Contemplating life post-Lula

As Brazilians head to the polls, Al Jazeera takes a look at those in the running to replace the popular president.

    Who will replace the most 'popular politician on the planet'? [EPA]

    Brazil will soon close the door on one era and open the door to another. South America's largest and most powerful country is on the verge of entering a vastly new political arena or what could most simply be called the "post-Lula era".

    As Brazilians head to the polling booths on Sunday to select a new president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's name is absent from the ballot for the first time since 1989.

    In the past eight years as president, Lula has overseen record economic growth with $239bn in reserves, 24 million people lifted out of poverty, and the expansion of a vibrant middle class that is ready to spend its disposable income.

    He has travelled abroad more than any other president in modern Brazilian history - boosting Brazil's clout on the world stage, which has perhaps been most notably symbolised by Brazil's selection to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

    Lula, who is rumoured to be a top candidate for the next Nobel Peace Prize, is widely perceived as a defender of the interests of the poor and those of developing countries.

    His approval ratings in Brazil hover around 80 per cent, while in his home state of Pernambuco they are at 95 per cent. Barack Obama, the US president, once - only half-jokingly - called him the most "popular politician on the planet".

    The question now facing Brazil is: How to replace Lula?

    The first step to answering that question came when three top candidates for the presidency held their political conventions.

    I attended all three, as there is no better place to get a sense of a candidates' vision and base support than at a political convention.

    Below is a review of each convention, in the order they occurred.

    Marina Silva, Green Party - convention held in Brasilia, June 10

    Marina Silva is not related to Lula, but she used to be one of his strongest political and personal allies, serving as Lula's environment minister before resigning a couple of years ago in frustration, she said, at Lula's failure to back her against powerful business interests.

    'The environmentalist' - The former Lula ally is running for the Green Party [Gabriel Elizondo]

    She shares a lot in common with Lula, as she too grew up in impoverished conditions in a remote region, teaching herself how to read and write and working her way up through the ranks of the Workers Party.

    After breaking away from Lula's Workers Party, she switched to the Green Party.

    Silva is an ardent environmentalist, her ideas shaped by the legendary Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes who she worked alongside early in her career. She has also won the UN's highest environmental prize.

    Of all three candidates, Silva has by far the most compelling personal biography, and she is widely considered to fight for the interests of the poor.

    She has attracted some true 'thinkers' to her campaign; at her side during the convention was Leonardo Boff, a highly respected Brazilian theologian who has never before endorsed a presidential candidate.

    Silva's acceptance speech at the convention was passionate, unscripted and fiery.

    She concluded her convention by imploring her supporters to vote for her as Brazil's first "black, working class, woman president".

    Attracting the disenchanted

    She hit hard on the themes of equality and women's rights, and is angling to attract voters who are disenchanted with the major political parties.

    Silva has strong environmental credentials [EPA]

    "For us young people, more and more we are looking for environmentally friendly places to relax and Marina Silva is the only one who truly is fighting for the environment," 16-year-old Natalia Mota told me.

    "And the Green Party does not have a history of corruption, which is why I like Marina Silva."

    But the Green Party's main weakness is that it is not very well established and, Silva's speech aside, the convention had few truly captivating or memorable moments. In fact, it was at times downright awkward.

    At one point a man dressed as a clown got on stage and started telling jokes. It took more than five minutes - during which time Silva and her supporters appeared unsure how to react - before security ushered him away.

    Many Brazilians I have spoken with say they think she is the best candidate, but they doubt she will win.

    That is a perception she must overcome if she is to stand a real chance.

    Jose Serra, PSDB Party - convention held in Salvador Bahia, June 12

    Jose Serra is the centrist longtime politician who has served as mayor of Sao Paulo, governor of Sao Paulo state, and minister of planning and minister of health under the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

    'The opposition candidate' - Jose Serra is a former health minister [AFP]

    He has run for the presidency before, losing to Lula in 2002, and is the closest thing to a true 'opposition candidate' in this election.

    His party, the PSDB, is well established with 57 federal deputies and 14 senators.

    Serra comes from an upper middle class background and sometimes seems to find it hard to connect with working class voters.

    His support base is in Sao Paulo, but also in the more conservative and lighter skinned southern Brazil.

