Who Did Brazil Vote For?


Only a week after the election of Dilma Rousseff as the first female president of Brazil, it is becoming clear that the outgoing — and immensely popular Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva isn’t going anywhere.

Through the first post-election week, Lula has sent clear signals that he will keep a tight grip on power and that he will exert a powerful political influence on the new administration. Lula will hang around making sure his and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party or PT in Portuguese) legacy is preserved — and who could argue against it.

After all, this former metal worker with just primary education has transformed Brazil into a success story.

During Lula’s two terms as president — in 2002 and then in 2006 — he has given Brazil unprecedented domestic political stability and an increasing international political influence. Brazil is Australia’s largest trading partner in Latin America and there is successful collaboration between the two countries in agriculture, mining and the service sector.

Even more importantly — Brazil’s steady economic growth has helped millions of its poorest citizens to lift their living standards. Brazil is today the eighth largest economy in the world and it may be able to take over Japan by 2050. No wonder that at the end of his second term, Lula’s popularity is above 80 per cent, making him, in Barack Obama’s words, "the most popular politician in the world".

For Rousseff, Lula will be a hard act to follow and her win last weekend was unquestionably due to Lula’s popularity. However, Lula’s popularity has not transferred automatically to Rousseff. The political support she received last weekend was well below what Lula obtained in his successful campaigns in 2002 and 2006.

Rousseff won the run-off election with 56 per cent of support against José Serra, from the conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). With a hundred million votes cast, this adds up to some twelve million votes difference.

Rousseff and the PT won in the north and northeast of the country. These are the poorest and the least educated regions of Brazil — and only provide 15 per cent of the GDP. This is the stronghold of Lula where he enjoys a popularity of up to 90 per cent.

On the other hand, Serra and the PSDB won in the south of the country, the wealthiest region of Brazil — including Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Paraná y Goiás. This region provides 54 per cent of the national GDP.

The result showed that the PT without Lula is a vulnerable political force and that the PSDB under Serra — a former left-wing militant — can become an effective opposition to the new government. It also showed that Brazil post-Lula risks being a politically polarised country.

The extraordinary success of Brazil’s Green Party, which received 20 per cent of the vote, suggests that a third force may be emerging in Brazilian politics.

Ideologically speaking, the Brazilian Greens are a world apart from the Australian Greens: the Brazilian version is not located on the left of the spectrum and is socially conservative being antiabortion, for example. The Greens leader is former Lula minister Mariana Silva; her win has been attributed more to her evangelical religious background than to her environmental policies.

Lula didn’t attend the victory speech of Rousseff on the weekend. It was a symbolic gesture – he didn’t want to overshadow the newly elected president but his absence didn’t last long. Since the beginning of last week, Lula has been advising Rousseff regarding the composition of the new government. Indeed, the majority of Lula’s cabinet is likely to stay.

For example, Lula asked Rousseff to keep Guido Mantega as Minister of Economy and Henrique Meirelles at the helm of Brazil’s Central Bank. These are key positions and will preserve Lula’s neoliberal economic policies, policies that have attracted fury from the left.

In this regard, Lula has not hesitated to oppose some powerful figures inside the PT. For any other politician, this would have been political suicide — but not for Lula. His popularity and success have not only made him almost invulnerable but also given him a great deal of personal independence from the machinery of the PT.

The party has a key peculiarity, the further up you get, the more technocratic the PT becomes. This explains in part the almost unilateral and personal decision of Lula to choose Rousseff as his successor. Rousseff was chief-of-staff of Lula’s second term in office. No charisma, authoritarian and a novice in political contests. Rousseff — the daughter of a communist émigré Bulgarian lawyer and and a schoolteacher — joined the guerrilla group Comando de Libertação Nacional (National Liberation Command or COLINA) after the 1964 military coup d’état. She was arrested and the two-years in jail and her tortures have been well documented.

In selecting Rousseff, Lula challenged many powerful forces. She was not the favourite candidate of the Party — which she joined only in 2000. When Lula chose Rousseff as his successor, he also challenged Brazil’s powerful armed forces who did not support the new president either.

It is widely speculated that Lula is preparing a comeback — and in Rousseff he has found the right person to keep his seat warm and safe. "Lula wanted to put somebody who is a reasonable manager and loyal for the time he can’t be elected," Thiago Oppermann, a Brazilian analyst told New Matilda. What Lula is seeking is a four-year orderly transition — until he is able to get back in power in 2014.

If you liked this article help keep New Matilda alive by pledging your support.   

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.