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22 September 2017 17:21 (South Africa)
Politics

Brazil's presidential elections: A spectacle to rival its famed carnival

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics
lula dilma

The world waits to see if Brazil’s presidential election runoff at the end of October will draw the lines more clearly between candidates with personal and political histories as diverse and spectacular as the huge nation itself. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party candidate Dilma Rousseff ended just shy of a majority in the presidential election there. Rouseff is wildly popular incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor and, until she resigned to run for office, had been his chief of staff. By the time the vote count was finished, with 46.9%, Rousseff had a 14-point-plus lead over her closest rival, the centre-left Social Democratic Party’s José Serra, who polled 32.6%. The wild card in the race now is Green Party’s Marina Silva.

Surprising many, Silva had polled just less than 20% of the votes in the first round. Of all the candidates, Silva’s life story is the most extraordinary. She comes from a desperately poor family of rubber-tappers and was illiterate until 14. As an adult, she worked closely with rainforest preservation activist Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988. Silva, a devout evangelical Christian, appears to have picked up votes mainly at Rousseff's expense. Silva had been Lula's environment minister from January 2003 until 2008, when she left over difficulties in pursuing an aggressive environmental agenda. Then, last year she left the Workers’ Party itself, blaming ongoing deforestation in the Amazon on cattle ranchers and farmers.

Brazilian election analysts are now divided over whether Serra can make up enough ground in the remaining time before the runoff election. Summing up the race, Alexandre Barros, of the Early Warning political risk group in Brasilia, explained, “A second round is a whole new ball game. Everything starts from zero. I would say Dilma has a strong chance of winning a second round. But it will all depend on what new facts emerge during the campaign.”

Rousseff’s political trajectory, like that of her mentor, Lula’s, has been extraordinary. In her earlier years she was a Marxist militant who was tortured while in prison during Brazil’s most recent military dictatorship. But in the ensuing years, she shed her rebel background, remade herself into a pragmatic bureaucrat who ended up as Lula’s chief of staff. While she started out as a virtual unknown to most of the country’s voters in a crowded political field, her support expanded sharply upward after it became clear she was Lula’s favourite.

Serra, by contrast, has a long political and senior government career. He has been mayor of São Paulo city and governor of São Paulo state, losing in a presidential race to Lula in 2002. In political terms, very much like Rousseff, Serra has campaigned to continue the policies of the current president.

Runoffs happened in Lula’s 2002 and 2006 victories so are now a familiar part of the Brazilian political landscape. This time around, once it was clear Rousseff would not win a majority, she told her supporters, “We are used to challenges. Traditionally, we have fared well in the second round. I'm confident that the second round will provide an important process of elucidation, of dialogue with the representatives of society.” Not soaring rhetoric, for sure, but probably a true reflection of what lies ahead. In the meantime, Serra told his supporters their Social Democracy Party was “going to march to victory” in the 31 October runoff vote and take back the presidency for the first time since Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration from 1994 to 2002.

Just a month ago it seemed possible Rousseff would roll on to a major win. But an ethics scandal that involved one of her own aides who took over as the president’s chief of staff when Rousseff left, became a front-page story that weakened her just enough to deny outright victory. With both candidates pledging they’re the right person to keep current social and economic policies on course, campaigning this month will force both to come up with details rather than generalities.

About 135 million voters also voted for governors, mayors and state and national parliaments. Voting is mandatory in Brazil between the ages of 18-70 and failure to vote can yield a modest fine and other penalties like making it impossible to work for the government or get a passport.

For generations, Brazil had the texture of a somewhat exotic, hothouse plant-like country. A Portuguese colony for hundreds of years, it was ruled by an actual emperor until late in the 19th century and was the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Culturally, there was dancer/singer Carmen Miranda (with those fantastic fruit-laden hats), Brazilian dances like the samba, the Rio Carnival, composers as varied as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Heitor Villa-Lobos, and a sensual lifestyle that seemed to be reflected in an ethnic heritage that gave Brazil the world’s most populous mixed-race population – almost an alternative version of South Africa’s history. (Read comparative historian George Frederickson’s classic work: “White Supremacy”). Think of that wonderful cult Brazilian flick, “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” starring Sonia Braga, to get the picture. Oh, and there has been that little thing of Brazil’s national obsession with and extraordinary success on the soccer pitch.

This huge nation straddles the equator and had the almost unimaginable tropical Amazon basin as its vast, lightly populated core. Sugar was its first great commercial crop during the Portuguese colonial era. Rubber, coffee and other agricultural crops followed, generating great wealth as well as extraordinary economic disparities between rich and poor. Towards the end of the 19th century, rubber led to great wealth and the amazing spectacle of great, ornate opera houses built deep in the Amazon River basin. The clustering of so much of the population along the coast has led to several national efforts to pump prime growth in the interior, with the new capital of Brasilia as testimony.

