Stepping out of Lula’s shadow

Moving into a second round of balloting, the Brazilian public remain unsure of political heir apparent Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff will need to show more than just love to win the race for the Presidency; over the next few weeks she will need to step out further from the shadows of her mentor, current President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva [EPA] 

October 3 saw over 100 million Brazilians vote in the first round of the presidential election, leaving the favourite, Dilma Rousseff, tantalisingly short of the 50% + 1 required for outright victory.

As the two surviving candidates move into a second round of campaigning ahead of a decisive run-off scheduled for October 31, celebration of a quarter of a century of constitutional government is unlikely. The country suffered no less than six unconstitutional changes of regime between 1889 and 1985; the present election is likely to be sidelined by unwelcome attention to candidate selection, corruption, and a litany of familiar and enduring constraints on democracy.

These concerns may be common to many of Brazil’s neighbours, but there’s a distinctive twist to the way they are being played out in the most populous of the South American republics. Brazil, many Brazilians will tell you, is not part of Latin America.

Short on charisma, inclined to avoid spontaneous discussion of policy issues, Dilma Rousseff is likely to shed whatever glamour she derives from immigrant parentage, a record of resistance to military government in the 1970s, and a leading role in the politics of Rio Grande do Sul as she goes head-to-head over the next four weeks with centre-right candidate José Serra.

Stripped of this background, Rousseff is an economist who is in the presidential race primarily because she served for the past five years as Chief of Staff to incumbent president Luis Inácio da Silva Lula – and is viewed as his nominee. This is, after all, the first Brazilian presidential election since 1985 in which Lula has not been a candidate. Rousseff has been riding on the quite extraordinarily high end-of-term popularity ratings of Lula (around 80%), but this may prove a wasting asset, allowing Serra to make crucial second-round inroads in the federal capital and the North-Eastern states.

To his credit, Lula has resisted the general trend elsewhere in South America toward constitutional tinkering aimed at extending eligibility for re-election. He benefited from an earlier constitutional change that already made possible two consecutive terms and therefore had no pressing need to join the dismal band of South American presidents to have tinkered with their constitutions to allow longer or additional terms of office.

Over the past two decades, such presidents include: Chavez in Venezuela; Fujimori in Peru; Menem in Argentina; and Uribe in Colombia.

Yet (2 x 4) is only a little more than (1 x 6): the fact is that the selection of Rousseff has about it too much of the evident reluctance of democratically-elected leaders to relinquish power. The failure of Rousseff thus far to mark out distinctive policy ground must leave Brazilian voters with three fears: that Rousseff is merely Lula’s poodle; that power will fall to a Kirschneresque cabal; or that, once elected, she may run up an unexpected jolly-roger and turn pirate.

The advantages of extended terms are obvious, and include stable economic management and the possibility of sustained development of programs like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia. This program has helped lift millions of households out of absolute poverty during Lula’s tenure of office. The disadvantages, however, include corruption.

Such corruption tends to increase the longer a government remains in office and has been a widespread feature of democratic South America. Indeed, as early as the mid-1990s, with Menem’s Argentina in the throes of the Yabran affair, and both Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez and Brazil’s Fernando Collor de Mello recently impeached, it already appeared that the spectrum of greed ran from relatively honest military regimes through to the new populists.

It was the implication of her close colleague, Erenice Guerra, in a corruption scandal that probably cost Rousseff a first-round victory.

It remains to be seen whether Lula will resist adding his name to the list of South American leaders who dominate politics for a generation, like his predecessor Getulio Vargas, or Argentina’s Juan Domingo Peron. It will become clear over the next three weeks just how much Guerra’s involvement has tainted Rousseff’s reputation.

The electoral process itself has been carefully monitored by three dozen states and IGOs, at least three of them – Italy, Russia, and Haiti – there to learn from Brazil’s use of electronic voting machines rather than to spot fraud.

The considerable Brazilian diaspora has been able to vote at centres worldwide. Compulsory voting ensures a high turnout. There will be an absence of the violence that has marked so many recent elections; no growing apathy of electorates in the so-called mature democracies; no lock-out of British voters or the shameful hanging chads of Florida. The result reached on October 31 will reflect the will of the electorate. 

Secondly, a trustworthy democratic process together with responsible and effective government in Brazil, not least during the Lula years, means that this electorate is free from its own ghost – the mob – which has chased elected heads of state out of office in Bolivia and Ecuador. Also, the process can too easily upset representative democracy through recall votes and referenda.

Much of this must be down to the satisfaction of expectations. Though still trailing Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in per capita income, Brazilians are becoming better off faster than their neighbours, while Argentines have been losing ground for decades, and absolute poverty is still extensive in the Andean republics.

Finally, the Brazilian military are neither an entrenched feature of a limited democracy (as in Chile), nor the last remaining line of constitutional defence, as they believed themselves to be in 1964. All those fears of Lula ‘the radical trade unionist’ were rapidly quelled as he first took office and are long forgotten. This leaves just one remaining constraint: the supposed male domination of Ibero-American societies.

Forget it! Since Isabel Peron – perhaps best forgotten – in 1970s Argentina, and including heads of government as well as heads of state, the count in Latin America is now into double figures. But hold on! In the Brazilian first round last Sunday, the two female candidates between them took fully two-thirds of the votes.

If gender counts at all at the polls, it may now favour the distaff side.

Dr Charles Jones is Reader in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. In January 2011 he will once again become the Director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Latin American Studies. He has authored numerous books including The North-South Dialogue: A Brief History, and most recently, American Civilisation (University of Lonson SAS, 2007).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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