Monday, October 25, 2010

brazil's elections hang on corruption scandal

“This must be a really big guy,” said the student sitting next to me in the front row of International Affairs Building room 802, on October 14. “We don’t really see this many people in Brazil seminar events.”

Columbia students and scholars from Rutgers University, Bloomfield College, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Brazilian Studies and other institutions, filled every seat in the room to listen to David Fleischer, an expert in Brazilian politics of the University of Brasília, present the impacts of the October 3 country-wide elections and consequences for the year ahead.

It was a big guy and a very big topic. Here’s an overview of Fleischer’s presentation.

Nearly 112 million Brazilians – nearly 60% of the South American giant’s population – walked into voting stations for this year’s general election, on October 3, casting ballots for their future president, governors and members of the lower house of Congress and Senate. The voter turnout of above 80% is not uncommon in a country where voting is considered both a right and a civic duty – and compulsory between the ages of 18 and 70.

The Rise of Dilma Rousseff

According to Fleischer, for the past year, incumbent president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT), has fervently campaigned for candidate Dilma Rousseff – popularly known as the Iron Lady for her active fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1960s. Rousseff became da Silva’s Chief of Staff in 2005, after her predecessor was accused of leading a corruption scheme to buy votes in Congress.

President da Silva spared no efforts in an attempt to transfer his political capital and approval ratings hovering above 70% to his “chosen one”. In a March 2010 survey conducted by Datafolha, when asked whether they would vote for “Lula’s candidate”, 42% of respondents said “definitely yes”, even though many admitted not knowing just who the candidate was.

In a May 2009 simulation of the elections conducted by Datafolha, presidential candidate José Serra, of the opposition centrist Party of Social Democracy (PSDB), held 38% of valid votes (which exclude blank and null votes) while Rousseff obtained a mere 16%. One year later, a repeated study indicated a tie at 37%. Before voting day, most polls gave Rousseff a clear win with a majority vote of 50% or above.

The country’s highly praised system of electronic voting allowed Brazilians to receive the results before bedtime on October 3. Rousseff obtained 46.91% of votes (47,651,434), followed by Serra’s 32.61% (33,132,283) and the surprising surge of Marina Silva, of the Green Party (PV), with 19.33% of votes (19,636,359).

Is Enough, Enough?

What explains Rousseff’s failure to win outright on the first round? Fleischer argued that apart for errors attributable to polling agencies and the difficulties of constructing a representative sample in a large, diverse and unequal country like Brazil, the media points to recent corruption scandals involving the ruling Workers’ Party.

In mid September, Erenice Guerra, da Silva’s Chief of Staff who took over after Rousseff stepped down to run for president, resigned amidst allegations of participation in a corruption scheme involving government contracts favoring her son’s consulting firm. Accusations hit very close to Rousseff, who publicly referred to Guerra as her top aid and “right hand”.

Weeks before, the Workers’ Party was accused of illegally accessing tax records of Serra’s daughter and of PSDB members in an attempt to concoct a smear campaign against the opposition party.

Corruption is endemic in Brazil, ranked 75 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perception Index. Although no political party can claim a monopoly over the practice, the ruling Workers’ Party has been linked to all major corruption scandals in recent years. Amongst the most notorious affairs is the 2005 Mensalão (big monthly payment) Scandal, involving accusations that members of the party had paid opposition congressional deputies monthly allowances of around 30 thousand Reais (roughly US$ 17.6 thousand) in order to secure votes for legislations.

“After eight years of the same,” one attendee to the October 14 event asked, “Isn’t it time for a new team to take charge?”

Much Needed Change

According to Fleischer, the first debate for the second round of elections, on October 10, was sharp and filled with unrealistic promises and mutual offenses, overshadowing broader issues facing the country, including education and health care.

Amongst many delivered blows, Serra accused Rousseff of being “incoherent and two faced” for supporting the liberalization of Brazil’s strict abortion laws and then backtracking when she realized her position hit a sensitive nerve in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.

An October 12 Datafolha survey indicated that Rouseff would receive 56% of valid votes, while Serra would get 44% – compared with 54% and 46%, respectively, one week earlier. “Could pollsters be overestimating Rousseff’s support once again?” asked one seminar participant. Considering the first round’s margin of sampling error, Fleischer considered it plausible.

Brazil is faced with an important choice and Serra stands a real, albeit slim, chance.

Both candidates are described as social democrats and agree on the broad outlines of economic and social policy. However, according to The Economist, where they diverge, Serra – a former congressman, senator, health minister, mayor and governor of São Paulo, the country’s economic and industrial hub – is the more persuasive of the two.

Albeit faulted for his inarticulate campaign and worrying tendency to micromanage, according to the publication, Serra’s records suggests he would be more efficient in cutting wasteful spending and eliminating the fiscal deficit, and keener in mobilizing private capital for much needed infrastructure.

In my view, handpicked and mentored by the enduringly popular da Silva, yes, but Rousseff is not Lula – lacking, amongst many other attributes, the incumbent president’s charisma and pragmatism. Despite repeated guarantees by her party that Rousseff will not be a fantoche of her mentor, it is hard to imagine she will be anything but. A political novice, Rousseff’s main ripostes are borrowed from da Silva, and her every sentence starts with “During President Lula’s government…”, often referencing accomplishments she did not attain. Critics accuse Rousseff of electioneering and robotically obeying her strategists.

And yet, Fleischer said, she is da Silva’s chosen one, and “A very popular president with an 80 percent approval rating is very hard to campaign against.”

In two days, Brazilians all over the world will have the chance to exercise their right and duty to choose the country’s leader for, at least, the next four years.

The October 14 seminar’s overarching conclusion seemed to be that barring the emergence of another big corruption scandal linked to the Workers’ Party and Rousseff herself, da Silva’s mentee seems likely to become Brazil’s next leader. But, if the party isn’t able to rein in the mounting allegations, the results could plausibly tilt against her. In two days we will know.

A version of this article was published on Columbia University's The Morningside Post, on October 29, 2010.

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