Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff: Lula’s Electoral Gambit



With the Brazilian presidential election approaching in October 2010, potential candidates have started to position themselves for their parties’ nomination in the hope of succeeding current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The immensely popular Lula, who holds an unprecedented approval rating of 81.5 percent, must step down due to the country’s two-term constitutional limit, and to date has dismissed all calls that he stand for reelection. Corruption scandals have rocked Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) with regularity in recent years and in turn, have plagued the party’s search for a viable candidate to succeed Lula. The President has recently handpicked his Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, as his successor, and he has tirelessly attempted to coalesce support of the PT behind her. Rousseff’s candidacy already has been confronted with numerous difficulties, namely the fact that she lacks the charisma, name recognition and experience to make her a compelling candidate for the presidency. In spite of these shortcomings, President Lula plans to use the full weight of his popularity and influence to maintain the party in power, with her as its standard bearer.

A Flawed Candidate
Even more disconcerting for some political observers is Rousseff’s being diagnosed with stage 1 lymphoma, news of which was publically disseminated in late April and is the latest blow to her bid for the presidency. Rousseff’s admission to the Sírio-Libanês hospital in São Paulo on May 20, due to leg pain caused by her chemotherapy treatments, has reignited calls for maintaining Lula in the presidency amongst his fellow PT members as well as his supporters in allied parties in the President’s ruling coalition. In particular, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the largest party in the coalition, is becoming increasingly restless over this latest revelation and is calling for a “Plan B.” Though Rousseff’s oncologist states that her chances for a complete recovery are at 90 percent as a result of her four month chemotherapy treatment, PMDB leaders worry that her battle against cancer would diminish her ability to endure the hardships of campaigning while also reducing the likelihood that the PT-led government will continue in office. They point out that future hospitalizations and treatments would exude an air of fragility and weakness to the public and detract from her ability to raise her national profile.

Plan B: The Lula Presidency Extended
Given all of these fateful circumstances, legislative members of the centrist PMDB have started to explore alternatives to extend Lula’s presidency as a means of circumventing a Rousseff candidacy. At present, the introduction of a constitutional amendment to allow Lula to seek a third consecutive term remains the most popular option. In fact, on the afternoon of May 28, federal deputy Jackson Barreto (PMDB) introduced such a proposal containing 183 attached signatures in support. These were twelve more than the necessary 171 for its introduction. Opposition members accounted for fifteen of the total number of signatures. Such a proposal, if approved by a three-fifths majority after two rounds of voting in both chambers of Congress, would then mandate a plebiscite in September to render a verdict on the issue.

A less well known proposal that is gaining some popularity in Congress is the extension of the current term of the president, governors, senators and deputies by two years. This would delay elections for these posts until 2012 instead of in 2010. Under current electoral rules, municipal elections are held two years after balloting for the previously earmarked positions. As an added benefit to this proposal, its proponents claim that holding federal and municipal elections simultaneously would save the government R$ 10 billion (US$ 5 billion) in electoral expenses.

Despite the efforts of their supporters, the two alternatives to a Rousseff candidacy appear destined to fail. The proposal for a constitutional amendment to allow the incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term elicited a swift negative response from both Lula and the PT leadership. Hours after its introduction, Cândido Vaccarezza, the PT’s leader in the lower house, stated that the party, in accordance with the wishes of Lula, would “move against the proposal” and vote in a bloc against it, eliminating any chance for its success. In the end, such measures may be unnecessary since thirteen opposition signatories withdrew their support of the measure in the early hours of May 29, due to threats of expulsion from their parties. Four members of the ruling coalition also withdrew their support, leaving the proposal five signatures short of the required amount.

Despite this setback, Barreto states that he will “continue collecting signatures next week.” Even if Barreto eventually succeeds, a greater obstacle to the success of either measure, however, will be the nation’s supreme court. Gilmar Mendes, president of the court, stated that “both measures were unlikely to be ratified by the court because of their damage to the republican principle.” In other words, in the eventuality of the success of either proposal, the supreme court would strike them down as unconstitutional. Furthermore, the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo reported on May 25 that at least five of the eleven justices were against the measures at this time. Given these obstacles, both proposals will most likely be scuttled.

The most formidable obstacle to these measures is President Lula himself. Lula views his opposition to the proposed constitutional amendments as vital to the maturation of Brazil’s young democracy, which was only reinstated after the end of the brutal, US – backed military dictatorship (1964-1985) and the ratification of the current constitution in 1988. In an October 2007 interview with the Folha de São Paulo, the country’s largest daily, the President stated: “The alternation of power is important for the construction of democracy. No one is irreplaceable.” Furthermore, Lula also recognizes the regional implications of his opposition. Under his tenure, Brazil has espoused a politically moderate and economically orthodox model for development which has allowed it to emerge as the undisputed leader in Latin America. Standing on this high platform, Lula’s dismissal of both alternatives signifies an attempt on his part to curb the caudillismo that has entrenched itself in Venezuela and Colombia, among other countries, and is threatening to take foot in other parts of the region.

