By Paulo Prada
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Two decades ago, two rivals offered competing visions for the future of Latin America's biggest democracy.
Both men succeeded - each serving two terms as president over a sixteen-year period that during which Brazil was transformed from an economic misfit into one of the world's most promising markets.
Their success made Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva models for two types of contemporary South American leader: Cardoso was the reformist, pro-business intellectual and Lula the fiery, but market-friendly, populist.
It would be a mistake, though, to think that common triumphs have fostered much love between the two former presidents. In fact, Brazilians in recent weeks have experienced more than a little sense of déjà vu as the two elder statesmen slug it out over their legacies and preferred candidates in next year's presidential election.
In competing speeches, videos and other public statements, Cardoso and Lula, aged 81 and 67 respectively, have been trading barbs as if their eyes were still on the prize they first fought over as much younger men, first in 1994 and again in 1998.
But the bickering is very much about the future, especially at a time when the leftist Workers' Party, in power since 2003, is increasingly vulnerable because of a two-year-long halt in Brazil's once-booming economy. Though the 2014 campaign has yet to formally begin, the still-popular party is on guard as Cardoso and others begin to sharpen their knives.
"Fernando Henrique Cardoso, at the minimum, should keep quiet," Lula said last week after his long-time rival criticized a series of rallies in which Lula and President Dilma Rousseff, his protegee and successor, celebrated a decade of Workers' Party rule.
Cardoso, a centrist, says the Workers' Party's long rule, and its control of everything from public lenders to regulatory agencies to state-run energy company Petrobras, form a powerful, one-sided "propaganda barrier" that "few voices are able to penetrate."
"It's suffocating," he told Reuters in an interview. "As a person with political and intellectual responsibility in Brazil, I cannot just be quiet."
A NEED FOR RENEWAL
That two senior citizens are duking it out over an office they both left long ago says a lot about a Brazilian political landscape desperate for renewal, even though over 60 percent of the electorate is younger than 45 years old.
Cardoso and Lula both molded that landscape as leaders of the first wave of democratic parties that governed Brazil following a two-decade military dictatorship that ended in 1985.
But both their parties have struggled to find compelling new voices to replace them. "There is no one else yet able to fill the space that those two occupy," said Alexandre Barros, a political consultant in Brasilia, the capital.
Rousseff, a 65-year-old former bureaucrat and minister in Lula's government, was elected in 2010 largely because the ex-president, still Brazil's most popular politician, picked her to succeed him as candidate.
Faced with a constitutional term limit that prevented him seeking a third consecutive term, Lula campaigned tirelessly on Rousseff's behalf and cast her as the leader best poised to protect Brazil's then red-hot economy.
Cardoso's Social Democratic Party remains the chief opposition, but Lula and Rousseff have trounced its candidates three elections running.
Jose Serra, a two-time presidential election loser and a contemporary of Cardoso, is expected to make way next year for Aecio Neves, a senator and former governor who has tiptoed toward a candidacy but has not yet made a formal announcement.
"By default we have these two older voices out there who continue to own the political debate," said David Fleischer, a political analyst at the University of Brasilia.
Though Rousseff has grown into the presidency, she still meets with Lula regularly and heeds his advice ahead of her planned re-election bid. The former president remains Rousseff's most visible advocate, attacking anyone who dare criticize her.
Jose Chrispiniano, a spokesman for Lula, said the former president was not available for an interview.
The renewed bickering between Cardoso and Lula started last month, when Lula and Rousseff began celebrating a decade in power. The commemoration featured rallies, backdropped by a Soviet-style poster with images of the two leaders, in which Lula and Rousseff enumerated triumphs while minimizing, even denigrating, any achievements by Cardoso.
Cardoso, in a video, then mocked what he saw as revisionism.
His administration has been widely lauded by economists and business leaders for taming inflation, stabilizing the currency, and enabling the growth that marked much of the Lula era. Long critical of Cardoso's policies as an opposition candidate, Lula eventually embraced them during his first successful campaign and throughout his own presidency.
Even so, he and Rousseff frequently claim Brazil's success for themselves. "We didn't inherit anything," Rousseff said at one of the recent rallies. "We built."
In response, Cardoso upped his tone.
During a seminar last week, he called Rousseff an "ingrate," saying "she spits in the plate from which she ate."
Lula then weighed back in, telling Cardoso to shut up and "let the woman work."
Rousseff's work at the moment faces growing criticism.
While she still enjoys personal approval ratings approaching a towering 80 percent, many Brazilians are increasingly worried about an economy that has stalled because of slowing investment, credit concerns, and uncompetitive manufacturers.
Despite a flurry of interest rate cuts and other stimulus, Brazil's economy last year grew by just 0.9 percent - a far cry from the 7.5 percent posted in 2010, Lula's last year in office.
Rousseff recently called her economic critics "merchants of pessimism," taking a page from a Lula playbook that casts the opposition as fans of Brazilian failure.
Cardoso, in the interview with Reuters, recognized that Rousseff's popularity and her continued backing by Lula will make her tough to beat. Still, the problems, he predicted, "will mount."
"I don't want to root for errors," he said. "But they are there to see."
(Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray; and Jackie Frank)