Brazil’s Election Race: Time for Serra to Get a Move On

Governor José Serra and the toucan, symbol of his PSDB party Everybody in Brazil knows that São Paulo state governor José Serra is desperate to become the next President. However, he is playing coy and showing no sense of urgency in gaining the official nomination of his PSDB party. By doing so, he is in danger of losing the big lead he currently enjoys over the likely PT candidate, Dilma Rousseff.

As Rousseff is the prodigy of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently astonishingly popular, she is in a good position to gain critical mass through her association with him. Serra is a heavyweight politician in comparison with Rousseff and has an impressive track record but he could find this is not enough unless he gets into action soon.

Lula and Rousseff have unofficially gone on the campaign trail and blatantly mixed government business with electioneering. This included a three-day jaunt around the Northeast and Minas Gerais at which Lula inspected various infrastructure projects in his role as President and Rousseff as his chief of staff.

Lula’s role as head of state was perilously close to his role as head of the PT and he even virtually admitted at one stage that he was taking part in a “comício” i.e. an election rally. Rousseff was paraded before mass audiences and dubbed for the umpteenth time the “mother of the PAC”, the anagram for the Accelerated Growth Program.

Rousseff knows she still has to make up lots of ground to be the official government candidate and needs to make a breakthrough and raise her standing in opinion polls. Her immediate problem is not actually Serra or the other potential PSDB candidate, Aécio Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais, but Ciro Gomes of the PSB who stood for the presidency in 2002 against Lula and Serra. (Both Gomes and Neves also took part in one of the PAC events alongside Lula and Rousseff, highlighting the strange world of Brazilian politics.)

Gomes is currently ahead of Rousseff in polls and maintains that he will stand so that government supporters have an alternative in case Rousseff does not take off. Gomes was briefly finance minister during the government of President Itamar Franco and replaced Fernando Henrique Cardoso who left to contest the presidency in 1994. He has also been state governor of Ceará and held several ministerial posts under Lula. Despite standing against Lula in the past, he has remained extremely close to him. Gomes also has greater recognition than Rousseff.

Despite Gomes’ loyalty, Lula wants Rousseff to succeed him and has suggested that Gomes stand as governor of São Paulo. This suggestion has raised the hackles of many leading PT members in São Paulo, including former mayor, Marta Suplicy, who regard Gomes as a predatory Northeastern with no links to São Paulo¹. The chances are that Lula will get his way just as he foisted Rousseff on an unwilling PT.

Another possible obstacle to Rousseff is, of course, Martina Silva who defected from the PT earlier this year to the Greens (PV). Silva is likely to become the PV presidential candidate and rob Rousseff of the novelty of being a woman candidate. She is also likely to appeal to the large section of the PT that does not want Rousseff.

As for Serra, he has ignored calls from within the PSDB and his allies among the Democrats to speed up the selection process and stamp his name on the candidacy. His strategy may be right as there is still almost a year to go before the election and his current position as state governor is one of the most demanding in Brazil. He could also face criticism from voters who recall that he broke a pledge to see out his term as mayor of São Paulo and resigned half way through his mandate to stand for the governorship.

On the other hand, if he delays too much he could leave the field open to Rousseff and Lula to nibble into his lead. Lula gave a foretaste of what could lie ahead when he made an acid comment on the large number of visits Serra had started to make to the Northeast to raise in profile there and his criticism of government irrigation projects.

“I hadn’t realized that Serra was so concerned about the Northeast but, as we are so close to the elections, that’s a good sign,” he said. Rousseff is widely expected to maintain her official role until the legal deadline of April which will give her plenty of scope to bask in further trips with Lula.

One reason for Serra to start moving now is the state of the economy which looks set to boom once again. Most analysts are forecasting growth of 4% to 5% in the coming years and some think there could even be a small increase in GDP this year. Lula will obviously claim credit for every bit of good economic news and Serra will find it hard to respond.

He may try and blame Lula for the brief recession which hit Brazil but Lula will easily shrug that off and blame the foreign capitalists and exploiters. Serra will find it tough to exploit economic woes against a background of rising employment, higher wages, falling inequality, the World Cup finals in 2014 and the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

He may raise the issue of corruption within the PT administration and Congress but that will win precious few votes. At the same time, several of Serra’s allies have also been accused of corruption so he will have to be careful how he approaches the issue.

In short, both Rousseff and Serra have tough challenges to overcome but if Serra thinks he will whip Rousseff merely by pitting his experience against her inexperience he is wrong. Time is marching on and perhaps Serra should realize this.

¹ Not true as he was actually born in the state but left for the Northeast as a child, reversing the normal migration. In any case, many politicians have ended up running states where they were not born. Even ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso who comes across as the typical Paulista intellectual from Higienópolis was actually born in Rio de Janeiro.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scotsman who first visited Brazil more than 20 years ago and has been based in São Paulo since 1995. He is a journalist by profession and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações, which provides corporate communications and consultancy services. He can be contacted at This article originally appeared on his site

© John Fitzpatrick 2009


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