THE decisive victory of Dilma Roussef in the run-off for the Brazilian presidency is a thumping endorsement of the outgoing government’s policies. The two successive terms of the charismatic president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has turned Brazil into a sort of development model for the region and the rest of the world. Roussef was handpicked by Lula as the candidate of the ruling Workers Party (PT). She was his chief of staff during his second term in office.
Roussef will now become the first female head of state of South America’s most populous and powerful country. The president elect, while in her teens, was imprisoned and tortured when Brazil was under a brutal right wing military dictatorship that was in power from 1964-1985. Roussef was incarcerated for more than three years in the 1970’s. She was at the time a member of a Marxist guerrilla group seeking to overthrow the military dictatorship. Roussef, a cancer survivor, is the child of Bulgarian immigrant toBrazil. She is a trained economist but has never held an elective office before. She was picked from relative political obscurity by Lula and first made the minister of mines and energy in 2003. Her efficiency coupled with the hard work she put into her job, impressed Lula. He promoted her as his chief of staff during his second term in office.
Riding on the coattails of Lula’s enormous popularity, she was expected to sail through in the first round of the presidential contest held in the first week of October. President Lula who had personally campaigned for her enjoys an unprecedented 80 per cent public approval rating. But an unexpectedly strong showing by the candidate of the Green Party, Marina Silva, robbed her of an outright victory in the first round itself. Many PT voters opted for the Green Party candidate, a former minister in the Lula government, who had attracted strong support from Christian evangelical groups for her strong anti-abortion stance. Silva, an evangelical Christian, had taken nearly 20 per cent of the vote. Jose Serra, Roussef’s main challenger from the centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) had come second with 33 per cent of the vote in the first round.
Roussef fell short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. Opinion polls had predicted a landslide victory for Roussef in the first round itself. But the opinion polls were way off the mark. Silva was expected to poll only around 8 per cent of the polls. She stayed neutral in the run-off but the final results showed that most of her supporters, who were evangelical Christians like her, eventually shifted their support to Roussef, despite Serra and the PSDB focussing on the abortion issue. Christian evangelical groups from the US have made tremendous inroads into predominantly Catholic Brazil. However, in the final analysis, it was bread and butter issues which mattered with the electorate.
The fears that the Green Party vote would be transferred en bloc to Serra in the run-off were misplaced. Lula once again personally took charge of Roussef’s slightly faltering campaign and swung the electoral tide back in favour of the PT. Roussef won with 55 per cent of the vote. In retrospect, it has been an impressive turnaround for her. When her candidature was first announced last year, her popularity ratings were in the single digits. Till last year, many had considered Serra, a shoo-in for the presidency. Serra, who had contested against Lula four years ago, is a political veteran with an impressive resume. He is the popular governor of Sao Paulo state, the economic powerhouse of Brazil. But he turned out to be a lacklustre campaigner. He tried to emulate the tactics of the Republican Party in the US by campaigning on issues that are emotive for conservative Christians.
Not that Roussef set the campaign trail on fire. It was Lula’s decision to hit the road jointly with Roussef once again before the October 31 run-off elections that may have irrevocably turned the electoral tide. Lula’s record in office was in itself a selling point for Roussef. She promised the electorate that she would protect his legacy. The Brazilian economy is doing much better than it was under the previous eight years of PSDB rule. Per capita income grew by 23 per cent from 2002 to 2010 as against the 3.5 per cent in the previous eight years. Unemployment is at an all time low of 6.2 per cent. The minimum wage adjusted to inflation grew by 65 per cent during Lula’s presidency.
Another important social achievement in the last eight years was the “Bolsa Familia”, which provided cash grants to poor families on the condition that they send their children to school and follow health immunisation programs. More than 13 million families have so far benefited from this program. It has helped the government reduce illiteracy rates. The government’s prudent fiscal policies have facilitated the lifting of more than 19 million people from below the poverty line to middle class levels. Government subsidies have helped many poor Brazilians to build their own homes. Roussef, as Lula’s chief of staff, supervised the growth acceleration program (PAC) that supervised the distribution of financial aid to the impoverished parts of the country. Brazil however still trails Chile,Uruguay and Argentina in per capita income but the Brazilian economy is currently growing at a much faster rate.
Speaking immediately after the final results were announced, the 62 year old Roussef acknowledged the key role played by Lula in her historic victory. Lula’s popularity also ensured that the coalition led by the ruling party got a working majority in both houses of parliament. She strongly hinted that Lula will continue to play an important role in guiding her government. “I will be knocking on his door often, which I am sure will always be open”, she said in her victory speech. She also reiterated her commitment to end “absolute poverty” in the country. “We cannot rest when Brazilians go hungry, while families are living on the streets, while poor children are abandoned”, the new Brazilian president elect pledged.
Continuity in foreign policy is also a given. Lula’s foreign policy initiatives put Brazil on the international centre stage. His last grand gesture was the joint initiative with Turkey to stave off punitive sanctions and the possibility of war against Iran. The Obama administration had not taken kindly to this and other steps taken by Brazil in the global arena. Brazil has also been supportive of governments like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, which have taken a strong stance against American policies in the region. From the beginning of his term in office, Lula was a steadfast backer of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the standard bearer of the anti-American bloc in the region. One of the first things he did after being first elected to office in 2002 was to rush much needed gasoline supplies to Venezuela. The country was reeling due to shortages caused by a strike sponsored by the Venezuelan right wing parties.
The opposition candidate, Jose Serra, had criticised Lula’s foreign policy, especially his close relations with the leftist bloc of nations in Latin America. Serra on the campaign trail faulted the Brazilian government for not recognising the regime that was installed after a military coup in the Honduras last year. He has accused Venezuela of giving sanctuary to the FARC guerrillas battling the Colombian army. He also questioned the rationale of Brazil joining the trade bloc—Mercosur. The other members of this common market areArgentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela is on the verge of joining the grouping which aims to integrate the South American economies and promote independence from the US. Lula had encouraged the Brazilian state controlled oil company—Petrobras to invest in Venezuela and Bolivia. Brazil is also a major moving force behind Unasur. This regional grouping, modelled after the European Union, was founded in 2008. Unasur seeks to unify Latin American nations into one unified bloc and make it more significant than the Organisation of American States (OAS). The US and Canada are members of the OAS. These two North American countries have been excluded from Unasur.
Serra, on the campaign trail, had said that Brazil was limiting its economic options by identifying too closely with the radical regimes in the region. 80 per cent of Brazil’s exports now go the South American market. Roussef is an avowed supporter of Latin American integration. She has said that Brazil should “strengthen ties with all our South American neighbours—through solidarity, not through imperialism”. Washington wants to roll back the “pink revolution” that has swept many parts of the continent. Today, Washington is left with only a few dependable allies in the region to do its bidding. A victory for the opposition in Brazil would have therefore been welcome news for Washington.