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Can ‘president’s woman’ negotiate crisis to snatch election win?

March 23rd, 2009

Lula hand Dilma the presidential seal of approval. Photo Agencia Brasil.

Lula hand Dilma the presidential seal of approval. Photo Agencia Brasil.

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If Dilma Rousseff wants to become Brazil’s first female president, she will have to win over her own party and a wary middle-class, whilst deciding when to step out of the shadows of current leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose remarkable approval rating has begun to slip, with the effects of the global economic crisis now biting, political commentators say.

With almost two years to go before he steps down, it’s not as if the Brazilian public has given up on Lula, the former shoe-shine boy and union boss, who made it to the top job, after ditching some of his more radical left-wing ideas.

What would most first, never mind second-term leaders give for approval ratings of 65%, after six years in power?

But the question is; with his government’s rating having dropped 5% recently, according to pollster Datafolha, will the shine also start to wear off for those around him, should the crisis deepen?

Helped by a boom in commodities, Brazil posted 5.1% growth in 2008, but lately it seems with almost every bad news item economists have been trimming their growth forecasts.

Since figures were released showing Brazil’s economy shrank 3.6% in the final quarter of 2008 versus the June to September period, the talk has turned to whether there will be any growth at all or indeed a contraction this year.

Two weeks ago, Brazil’s independent central bank cut interest rates by 1.5% to 11.25%, in response to the crisis, with business leaders and opposition politicians urging more drastic action.

Last month’s employment figures in the formal sector look slightly brighter and the government insists 100,00 jobs will be created in March, but reported employment ministry figures show Brazil lost 797,500 jobs from November to January, while a separate CNI/Ibope poll shows 58% of Brazilians think unemployment will get worse in the next six months.

To deflect the blame from himself or his Workers Party (PT), Lula could continue to maintain Brazilians have become victims of a crisis that began outside their own borders, but such a strategy has its limitations, according to political analyst João Augusto Castro Neves at the CAC consultancy in Brasilia.

“When it starts to hit people in the pocket and they start losing jobs, they wont much care where the crisis started,” he says.

Runners & riders

Though there’s no starting pistol to get Brazil’s presidential race officially underway, campaigning will not be far from the news between January and October next year.

Dilma, Lula’s preferred candidate, lines up alongside the other two main early contenders: current frontrunner José Serra who lost to Lula in 2002 and Aécio Neves, both from the same Social Democratic (PSDB) party.

Press reports say all three have been doing their best to be seen, while denying public appearances have anything to do with campaigning.

Photo: Alexandre Silva (fotoca), flickr

Photo: Alexandre Silva (fotoca), flickr

Serra, 67,  (pictured right) a former health minister from 1998 to 2002, whose AIDS programme  offering  universal access to treatment and free condoms was lauded by the United Nations, has also held office as mayor of São Paulo, South America’s largest city with a population of 17 million people.

After two years, Serra stepped down in 2006 to successfully run for governor of São Paulo state, a motor for around half the country’s wealth.

An outspoken critic of the Central Bank’s interest rate policy, he argues rates should have been cut significantly at the outset of the crisis.

Photo: Henrique Ribas, flickr

Neves, 49, (pictured left) now  in his second term as Minas Gerais state governor, has built a reputation by revitalising his state’s finances, through cost-cutting measures and putting the emphasis on reorganisation and modernisation in his administration.

Serious illness struck down his grandfather Tancredo Neves, who died before he could be sworn-in as the first post-military regime president in 1985.

Dilma, 62, a former resistance member, tortured by the military government in the early seventies, helped found the Democratic Labour Party, before jumping ship to Lula’s party a decade ago. He appointed her as energy minister in 2003, before making her his chief-of-staff in 2005.

Most recently, she has managed 11% in national opinion polls, up from 3% a year ago, after being seen increasingly at the president’s side.

The trio may yet be joined by Ciro Gomes (pictured below right), who has stood twice before, in a French-style contest held over two rounds - unless one candidate can deliver a knockout blow by scoring more than 50% at the first attempt.

Photo: Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

Dilma’s Dilemma

Ahead of trying to convince those in Brazil’s middle-classes, who shunned Lula in three previous elections, before finally putting their trust in him in 2002, Dilma has a more pressing target this year, political analyst João Augusto Castro Neves explains.

She must get the 25% of the electorate that would have automatically voted for Lula on her side. Even having Lula’s seal of approval, Dilma could stumble on a lack of recognition and competition from within her own party, he adds.

For Carlos Lopes, political analyst at Brasilia-based Santafé Idéias, the campaign is in its very early stages and the fact Lula’s approval rating is down should make little difference.

“There any many things to do before going out onto the street to shake hands with the public,” he says.

Not least, these include getting to know the quirks and demands of prominent leaders in Brazil’s 26 states , as well as negotiating often awkward political alliances, under the complex proportional representation system used to elect members to Congress and the Senate.

When campaigning does get eventually get serious, Dilma’s rivals will underscore their leadership experience in two of Brazil’s most influential states.

And having never been tested during times of economic adversity, the worse the crisis gets, the more Dilma will have to raise her public profile, political scientist Murillo de Aragão told Epoca magazine.

“Crisis brings doubt. Everyone is going to want to know what her answers are.  Without the crisis, she would already be in the second round,” Aragão says.

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