    Serra's choice of Salvador for his convention could be equated to the US Republican Party holding their convention in Harlem, New York.

    Salvador was Brazil's first capital city and is at the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.

    People from Salvador are not typical Serra supporters; which was precisely the point of holding his convention there. In order to win, Serra needs to re-introduce himself to the voters of northeast Brazil, where if the vote was held today he would probably face an overwhelming defeat.

    His convention was a well-orchestrated affair. The audience was packed with working class people, projecting exactly the image Serra sought. But there was a sense that they were bussed in for the photo opportunity, while the hard-core of Serra's predominantly upper middle class support base had travelled from the south.

    'Doing more'

    Serra's supporters told me that his experience and his record as health minister were the reasons they were voting for him.

    Serra said he would distance Brazil from some of Lula's more left-leaning friends [EPA]

    As health minister he was instrumental in helping to jump start Brazil's well regarded generic medicine industry and positioning Brazil to break the patents of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

    "Serra is a correct person who has experience running a good government," convention attendee Ana Borges, from Santa Catarina, told me.

    "His political trajectory has been excellent and I think Brazil now needs to be governed by him. He was a great governor of San Paulo and an excellent health minister."

    Serra knows it could be political suicide to run against Lula. So he is positioning himself with the message of "Brazil can do more," which explicitly acknowledges the progress made under Lula while also keeping one eye on the future. 

    He is also reminding voters that, in his opinion, much of the groundwork for Brazil's economic gains were put in place by Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a staunch Serra supporter from the PSDB party.

    Serra's cautious, conservative leanings did show through at the convention, where he said that as president he would not have Brazil cosy up to Iran and would likely move Brazil away from close relationships with left-leaning powers.

    Serra can be awkward on the stump speech and he read his from a teleprompter.

    His convention probably achieved the desired result - positioning him as a man of the people without railing against Lula's achievements.

    But he faces a tough challenge, running as an opposition candidate at a time when the current government is so highly regarded.

    Dilma Rousseff, Workers Party - convention held in Brasilia, June 13

    Rousseff is Lula's candidate - plain and simple. She is running from his Workers Party, and will without question benefit from his high approval ratings.

    'Lula's candidate' - Dilma Rousseff is from Lula's Workers Party [Gabriel Elizondo]

    Compared to Lula, she is about as charismatic as cardboard.

    Lula gave an impassioned speech, without notes, that left the audience laughing and cheering (and a few in tears).

    But when he handed the microphone to Rousseff, she went into her stump speech, stiffly reading word-for-word from a teleprompter.

    I was in the first row and actually saw one woman in the fourth row doze off for a while. Another leaned over and said: "She speaks in too many technical terms; she needs to speak more like people."

    Rousseff, a trained economist who was picked out of obscurity to be Lula's chief of staff, has never held elected political office. She clearly needs some time to learn how to connect on a personal level with voters.

    But her convention was brilliantly orchestrated, focusing on the theme of women, with a truly passionate group of supporters in a packed convention hall who often broke into impromptu lyrics of her campaign song.

    Maintaining Lula's legacy

    When I asked her supporters why they wanted her to become president, they presented a long and detailed list of all the accomplishments and programmes that have benefited people under Lula's government that Rousseff will obviously carry on.

    Being Lula's choice may secure victory for the less charismatic candidate [AFP]

    Rousseff, who is widely considered an excellent manager, basically acknowledges - without saying as much - that 'I am not as charismatic as Lula, but if you like him as president I will carry on his legacy so vote for me'.

    It seems to be working with her voters.

    "Dilma is going to continue the Workers Party project and the project of Lula that has at its core a responsibility to the poor, the people most in need," Cristiano Novais, who was attending the convention from Sao Paulo, told me afterwards.

    Rousseff has the benefit of a long list of government social programmes introduced by Lula that she can claim some responsibility for, or at least say she is best to carry on with or expand.

    And there are also many people who will vote for her simply because Lula says so.

    One taxi driver in Salvador told me: "People don't know much about her, except she is Lula's woman. And that is enough."

    Her Workers Party convention was first rate political theatre, showing why even given her inexperience in running for office and personal stiffness, there is a very good chance it will come down to her and Serra.

    And of course, she has Lula on her side, which right now might be all that really matters.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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