21 September, 2009

Brazil may be heading for the longest presidential campaign of its recent political history

Sérgio Abranches

The country is approaching the first marks of the 2010 election calendar. October 3 is the last day for candidates to register with a party to become eligible for candidacy.

This week, minister Dilma Roussef, president Lula’s Chief of Staff and his pick as candidate to his succession, gave several interviews to nationwide media. The minister has never been that talkative. She usually avoids the press, and shows impatience when forced to address reporters. Yesterday she was taking a preemptive action. Rumors have that polls about to become public would show her far behind São Paulo’s governor José Serra – a likely candidate from the opposition party, PSDB – but also behind Ciro Gomes, who ran for president twice, in 1998 and 2002, and could run again under the Socialist Party ticket (PSB).

President Lula is betting on his extraordinary popularity to get Dilma Roussef elected. But president’s popularity are a hardly transferable personal asset. Roussef has a poor performance on the polls, in spite of having far more exposure as a candidate than anyone else listed on the poll charts. President Lula is conducting an intense pre-campaign, traveling to all electorally relevant states with her by his side, to present government programs with high political visibility. Yet, Dilma Roussef hasn’t been able to transform this exposure in voter preference, and to cross the 15% threshold.

The main opposition party is facing a double internal crisis, since it left government at the end of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration. It is a crisis of identity: the party has no new ideas, no sound projects, no vision for the 21st Century to support a presidential campaign. A once nest for the moderate liberals of the Brazilian Intelligentsia, the party today has no active think tank, no program, no vision for the future. Even worse, its parliamentary action is marked by inconsistent individual initiatives, some running clearly against the party’s alleged social democratic values. Social democratic senators have, for instances, championed bills to impose censorship to the Internet, or to reduce the legal protection for the Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, the party’s governors controlling the two major Brazilian states, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, are making every effort to have consistently tolerant and democratic administrations, as well as sound environmental policies. It is also a crisis of leadership. The two likely candidates, São Paulo governor, José Serra, and Minas Gerais governor, Aécio Neves, although trying hard to appear to the public as friendly allies, are working strenuously behind the scenes one against the other. When they recede from these political maneuverings, because they are becoming too detectable, their rank and file make sure the infight goes on. Their attempt to convince the media that they are in mutual agreement, and will decide together who will take the presidential bid, has not been persuasive enough.

Ciro Gomes may have his better chance ever to be at the run-off elections for president in 2010. He was once an active social democratic leadership, and left PSDB only after president Cardoso didn’t grant him the ministerial position he longed for. He is ranked second in many polls, behind his major political foe, José Serra. He blames Serra for intriguing him with Cardoso, and for every negative rumors against him on the press, especially during his two presidential bids. In the 2002 election, he directly confronted Serra, both being defeated by Lula. But Serra made it to the run-off vote against Lula. He acted as Minister for National Integration during president Lula’s first term. The left to run for the House. In the House his performance has been unconvincing. His best political performance was as former president Itamar Franco’s Finance Minister, on a very delicate moment of the Stabilization Plan, and as governor of his home state, Ceará, on Northeastern Brazil.

Gomes is too short-tempered. His chances, if he decides to run, will very much depend on his ability to exercise temperance during the more demanding moments of the campaign. Dilma Roussef, by the way, is also known to be short-tempered. One of her explosions of temper has recently been mentioned by one of her aides as the main cause for to him resign office. In press conferences she is often authoritarian and ill-tempered. Her temperament was never put to a continuing public stress test. A presidential campaign is hardly the best moment for a tryout.

Former environment minister Marina Silva is also set for a presidential bid. She has recently left the Worker’s Party (PT), of which she and president Lula were founding parents. Afterwards she joined the Green Party, a very small organization, and will very likely run under its ticket. Her likely opponents are clearly underestimating her chances. She has, so far, the most contemporary, forward looking ideas to present the Brazilian voter. She has a keen comprehension of the 21st Century agenda. But she will have to demonstrate her capability to put her ideas on a larger frame of reference, to show she is not a “niche” candidate. She has the only biography that rivals Lula’s. She was born on a poor community of rubber tappers, on a remote area of the Amazon region; she was an illiterate until the age of 17. Today she as a college degree in History and has already demonstrated shrewdness and great intelligence in politics. She has been tested as an elected senator at age of 35, and as Lula’s environment minister. She’s resigned after president Lula took from her political control over the policies for the Amazon region. She has also clashed systematically with chief of Staff Dilma Roussef, over her plans for high-carbon energy and extensive road-building in the Amazon, and other parts of the country. The government’s clear dismissal of climate change as a real threat, and its choice to implement high-carbon projects, finally pushed Marina Silva to the opposition.

Marina Silva’s major disadvantage is her party. The Green Party is small, internally inconsistent and lacks credibility. She is larger than the party, but will have to make sure it does not take over her campaign. Electoral TV time in Brazil is free from charge, and allotted to the candidates in proportion to the share of seats in the House they got on the previous election. As PV’s share is minimum, the ticket will be given little TV time. She can overcome this advantage seeking to form an electoral coalition with other parties. She could, then, add their TV time shares to PV’s, a procedure the electoral law allows. She is also betting on her capability to mobilize the youth, and to use the social media. She is regarded with suspicion by a significant portion of the Brazilian business elite, as being against economic growth.

Dilma Roussef announced today, that her party, PT, might hold a convention later next October to officially declare her a candidate. Such a move would giver her an advantage over her competitors. All of them, for different political reasons, are postponing their official candidacies to the end of the year. The two contending PSDB governors are planning to postpone the announcement of their party ticket to as late as March next year. Marina Silva has been hinting that she won’t go official on hers, before December. Ciro Gomes is also giving signs that he wants to take his time, before announcing whether he’ll run.

Being the only official candidate would turn minister Roussef into the only declared candidate to be addressing voters as such. She would also have to observe some constraints on official candidates from the electoral law. All candidates know that, and it is likely that if PT does announce her candidacy in October, others will follow suit. This early definition of candidacies would precipitate the campaign, and Brazil may be heading for the longest campaign of its recent electoral history. The actual vote will take place only in October, 2010, the deadline for candidates registration is July, 7, 2010, and campaign advertising is due legally to begin only on July, 6. Free TV electoral advertising, the most important campaign instrument in Brazil, will only begin as late as August, 17.

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