Coming Up in Brazil – Serra Versus Dilma?

Dilma Rousseff and President LulaThe world’s eye may be on the presidential contest in the United States but here in Brazil, preparations are being made for the race in 2010. Unlike American voters, Brazilians are unlikely to have a black candidate but there is a fair chance that they might, at least, have a woman candidate in the shape of Dilma Rousseff, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s chief of staff. 

For almost a year Lula has been parading her up and down the country, lavishing her with praise and acting more like her publicity agent than her boss. However, she is still barely known among the population and has no political muscle and would find it hard to compete on her own merits against someone like the São Paulo governor, José Serra, who looks like being the main opposition candidate.

Serra versus Dilma should be a no contest. There is no doubt that Serra has all the qualifications for the job. He has held a number of senior posts, including health and planning minister in the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, and has been a Senator and mayor of São Paulo. As a minister, he was constantly moaning about the economic policies of the finance minister, Pedro Malan, which he claimed were holding back growth.

Despite all his barking he never got round to biting and he even became the PSDB candidate to replace Cardoso in the 2002 election. However, the electorate was a bit jaded after eight years of rule by Cardoso and his team and Serra, with his long face and impatient attitude, proved no match for Lula who put aside three previous defeats and finally became president.

Serra was replaced by Geraldo Alckmin as the PSDB’s candidate in the second election and was duly trounced by Lula who was so far ahead of the field that he almost won the race in the first round.  Since then Alckmin has been doing nothing much and is currently lagging miles behind in the São Paulo mayoral election. Serra has practically ignored his fellow PSDB member and been cozying up to his rival, Gilberto Kassab of the DEMs, formerly the PFL. It will obviously be a long time before Serra forgives Alckmin for grabbing the nomination from under his nose the last time round.

Serra is definitely back in the driving seat and Alckmin is yesterday’s man. A possible threat could come from the governor of Minas Gerais, Aécio Neves, but for the moment the PSDB nomination is in Serra’s pocket. Although Serra has none of Lula’s charisma, he is widely respected across the political divide.

He is also one of those rare politicians who is not tainted by scandal. In his younger days he was a student leader and fled to Chile when the military seized power in Brazil. However, that is not enough to guarantee that he will win the election even against a relative novice like Dilma especially if she has Lula and his allies – ranging from Communists to reactionary nationalists – standing behind her. 

As for Dilma, she comes across as a rather humorless apparatchik. Quite what she does in her office is not known but she is probably the most powerful person in the country after Lula himself and the chairman of the Central Bank, Henrique Meirelles. Dilma was also a rebel in her younger days and is said to have been a quartermaster for an armed group. Unlike Serra, she did not get away. She was captured, imprisoned and tortured by the military regime.

She was the minister for energy and mines for two years until she became chief of staff in June 2006. She gained a reputation for truculence rather than efficiency during her period in charge of energy and when she left had not allayed fears that the Brazil could face a shortage of electricity in the future to power its growing economy.

A foreign reader might regard energy and mines as a backwater in political terms but in Brazil it is one of the most important positions. The main political debate at the moment centers on how the country is going to deal with the massive oil reserves which are being discovered offshore. Dilma is believed to be in favor of the state expanding its role. This could be done by raising its equity stake in Petrobras or setting up a separate company which would be 100% state owned which would own the oil reserves and decide how they were to be exploited.

Lula wants to get it resolved and see the oil and gas reserves flowing within four to five years. This would be exactly when he would be in a position to stand again for President should he wish to do so. In this case, he may well be grooming Dilma to keep his seat in the presidential palace warm until he comes back.

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 2008

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