More recently, a great rush to extract wealth from oil and timber, or to turn the tropical rainforest into a new zone of farms and cattle ranches has led to charges that Brazil was ignoring the rights and endangering the lives of the indigenes of the rainforest – or, worse, that it was opening the door for a global environmental disaster. (The author once stood in line right behind a whole delegation of Brazilian indigenes in full feathered headgear - and little else – as they made their way through some thorough security searches at the entry of the US state department’s headquarters to make representations to American officials involved in international climate negotiations.)

But Brazil has clearly crashed through a metaphysical barrier in the past several years, coinciding with Lula’s tenure in office, becoming a new international powerhouse. Its economic presence in areas such as high-tech manufacture of aircraft, bio-fuels production and petroleum exploitation are important contributors to its economic heft. It is a growing presence in international climate negotiations – in large part based on the fact that Brazil encompasses that huge carbon sink and world oxygen producer, the Amazon basin. President Lula administration’s of broad social policies that include linking social grants to mandatory education of children and efforts to give informal settlements new means to improve their housing stock and services are seen by many as an inspiration to other middle-income nations trying to puzzle out a way of breaking the cycle of poverty. Another measure of this transformation, of course, is Brazil’s selection to host both the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The Olympics, even more than the World Cup, are frequently an international acknowledgement of a nation’s changed international status – think Tokyo, Seoul or Beijing.

Most recently, world attention is on Brazil to see how countries can build agricultural capability, food security and export capacity with the right mix of inputs - in previously marginal or under-utilized land. The Economist discussed this revolution recently at length: “Instead of trying to protect farmers from international competition—as much of the world still does—it opened up to trade and let inefficient farms go to the wall. This was all the more remarkable because most of the country was then regarded as unfit for agricultural production…. it has become the first tropical agricultural giant and the first to challenge the dominance of the ‘big five’ food exporters (America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union).

“Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it…. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology….

“[Brazil’s] alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive…. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India….

“Third, Brazil shows a different way of striking a balance between farming and the environment. The country is accused of promoting agriculture by razing the Amazon forest. And it is true that there has been too much destructive farming there. But most of the revolution of the past 40 years has taken place in the cerrado, hundreds of miles away…. The world is facing a slow-motion food crisis now. It should learn from Brazil.”

Brazil’s challenge, now, is to ensure that Lula era reforms, initiatives and, crucially, their momentum, do not slow down or dissipate in the next administration. Barack Obama said at the G20, “I love this guy,” while former British prime minister Tony Blair told the BBC that Lula was “one of the more remarkable leaders of the modern age”. Or listen to Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a leading think-tank in Washington, DC, when he said, “Lula was the first common man to come to power in what is a very unequal society.” As a result, whether Brazil’s next president is Dilma Rousseff or José Serra, one of the country’s most important tasks will be to take the efforts most closely identified with its current president – such as moving nearly 30 million people out of poverty and into the country’s middle class - and turn these policies and behaviours into a continuing, deeply rooted element, thoroughly embedded in the Brazilian national story. Or, maybe we should just give Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill the last word on Brazil’s importance for the future: “The world needs a Green Brazil.” DM


For more, read The Washington Post, BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, BBC, The Economist, The Economist, The New York Times, The New York Times.

Candidates bios:

Dilma Rousseff - Workers Party (PT)

From 2005 until stepping down to run for president, Rousseff was President Lula's chief of staff. Lula has made it clear that Rousseff, the “mother of the PAC”, his government's flagship economic development project, was his choice as successor.

In contrast to Lula, his critics – and even some of her supporters – say she suffers a charisma gap with Lula’s compelling personal saga, his public presence and public-speaking skills. She comes from a middle-class family and her father was a Bulgarian immigrant.

Sharp tempered, she became involved in left-wing politics as a student and joined the underground resistance to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. Although she denies she was ever directly involved in armed confrontation, including a 1969 armed robbery of the safe of São Paulo’s governor, but she was jailed for almost three years and subjected to electric shocks.

Trained as an economist, Rousseff was energy minister before being named as Lula's chief of staff.

José Serra - Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB)

He hopes to add the presidency to a resumé that already lists some of the country’s top political jobs, including mayor of São Paulo, and governor of the state of São Paulo, the nation's biggest city and state respectively. From 1995-1996, Serra served as both health minister and planning minister in president Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government.

He won international plaudits for programmes including an HIV/Aids treatment programme based on producing cheap replicas of patented medicines.

He was born into a family of poor Italian immigrants. At the time of the 1964 military coup, he was the head of the National Students' Union. He went into exile, first to Chile and then after the military coup there, to the US where he studied economics.

He returned to Brazil in 1977 as the country was taking its first steps towards the restoration of democracy. Serra was cofounder of his party, the PSDB. He unsuccessfully ran against Lula in 2002. In 2004, he was elected mayor of São Paulo, a post he left to run successfully for the governorship of the state.

Like Rousseff, Serra is not a great speaker, but he is betting his substantial political and administrative record will close the deal with voters.

Main photo: A woman runs in front of Brazil's ruling Workers' Party presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva campaign banner during campaign rally in Duque de Caxias near Rio de Janeiro October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics

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