01 November, 2010

Shift happens: how Brazil will change with the outcome of the presidential election

Sérgio Abranches

The election of Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s personal pick and former top aide, as next President of Brazil will trigger several important political shifts in the country.

The president-elect, once in office, will face challenges much harder than Lula has ever faced in the Presidency. For the first time someone without previous political experience and leadership will be seating legitimately on the presidential desk with full power.

The Brazilian system of governance is a presidential coalition government. Congress is strong, almost every policy the President plans to enforce requires a law authorizing or enabling the policy. The President has the power to initiate legislation, but the majority to approve presidential initiatives depends on a multiparty coalition in both Houses of Congress. President-elect Dilma Rousseff has said that her multiparty electoral alliance will become her governing coalition. This is not an automatic process, though. It requires a lot of political bargaining around ministerial posts, offices in the second and third tiers of government, as well as shares in the budget. The larger the representation of the pork barrel-seeking parties in the coalition, the harder it is to strike a deal. The major clientele-oriented party in her coalition, PMDB, is a federation of bosses of state party machines, very difficult to hold together and utterly ungovernable under stress. This process of coalition formation requires plenty of political savvy and bargaining skills. It will clearly be president-elect Rousseff’s first major test.

Looking to the bigger picture, the most important outcomes of this electoral process are the changes it trigers.

First of all, there will be a tremendous change of style. President Lula is a mobilization leader and he has relied almost 100% on the motivational dimension of the relationship between the Presidency and the people. He has never acted as a dedicated chief executive officer. He was more like a strategic leader. He spent more time on public events, such as inauguration of public projects and new plants of private corporations, celebrations, fairs and conventions, and on international travels, than at the office. He has a highly developed political instinct that balances his political shortcomings, and compensates for his lack of interest on the daily routines of the Presidency.

President-elect Dilma has so far proved to have no mobilization skills, and to be a poor motivational speaker. She is the kind of office-centered CEO. She likes to look into the details, and is unlikely to delegate as much as Lula did. One should not expect her Chief of Staff to be as powerful and independent a Chief of Staff as she was under president Lula. She has a more formal techno-bureaucratic attitude that will very soon contrast with Lula’s streetwise style of motivational presidency.

A second important difference is that Dilma is more ideological and less pragmatic than Lula has ever been. Lula was an AFL-CIO type of union leader, far different from the socialist and communist European union leaders of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Dilma still likes to think herself as belonging to what she calls “the camp of the left”. She has updated her views, as almost everybody in the left has done, but she is very likely less flexible than Lula.

Third, Lula was greater than PT and Dilma is smaller than the party. She owns her election far more to Lula’s popularity than to her political skills and capabilities to communicate with voters. She also has a temper and that may generate stress and friction as PT will try to impose party controls on her presidency.

PT, the Workers’ Party, is entering a whole new stage of its political life. For the first time  since 1989 it will not have Lula running a presidential campaign. Lula ran for the presidency in 1989, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006, being elected in the last two. From 1990 to 2002, Lula led the opposition. Over the last eight years he was the President of the Nation. Perhaps even Lula himself is uncertain about what he will be doing from January 2nd, 2011 onwards.

The immediate challenge will be how to host a former president, known for his voluntarism and lack of personal discipline. Lula’s informality has led him to breach all democratic limits to the role an incumbent President could have on a presidential campaign to support his candidate. He disqualified the opposition, and used the government apparatus and state-owned companies to favor the official candidate. He always acts on impulse and instinct alone, and he seems to need public attention all the time. This phase of Lula being out of the Presidential office will be a testing one to Lula, the Party, and president Dilma Rousseff for quite some time. He may cast a giant shadow over the new government and the party as well.

Although Lula cannot be discarded as a presidential candidate in 2014, the Workers’ Party will have at some point to start looking for new leaders and to design feasible alternative courses for party life without Lula. “Lulism” will always remain a factor beyond the party’s reach as long as Lula stays on active political life. And the President is giving no signs that he will simply retire. The moment Lula recedes into the background the party will start facing stress and competition among its several internal factions.

At the same time, PT will also have to deal with the growth of competitors on the center-left side of the political spectrum. PSB, the Brazilian Socialist Party, has elected six state governors. PT elected 5. PSB’s parliamentary gains weren’t that significant, the party elected 34 representatives, and four senators. But it has more political leaders able to run a competitive presidential campaign than PT. Some were elected state governors. The critical aspect is that to put in place checks and balances on the power and influence of PMDB, the major clientele-oriented party on the new coalition, PT and Dilma will have to amplify PSB’s influence and power.

PT will not be alone on the road towards a new and yet unknown future. Its main adversary, the social democratic PSDB, is also on that road, even though heading to a different destination. With José Serra’s second failure on a presidential pledge – he ran against Lula in 2002 – the party’s founding fathers from the state of São Paulo will loose ground. The São Paulo section, once led by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has been the hegemonic force within the party since its creation. Now it ran out of alternatives. Its other leader, Geraldo Alckmin, who ran against Lula in 2006, was elected governor of the state of São Paulo, defeating PT and Lula’s candidate, former senator Aloizio Mercadante. But the party does not look at Alckmin as its champion to run the 2014 presidential elections.

All eyes have already turned to former governor of the state of Minas Gerais, now elected senator, Aécio Neves. Two other politicians from the party’s second generation, i.e. the generation after the founding fathers, were elected governors of their states: Beto Richa, governor-elect of the southern state of Paraná, and Marconi Perillo, elected governor of the midwestern state of Goiás. Richa was the mayor of the capital city of Paraná, Curitiba. His father, José Richa, already deceased, was one of the party’s most influential founding fathers, celebrated for his political savvy. Marconi Perillo is a senator, he has been governor before, and now has defeated the powerful machine of PMDB in his state, running against the party’s boss Íris Resende. Resende was publicly and strongly supported by President Lula. The president deeply resented Perillo’s role in the Senate as a fierce opponent to himself and his government. He played a strong role accusing Lula of direct participation in the scandal of political corruption known as “mensalão”. The scandal negatively marked Lula’s first term. It involved monthly payments to parties in Congress to buy their allegiance to the government. It is under judicial review and there are 40 former members of Lula’s government and PT officials being prosecuted, among them the still influential, former party Secretary-General and Lula’s first Chief of Staff, José Dirceu.

Both PT and PSDB are on the verge of a power transition and will also experience a process of power diffusion. For PT, the transition and diffusion of power will take longer, because Lula will continue to hold most of the power and influence in the party and outside it. For PSDB, transition and diffusion will move faster. First there will be a transition of power from São Paulo’s leadership towards Aécio Neves. He will clearly attract the majority of the Party’s active forces, that see him as their best bet for 2014. Although Neves will likely be the major political attractor within the party, power will also be more decentralized, and we should expect Richa, Perillo, the new governor of Minas Gerais, Antonio Anastasia and other emerging social democrat leadership to become more influential and to have a stronger voice in the party’s decisions. Power will become more diffused within the party.

The first presidential election without Lula as a candidate will cause major waves of change. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to put up an alert for a political tsunami. Large tectonic plates under the ground of Brazil’s two major parties are already shifting and moving. These undercurrents are likely to generate several waves that will deeply change the parties’ landscape and the political environment. The unlikely scenario will be one of continuity and stability. How strong and how deep change will be it remains to be seen. But a substantial amount of change should be expected. As one says: “shift happens”.

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