As a cooling Rio summer sees the refreshing “March waters” clean the streets of Ipanema and the souls of the Cariocas after the Carnaval, the political season is warming up. Beyond the next big occasion for many Brazilians – the South Africa-hosted football World Cup in June 2010 – lies a series of nationwide elections on October 3: for the Brazilian congress, state governors and legislatures, and for the presidency itself where if necessary a second-round run-off will be held on 31 October.
What makes the presidential contest all the more riveting is that for the first time for a generation, one of the great figures of modern Brazilian politics, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will not be a candidate. After waging three unsuccessful contests (in 1989, 1994, and 1998), Lula won the presidency in 2002 and has served two terms which in many ways have transformed Brazil.
Now he is leaving the stage, since Brazil’s constitutional term-limits forbid a third consecutive period in office; though so successful has Lula been, that his return in 2014 must be at least a possibility. In any event, Brazilians are now faced with a great democratic test in which new figures – albeit in most cases familiar ones in the Brazilian political scene – will emerge to command the stage.
What does this moment reveal about the nature of Brazilian democracy in 2010, and about Lula’s own impact and legacy?
The campaign starts officially at the beginning of April 2010. Brazil’s leading parties are preparing intensely for the fight, none more so than the two giants: president Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT) and the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy / PSDB). Their competition promises to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the election.
The other parties’ candidates are already flourishing their own wares and doing their best to attract media attention. A few days after the glamorous performances at Rio’s Sambódromo, Marina Silva – Lula’s former environment minister, now a senator running for president on the ticket of the Partido Verde (Green Party / PV) – lands in the city’s Santos Dumont airport. The choking traffic delays her arrival at the powerful national radio station, CBN, so she tweets to say she is on her way.
In the interview, she declares that her campaign represents a “political realignment” in Brazil, one that could break the polarization between the PT and the PSDB: “My mission is to show people that we have to build a symphony, to create an orchestra – something that changes our way to produce, consume, and our relationship with nature.”
It is an attractive image which also points to a deeper truth about the coming contest. For Brazil’s presidential election of 2010 will in my view rather consolidate the current polarization in the country’s political scene between these two major forces, making them and their leading politicians – and not candidates per se – decisive in the outcome. That is the logic behind the green senator’s desire for a different alignment; and the reason why she has no chance of winning.
Moreover, I would argue that this current PT/PSDB standoff is a very positive trend for the Brazilian polity, and one that underpins the country’s current economic advance that has received so much worldwide attention and praise. Whoever is victorious after (most likely) a second round on 31 October, there will be overall continuity. The political substance of this continuity is also worth noting: in Brazil today, nobody wants to be “on the right.”
A clue to the shape of post-Lula Brazil is that the two certain candidates for the respective major parties have each been close presidential servants. José Serra, the governor of São Paulo who represents the PSDB, is a very experienced politician with a huge profile in the country’s richest state; but he also gained national visibility and power as health minister in Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration (1994-2002).
In 2002, Serra actually won the political fight for succession against other of Cardoso’s ministers, but lost to Lula in what was the former lathe-operator’s first victory.
For her part Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chief-of-staff, has never been a candidate in any major election before. Her rise to power was facilitated by the mensalão (big monthly allowance) corruption scandals of 2006-07, which engulfed influential PT figures such as José Dirceu (Rousseff’s predecessor as chief-of-staff) and Antonio Palocci (Brazil’s former finance minister), who otherwise would have been certain candidates for the presidency.
Dilma Rousseff, a distant product, as her name suggests, of the great Bulgarian Diaspora that also produced Venezuela’s Teodoro Petkoff, has for months been doing her best to accrue the benefits of closeness to an enormous popular incumbent.
Indeed, the influential Brazilian polling institute DataFolha measures Lula’s approval-rating as the highest recorded for any president in Brazil since 1990, with 73% of Brazilians saying that Lula’s government is “good” or “very good.” No wonder that Dilma travels around the country with Lula and is often pictured alongside him.
It is already evident, however, that an effort is being made to transform the 2010 election into a comparison of Brazil’s two longest administration’s since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985: Cardoso’s (1994-2002) and Lula’s (2002-10).
The rhetorical heat hasn’t waited for the official campaign to start: the PT’s new head, José Eduardo Dutra, said in November 2009 that Brazilians “will compare two projects known to them”, while Cardoso retorted that “Lula is passing through an euphoric moment” that leads him “to distort what has happened in my government.”
This comparison will play out in coming months, with the (very similar) economic record of the two governments being a key issue. The Cardoso side are bound to argue that context is everything: for it was Cardoso’s real plan that rebalanced the Brazilian economy after decades of chronic instability, and thus left Lula an enviable freedom of governance.
