Brazilian candidate's key asset: a nod from Lula

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2010 5:36 PM
Brazilian candidate's key asset: a nod from Lula

Eight years ago, raw sewage ran through the streets in Patricia Silva's neighborhood and she could find only intermittent work cleaning houses. Now the streets are clean and Silva, with a steady job as a hotel maid, has clawed her way above the poverty line.

Like many of Brazil's poorer voters, Silva credits President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with making her life better. She's happy to help the popular leader known simply as Lula hand over the government to Dilma Rousseff, a former aide who has shown little of his charisma and was relatively unknown until a few months ago.

"Dilma is Lula's candidate and that is enough for me," said the maid Silva, repeating what has become a mantra among many Brazilians. "Because of Lula, my kids have milk to drink, I have medicine in my house if they need it. He is the one who made that happen and so I am with his candidate."

That sentiment is of immense benefit to Rousseff, who in June of last year trailed Jose Serra, her centrist opponent in Sunday's runoff election, by 22 percentage points in polls. In the Oct. 3 first-round vote she took 46.9 percent of the ballots compared to Serra's 32.6 percent _ shy of the majority needed to win outright that day.

The road has not been easy for Rousseff. Two weeks ago, Serra pulled into a technical tie with her in one poll as weeks of media coverage of a corruption scandal and accusations she was soft of Brazil's legal ban on nearly all abortions hurt her standing. But the political debate returned to the economy and many voters seem likely to make their decision based upon their pocketbooks and not their moral views.

Rousseff, 62, was Silva's chief of staff before he decided she would be the candidate for the ruling Workers Party. Since then, she has ridden Silva's wave of popularity and glued her image to his as they campaigned relentlessly together.

Silva, 65, enjoys an approval rating above 80 percent after orchestrating Brazil's economic and political rise over his eight years in office. He is a short, pudgy, affable man who speaks the language of the poor yet can charm a room full of sophisticated world leaders.

Rousseff, by contrast, maintains a heavy air and lacks the backslapping demeanor of her political mentor, though she's viewed as qualified to lead the nation that is forecast to be the globe's fifth-largest economy by the time it hosts the 2016 Olympics. Rousseff, a former Marxist militant who was imprisoned for three years and tortured under Brazil's military dictatorship, left her rebel background behind long ago.

"If there were no Lula, she would not even be a candidate, let alone in this position of relative advantage," said Michel Zaidan, a political scientist at the Federal University of Pernambuco. "What allowed Dilma to continue with this advantage is Lula rolling up his sleeves and going into the streets to defend her. These votes don't belong to her, they belong to Lula."

Since Silva took office on Jan. 1, 2003, his generous social programs, orthodox economic policies and job creation efforts have catapulted more than 20 million Brazilians out of poverty and pushed 29 million into the middle class.

The nation has seen record economic growth this year. It is the largest exporter of agricultural products including ethanol, beef, poultry, coffee and sugar. Early in Silva's time as president, Brazil's foreign reserves stood at $47 billion _ but most of that was in loans from the International Monetary Fund. Its reserves now stand at $275 billion _ and it is now a creditor to the IMF, making up to $5 billion available to the IMF for its loan programs.

Topping it off, in the last two years Brazil has made the largest oil discoveries the Western Hemisphere has seen in three decades _ and on Friday the government announced that a test well shows another offshore field may hold 15 billion barrels, which would double the nation's proven reserves.

Both Rousseff and Serra, 68, have offered little about the specifics of their prospective governments, but Silva's extremely popular social programs will remain no matter who becomes president.

While some have worried that Rousseff will take a more left-leaning, interventionist approach to economic management, most analysts say she will remain pragmatic and orthodox, like Silva. Rousseff is an economist by training and it is forecast by most that she will take a more active role than her predecessor in the daily management of the economy.

It is foreign policy where Brazil could feel the biggest effect from Silva's absence.

The outgoing leader became the leading moral voice of the developing world of late, chastising rich nations for not acting responsibly during the global financial crisis. His political ties are remarkably diverse: He maintains solid relations with the Washington, yet is also a friend of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, two strident opponents of the U.S.

Rousseff "won't have the same type of flamboyance that we have seen with Lula, especially toward the end of his administration," said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

While that could dim the spotlight on Brazil at international forums, the nation has reached a level of global importance that most analysts say it will remain a player regardless of who is its next leader.

"Brazil is going through a very good phase. Everything seems to be working well," said Cardenas. "There is support for what the government does. People are showing tremendous levels of confidence and satisfaction with the way the country is going."


Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.