Will Lula Leave Brazil in Safe or Unsafe Hands?

Brazilian House Representative for Ceará state, Ciro Gomes

Politics is an ongoing process that never stops and the democratic system of
holding regular elections means that as soon as one election is over the
politicians start looking ahead to the next one. The losers can plan a comeback,
the winners can try and consolidate their victory and new entrants can aim for a

In Brazil, the political parties are looking ahead to 2008 when there will be municipal elections and to 2010 when there will be presidential elections. The next presidential election will be the first in 20 years in which current President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will not be a candidate as he is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election for a third term.

Since he is the only national figure with any genuine popular support, he will play a crucial role in the electoral process and would-be contenders are already trying to gain his support or figure out ways to overcome the Lula effect.

There are reports that he might take official leave i.e. drop out for part of 2010 to canvas for his chosen candidate. Ironically, this may not even be a candidate of the Workers Party (PT) which Lula founded almost 30 years ago.

Brazil is not like Mexico where presidents have traditionally groomed their own chosen successors. This is partly because Brazil has never had a strong party like Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which, as Kenneth F. Greene said, “maintained power for longer than any noncommunist party in modern history. The PRI and its predecessors won every presidential election from 1929 to 2000, held the majority in Congress until 1997, won every governorship until 1989, and controlled the vast majority of municipalities.” 

Brazil’s political parties are all relatively young and inexperienced in wielding power. The PMDB, PSDB and PT have headed the governments since the end of military rule just over two decades ago but have had to rely on shaky alliances with other parties and groups.

This was the origin of the “bribes for votes” scandal known as the mensalão which brought Lula’s government to its knees in his first term of office and has practically wrecked any chances of the PT having a winning (or even strong) candidate in the next presidential election. The result is that Lula will be a kingmaker and could, in theory, even prepare for a comeback in 2014.

At the time of writing there are three credible candidates – José Serra and Aécio Neves of the PSDB and Ciro Gomes of the PSB – plus another half a dozen others who could stand or have a say. The first two represent a glimmer of hope for those who want to see Brazil move forward and push through reforms which could unleash some of the country’s true potential.

Gomes, a House representative, would be, at best, a watered down Lula if he kept well away from running the economy or, at worse, an arrogant bully more interested in showing who was boss than in looking after the country’s interests. At the moment, Gomes seems to be Lula’s favorite but that could change as Neves has always kept his channels open to Lula and even Serra has started to tone down much of his criticism.

Both Gomes and Serra stood against Lula in the 2001 campaign. While Serra went on the offensive, Gomes adopted a more conciliatory if not patronizing approach. Gomes had experience at regional and national level, as state governor of Ceará and a brief spell as finance minister when the incumbent, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, resigned the post to contest the 1994 election in which he easily beat Lula.

At that time Gomes was a member of the PSDB but he subsequently quit and joined the Brazilian Socialist Party PSB. Despite its name the PSB pays only lip service to socialism and is a member of Lula’s alliance.

Gomes had kept a fairly low profile and been a Lula loyalist over the last few years and building up support. Should Lula back his candidacy, he would be taking a great risk and putting Brazil into an unsafe pair of hands. The financial markets would certainly not react well and we could have a repetition of the shock before Lula took office for his first term when the Real plunged against the dollar as markets feared Lula would impose a socialist program on the country. Conspiracy theorists may say that would be a good reason for Lula to choose Gomes, knowing that he would mess things up and Lula would return to clear up the mess in 2014.

It is ironic that the odds are on Lula turning his back on his own party and championing Gomes, but Lula knows that the PT is nothing without him and he can do with it as he chooses. The party has still not got over the shock of the mensalão, which toppled some of its heavyweights like José Dirceu, José Genoino and Antonio Palocci, but it does have one or two possible candidates.

The strongest is probably Dilma Roussef, the current chief of staff, and Tarso Genro, the justice minister. However, neither has much national recognition and they would have to spend a lot of time fending off allegations that they knew about the mensalão. Gomes would face no such problem and it is even possible that he might jump ship and join the PT although he would not receive a warm welcome.

As for the PSDB, the dispute between Serra and Neves could lead to a repeat of the disastrous feud between Serra and Geraldo Alckmin which led to Alckmin’s defeat by Lula at the last election. It is difficult to see Serra standing down again this time but whether Neves would be prepared to give ground is another matter.

Should he feel that his chances are better elsewhere he could join the PMDB which would welcome him with open arms. The PMDB may be the biggest party in Brazil but it is hopelessly split and has no obvious candidate although the new defense minister, Nelson Jobim, is a possibility.         

Note: Quotation from Why Dominant Parties Lose – Mexico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective by Kenneth F. Greene, University of Texas, Austin. Published September 2007.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2007


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