A Shared Road
The trend towards a stable political duopoly at the heart of Brazilian democracy is also favored by the pragmatic character of the country’s politics since the restoration of democracy after military dictatorship. These two decades have strengthened the political parties and – even with a popular leader as Lula – diminished the once-dominant “personalizing” trend that elevated charisma into a political principle.
Indeed, the Brazilian political scientist César Romero Jacob has written that any candidate for the presidency in Brazil must now work in at least four “power-structures”: the educated urban middle class, the evangelicals, the populism of the periphery, and the regional oligarchies.
Lula, for example, made an alliance with the evangelicals in choosing José Alencar to be his vice-president. Alencar, from the Partido Republicano Brasileiro (Brazilian Republican Party / PRB), is a conservative politician who has been a vocal critic of same-sex marriage and of homosexuality.
The current president, always loved by the Brazilian urban middle class, has won many votes in the periphery and among regional oligarchies (often mediated through the support of politicians with a strong regional base, such as ex-president José Sarney in north and northeast Brazil).
In addition, the success of Lula’s social programs like Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) – which distributes a small amount of income to 15 million Brazilian families, and has had a huge progressive impact on their human security – both helps in poverty-reduction and also reinforces local political authorities in very poor regions against traditional oligarchies, thus guaranteeing political support (and votes) for the government on the periphery.
True, this process was started in Cardoso’s administration but was consolidated and expanded in Lula’s and this may work in Dilma Rousseff’s favor. In fact, some polls suggest that 40% of those who receive the Bolsa Família will vote for Dilma Rousseff against 25% who prefer José Serra. In a broad sense, the alliances and strategies that made Lula’s election possible in 2002 and 2006 – after three successive defeats – will be behind Dilma Rousseff in 2010.
The PSDB side, without the benefit of incumbency, also seeks to build a coalition for victory. The key figure for the party’s political strategy is Aécio Neves, governor of the state of Minas Gerais. Neves is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, a politician of historic stature strongly linked to the democratization process in Brazil; he was elected president by the Brazilian congress in 1985, in the first free election after two decades of the military regime, but died before assuming the presidency.
Aécio Neves has served two terms as governor of Minas Gerais, whose voting power is second only to that of São Paulo in Brazil, and retained 70%-plus levels of popularity among the Mineiros. He has never hidden his desire to be the PSDB candidate in the 2010 election, but as a younger man he has not yet been able to overtake position of Serra, an older and more senior figure, within the party.
This makes the prospect of a joint José Serra-Aécio Neves ticket very attractive to the PSDB, though Neves has yet to be persuaded of the virtues of being a vice-presidential candidate. This partnership could secure a majority of votes in Minas Gerais and heavy support from politicians linked to the powerful governor, and in addition deflect the criticism of those who see Serra as too Paulista and rather an arrogant politician.
Some in the PSDB even see opening a glorious path to a sixteen-year political hegemony, with a re-elected Serra in 2014 passing the baton to Neves for two further terms. Brazilians in the Lula era have, after all, learned to dream.
A Left-Hand Drive
At this early stage, the outcome in 2010 is in the balance. José Serra leads in the polls, though he has lost some ground to Dilma Rousseff: the DataFolha agency gives him 32% support and Dilma 28% (as against 37% for Serra and 23% for Dilma in December 2009). These emerging great rivals are also not very different from each other in political character: both are centralizers and politicians who value administration skills.
But whatever the election outcome, Brazil’s current political map guarantees the existence of a strong opposition and an alternative source of power; it thus strengthens the country’s political institutions and political continuity.
In general terms, the administrations of Cardoso and Lula were very similar. Both sustained economic stability and applied policy in social areas that had been completely neglected for decades. Cardoso put more emphasis on healthcare and basic education; Lula on the universities, the Bolsa Família and infrastructure.
It may be too that the Partido dos Trabalhadores believes more than the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira in the capacity of the state to solve social and economic problems. The two parties also have somewhat different approaches towards foreign policy, though this too has its limits; both Serra and Cardoso would be considered “liberals” in the United States sense.
Thus the PSDB is most definitely not a party on the “right wing” of Brazilian politics, even if this is what the PT would like it to be. Psdebistas are much more social democrats than liberals or conservatives. But it is also true that the need for political alliances has moved the PT from the left to the center – and kept it there.
Within this context, Brazil’s party-polarization both guarantees continuity and makes the center-left the dominant position in the country. It may seem paradoxical, but this makes the 2010 election more interesting than ever. It can be said again: welcome to politics, Brazil.
Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: www.ituassu.com.br. This article appeared originally in Open Democracy – www.opendemocracy.net.