad accomplishment since the average inhabitant of São Paulo state
(Paulista) regards politicians from the Northeast as corrupt, menacing and lusting to get their greedy hands on São Paulo’s wealth.
The Ceará governor (like Serra) is still being coy and says he has not yet made up his mind whether to stand, but the press
expects an official announcement within the next two weeks.
Before we turn to Serra let’s look at Jereissati’s prospects a little. He has twice been governor of Ceará and has
managed to project an image of himself as a dynamic governor who has bettered the living standards of the population in one of
Brazil’s poorest areas. Like another state governor, Jaime Lerner of Paraná, Jereissati has also managed to sell himself abroad
and whenever supplements about Brazil appear in the foreign press the "good" news part usually focuses on the improved
social conditions in Ceará and the efficiency of the transport system in Paraná’s state capital Curitiba. Naturally Jereissati and
Lerner hog the credit and bask in the limelight.
However, being a Northeastern could backfire despite Jereissati’s cuddling up to the
Paulistas. Let’s look at one thorny problem Tasso Jereissati would face if he were the PSDB/government candidate. Who would be his running mate?
Recently he appeared side-by-side with another Northeastern governor, Roseana Sarney, who has made a spectacular debut in
opinion polls, attracting around 15 percent of potential voters. The media lapped up this photo opportunity and presented a
Tasso Jereissati-Roseana Sarney ticket almost as a fait accompli.
Roseana Sarney is a member of the center-right PFL with which Jereissati has good relations, despite
"ideological" differences. One of Tasso Jereissati’s admirers is the former Senate PFL president, Antônio Carlos Magalhães, of Bahia
who has spoken warmly of his fellow Northeasterner. Having characters as disparate as Covas and Magalhães in your camp
shows not only that Brazilian politics is full of strange bedfellows but indicates that Jereissati, unlike the truculent Serra, is
easy to get on with.
However is a Tasso Jereissati-Roseana Sarney ticket really the kind of team which
Paulista PSDB members would back? Furthermore, in a country as regionally minded as Brazil would it make sense to have a joint Northeastern team?
Incompetent, corrupt politicians are not unique to the Northeast but a Tasso Jereissati-Roseana Sarney ticket would stick in the craw
of a lot of people not just in São Paulo but also in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Santa Catarina, etc.
The country has already had two Northeastern presidents since the return of democracy in 1985Fernando Collor
and Roseana Sarney’s father, José Sarney. Neither was a success. Collor resigned in disgrace before being impeached for
corruption charges and vice-president José Sarney became president when Tancredo Neves died before taking office.
Sarney’s administration was weak and his daughter has been lucky not to be tarred by it. On top of this there will be at least one
other Northeastern candidate in Ciro Gomes of the PPS. To complicate things Gomes is a former governor of Ceará and a
friend of Jereissati so we could have a plethora of Northeasterners on the ballot paper.
Another point which could shatter this dream team is the fact that they both have histories of health problems
although they are reasonably young. Brazil has already lost two presidents before the end of their mandates and the possibility of
either Tasso Jereissati or Roseana Sarney having to be replaced on health grounds could be seen as tempting fate.
Turning to Serra, hardly had the Jereissati lovefest ended on Monday before he was ripping up his agenda and
appearing on Tuesday as a self-invited guest speaker at an international trade forum. For someone who is in charge of the nation’s
health and hospitals this seemed an odd forum. Health was far from the minister’s mind and he spoke about foreign trade and
the need for tougher budgetary laws to stop state and municipal administrations going on spending sprees knowing that the
federal government would bail them out.
Unlike Jereissati, who was seen to have made a timid criticism of the Cardoso government’s social policies, Serra
made no controversial comments. However, he was critical of the open-armed way Brazil had welcomed foreigners and made
it clear that this would not continue. As this area does not come within his ministerial remit and he is unlikely to be made
a trade minister he must have been speaking as a potential president.
Serra’s action was a counter response to Jereissati and a notification that he has his sights on the presidency. Some
of his advisers have been saying he should now quit his ministerial post, declare himself and start organizing his campaign.
This is unlikely as Cardoso has made it clear that he does not want to see an internal war start so soon. Cardoso knows that
any successor will not come from the PSDB alone and allies will be needed.
Of his current allies the PMDB, is playing its usual cat-and-mouse game. After being nice to Cardoso recently by
electing the pro-government Lower House chairman, Michel Temer, as its national leader and giving a setback to Cardoso foe
former President Itamar Franco, it is turned nasty again. It is refusing to nominate a replacement justice minister, a PMDB
member who has resigned, and is still maintaining the idea of having its own presidential candidate. At the moment this could
only be Franco.
Without the PMDB Cardoso would have a difficult task in shaping his successor. If the three main government
partiesPSDB, PMDB and PFLwere split then the way would be open for the left-wing PT candidate Lula to win in the first
round. Unlike Serra and Jereissati, Lula, currently riding high in the opinion polls, does not have to go through a grueling
boxing match to win his party’s nomination.
This material was originally published in the E-zine
John Fitzpatrick, the author, is a Scottish journalist who has been based in São Paulo since 1995. His career in
journalism that started in 1974 includes stints as a reporter in Scotland and England, deputy editor of an English-language daily
newspaper in Cyprus, news editor of a radio station in Switzerland, financial correspondent in Zurich and São Paulo, and
editor of a magazine published by one of Switzerland’s largest banks. He currently runs Celtic Comunicações, a São Paulo
company which specializes in editorial and translation services. You can reach him at