Sunday, February 21, 2010

Brazil's 2010 Presidential Campaigns Officially Kicking Off with Dilma Rousseff's Nomination

Brazil's presidential election season has officially kicked off, as the Workers' Party (PT) officially nominated Dilma Rousseff for president yesterday. Of course, this is in no way any surprise - the candidates for all of the parties have been unofficially known for months. Still, with the original launch, Brazil is finally gearing up for its presidential campaigns now, with elections coming at the beginning of October.

There are several observations to be made already. First, it's of little surprise that the media, both in Brazil and internationally, is making a strong effort to undermine the Rousseff campaign; indeed, the negative portrayals in the press began as early as early as last April, when O Folha de Sao Paulo wrecklessly and baselessly linked Rousseff to political kidnappings in the late-1960s, when the military dictatorship was entering its most repressive phase.

Although Rousseff's campaign only officially began yesterday, the international media has already been gearing up its anti-Rousseff campaign, though, and much of it has hinged and will hinge on Rousseff, who was one of Lula's top aides, being portrayed as a "puppet" to Lula. This narrative actually began last year in the New York Times, when Alexei Barrionuevo offered absolutely baseless speculation (that his own article contradicted) that Lula would run for a third term, and that Rousseff was just window-dressing. Mercopress has also gotten into the act, suggesting that all of Lula's "prestige" rests on Rousseff. This is absurd for a couple of reasons; first, whether you love or hate Lula's administration, his policies have spoken for themselves in either direction; it's not like their effects will suddenly become retroactively great or terrible if Rousseff were to win. Additionally, by linking Lula's "legacy" to Rousseff, the press is clearly implying yet again that Rousseff is nothing more than Lula redux, and thus, a puppet.

Then, there are more subtle approaches. For example, even though this news agency has a photo of Rousseff on file (in this story), there is no picture of Rousseff just one day later in the story about her nomination. By literally "de-facing" her, they're effectively dis-associating her from the smiling, seemingly-likeable politician she appears to be, and while there is much more to politicians than their looks, if the appearance was completely useless, then politicians and campaign managers wouldn't need to or want to rely on the value of images in their own commercials and ads.

Meanwhile, stories about the possibility of Rousseff being Brazil's first woman president, while available, are not as common. After all, these stories do cast her in a positive light in the international arena, even though Lula is probably correct when he points out that being a woman in Brazil may mean she faces particular political challenges and prejudices that Serra will not. Certainly, Rousseff is not Brazil's first woman candidate, but this does mark the first time that one of the major parties (PSDB, PT, PMDB) has run a woman as its candidate. And speaking of the PMDB, it has thrown its support behind Rousseff, once again not running its own candidate for a variety of reasons (including the fact that, as Brazil's biggest and oldest political party, it also has a rather large "tent" that makes internal agreements difficult sometimes).

Likewise, the major opposition party to the PT, Fernando Henrique Cardoso's PSDB, began trying to undermine Rousseff's chances as early as May last year, too, attempting (again, without much evidence) to connect her to corruption charges that never materialized. Not surprisingly, the PSDB is also trying to paint Rousseff as a "puppet," a story that some media outlets are pleased to repeat simply by giving Cardoso an audience, in an effort to undermine her popularity. I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work; the PSDB ran a fairly uncharismatic Jose Serra in 2002, an extremely unlikeable Geraldo Alckmin in 2006, and now is back to Serra this year, so obviously, they're trying to paint the PT candidate in a worse light to make up for possible shortcomings. But Lula has consistently been one of the most popular presidents ever in Brazil over his two administrations, so I'm not really sure why linking somebody to a president that has had upwards of 70% approval ratings seems like a good strategy. Certainly, anti-Lula rhetoric appeals to upper-middle class and elite prejudices in places like Rio, but you don't win elections just because the Zona Sul thinks you're right; the 2002 and the 2006 elections proved that, and I don't understand why the PSDB is trying that strategy again (unless it speaks to the complete absence of any new ideas or policies of their own that would appeal to people).

The opposition is also trying to undermine her on more basic policy issues. In her speech, Rousseff pointed to the successes in Brazilian development under the PT; in response, the PSDB suggested that the improvements did not happen because of Lula, but for "other reasons" (nevermind the fact that the PSDB has no problem taking all the credit for the economic boom of the late-1990s, before Cardoso's neo-liberal policies nearly brought the Brazilian economy crashing down again).

This is to say nothing of Rousseff's qualities or abilities. In Brazil, presidential candidates don't really start detailing their programs, agendas, and policies until they've been officially nominated, giving Brazil a 7-month electoral season. Certainly, the PSDB's (still-unofficial) candidate, Jose Serra, has been opining on Brazilian society and government in general, as has Rousseff, but there's a difference between general observations and specific plans. While Rousseff's platform became officially public last night, the PSDB hasn't yet launched its platform (aside from the "Lula is evil/Rousseff's a puppet!" approach). Thus, at this point, it's still not certain what the major differences between the two major candidates (not to mention tertiary candidates like Brazilian Socialist Party candidate Ciro Gomes, the PSOL's Heloisa Helena, and the Green Party's Marina Silva).

One thing is for certain - it will be a very interesting campaign to watch, and not just because Brazil is one of the world's biggest economies and increasingly important actors within the global economy and politics. Among other things, the PT and PSDB are battling for their futures - each party has successfully elected its founder (Fernando Henrique Cardoso for the PSDB, and Lula for the PT), but has not managed to elect somebody beyond its figurehead (although this does mark the first time that the PT is trying to elect somebody who isn't Lula). Because Brazilian parties are so new, they are often tied up to the personage of their founders, and it is not clear that they will be able to move beyond that image without suffering some major losses. (And as for the newness of the parties, the PMDB, Brazil's oldest party, has its roots in a dictatorship-era decree that limited Brazil to two parties, with the MDB being one, back in 1966; even for the first 10 years, political repression basically meant the MDB was useless, leading many to say that the MDB was the party of "yes" and the pro-dictatorship ARENA was the party of "yes sir!"). Additionally, the polls have gotten interesting - while there is still a long way to go, much was made of how far behind Rousseff had been; yet of late, she has jumped up at least 8% or more in various polls since last September. While Serra still has the lead, it's clear that it's far from being consolidated. That's why they hold the elections, after all. Still, there will be plenty more to come from the Brazilian campaign trail as the year goes on.