Prognosis
Despite the complication posed by Rousseff’s cancer, Lula has reaffirmed that “Dilma is still my candidate.” The President’s commitment is partially rooted in her performance in opinion polls conducted by the Datafolha agency, which show her rise from 3 percent of intended votes in March 2008 to 12 percent in March 2009 and to 16 percent in May 2009. It also stems from the President’s belief that Rousseff offers the best chance for the PT to retain the presidency. Carlos Augusto Montenegro, president of the Brazilian consulting firm IBOPE, agrees: “I estimate that any name that appears as a candidate for the PT with the backing of Lula will gain 15 percent of the votes. Dilma can have a little more.” Lula’s faith in his candidate, however, may be his greatest gamble due to several forthcoming challenges and uncertainties which lessen the probability of her electoral victory. To begin, the long-term effect of Rousseff’s lymphoma is yet to be calculated. The cancer could, in fact, help to humanize the “Iron Lady,” as Rousseff is sometimes known. Additionally, the Brazilian media’s newfound obsession with Rousseff’s health could also raise her national profile. On the other hand, the fears expressed by the PMDB may prove to be true. Many Brazilians still remember Tancredo Neves, a highly respected politician who was elected President in 1985, but fell ill one day before his inauguration and died before assuming his post. Gaudêncio Torquanto, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, adds: “Despite the sympathies he/she may have for a candidate, the voter will not vote for the candidate if he/she perceives that their health may compromise the government.”

Adding to the challenges is a forthcoming Congressional Commission of Inquiry (CPI) which is set to investigate Petrobras, the state-owned energy company. The CPI, launched by the opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), is set to investigate alleged financial irregularities, including the company’s failure to pay federal taxes amounting to R$4.38 billion (US$2.2 billion) between December 2008 and March 2009. Nevertheless, CPI’s are highly politicized, and the current one could prove to be an attempt by the opposition to taint Rousseff (who is also the chairwoman of the company’s Board of Directors) with the stigma of corruption.

The global recession, which finally has arrived to the shores of Brazil, also presents an obstacle to Rousseff’s candidacy. Whereas the Brazilian economy grew by 5.1 percent in 2008, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that the economy will contract by 1.5 percent in 2009. Whether it is justified or not, some of the blame for Brazil’s negative economic indicators will undoubtedly wash off on Lula and the government. Some political pundits have even gone so far as to speculate that the economic decline now visiting the country may reduce Lula’s ability of influencing the electorate.

Political Calculations
The apparent resolution of the internal debate within the opposition PSDB will also prove to be a big challenge. As the nation’s largest opposition party, the PSDB will be fielding a candidate in the approaching presidential election. Until recently it was undecided whether José Serra or Aécio Neves would represent the party. Both are nationally known and respected: Serra is currently the governor of the important São Paulo state and a seasoned politician who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2002. Neves, also a governor, has previously served in Congress and is the grandson of the revered Tancredo Neves.

A recently released opinion poll by Sensus in May 2009 revealed that in a head to head matchup, Serra would garner 40.4 percent of the vote against 23.5 percent for Rousseff. In the same scenario, Neves (18.8 percent) would lose to the Iron Lady (27.7 percent). These numbers bolster the potential candidacy of Serra and though both governors deny this, a column in the May 17 edition of the Folha de São Paulo by Kennedy Alencar claims that a deal had been brokered with the help of party elder, former president and architect of much of Brazil’s recent economic success, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Under this deal, which could be announced publically in August or September, Serra would run for the presidency and Neves on the vice-presidential ticket. If this resolution holds firm, Rousseff will have to face a unified, rather than a divided, PSDB in the upcoming ballot.

As the prospect of Lula running for a third term begins to convincingly fade, his steadfast support for Rousseff may result in the withdrawal of the PMDB’s support. According to Francisco Fonseca, a political scientist and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, the PMDB “is an extremely pragmatic party. It doesn’t have an ideology. It doesn’t have a face: a more conservative PMDB, a less conservative PMDB, a more progressive PMDB. It makes alliances with all. It is chameleon-like and a party of winners.” The validity of this assessment is unequivocal, as the party made an alliance with the winning PSDB during the Cardoso presidency, and then aligned itself with the winning PT during the Lula years. With Rousseff trailing Serra by nearly 20 points in recent opinion polls, it appears that the party of winners, the PMDB, may soon jump ship and form an alliance with the PSDB, further damning the Rousseff candidacy.

The Lula Legacy Assured
Despite the uncertainties and intricacies involved in his succession, Lula can rest assured that no matter who ends up at the helm of the country, his two great flagship projects – Bolsa Familia in the first term and the Program for the Acceleration of Growth (PAC) in the second term – will remain in place in the coming years. In the event of a PSDB-led government, the party has in the past month promised to retain Bolsa Familia, a direct cash transfer scheme that currently services 45 million people and is largely responsible for the 27.7 percent fall in poverty during Lula’s first term. The PAC, a four year plan launched in 2007 that seeks to invest R$503.9 billion (US$252 billion) in much needed infrastructure improvements, especially with the advent of the 2014 World Cup, has stirred up denunciations from the PSDB for its inefficient execution. However, the opposition insists that it is necessary to modify its structure as well as its method of implementation to improve its efficiency.

There remains sixteen months until the presidential election, and Lula still has time to alter his strategy in favor of another candidate. The charismatic education minister, Fernando Haddad, has been suggested as a possible substitute, but Lula continues to show no sign of wavering. However, the challenges for a Dilma Rousseff candidacy are daunting, perhaps too much so for her to survive as the coalition’s presidential candidate. Lula, in a misguided belief that his popularity may provide the Midas touch in all contingencies, may come to find that he is backing a losing proposition.

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