Monday, August 02, 2010

On Brazil's Presidential Campaign

I've been terribly remiss at dealing with this topic, in no small part because, while Brazil prepares to head to the polls again, I continue to try to finish a dissertation. However, with the campaign having really picked up steam once Brazil exited the World Cup, now seems as good a time as any to dive into the debates and discussions on the impending election.

Shortly after Dilma Rousseff's nomination, the PSDB, the main political party of the right, once again launched Jose Serra as its presidential candidate, later selecting relatively young Indio da Costa, of the far-right Democratas (Democrats) party as its vice-presidential candidate. Serra had been the candidate against Lula in 2002, when the PT and Lula finally won the election on their fourth try (having lost in 1989, 1994, 1998). Although Serra was seen in retrospect as relatively progressive for the PSDB (especially after the PSDB nominated extreme conservative Geraldo Alckmin in 2006), the 2002 loss apparently has still left him embittered, while the PSDB has continued to futilely and baselessly rail and rant against Lula, taking any chance they can to smear him. Indeed, in an effort to denigrate the PT, da Costa even baselessly claimed that the PT is connected to the FARC and narco-traficantes, in a moment that resembled Sarah Palin suggesting Obama "palled around with terrorists." It is clear that the PSDB and Serra do not want the PT's presence in Brasilia to continue, and while their efforts to do anything to prevent that from happening are fairly disgusting, it's also understandable, for two reasons: first, Lula has seemed to invoke an almost irrational hatred among many in the PSDB and its supporters (especially Rio's middle class); this is often based on classism as well as political jealousy and (to a lesser extent) ideology. Secondly, the PT was and is Lula's party, and the PSDB is Fernando Henrique Cardoso's party. Many have questioned whether the PT could survive beyond a Lula presidency, or whether it would disappear the way the National Reconstruction Party disappeared when Fernando Collor had to resign amidst allegations of extreme corruption. If Dilma wins, it will do much for the PT's ability to remain a strong and vibrant party beyond Lula. With Rousseff having taken the lead in polls after a statistical tie for much of the campaign, these tactics are likely to continue.

What would a Rousseff presidency look like vs. a Serra presidency, though? Many intelligent and respected scholars say there won't be much difference [sorry for the rough translation - Google's Portuguese-English translator isn't the best], and that a PT and PSDB presidency at this point would really vary only in shade, rather than in real policy. They point to what they perceive to be Lula's "continuist" policies following Fernando Henrique in terms of views on the market. This M.O. of Lula as "continuist" has been the main narrative since about 2004, and it clearly hasn't shifted as historians, political scientists, and others consider this year's elections.

However, I think this has always been a bit of a misnomer. If your idea of "continuist" is "a not-sudden and extreme ideological shift," a la from socialism to neoliberalism or from a dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, then yes, Lula has been continuist, and either Dilma or Serra would be similar. However, this strikes me as a rather facile and useless way to view the two main presidential parties in Brazil right now. There were subtle but important differences between Lula and Cardoso. For example:

-The PSDB under FHC pushed privatization to extremes, trying to privatize everything (and succeeding with just about everything except Brazil's public university system and Petrobras; on both, the Brazilian people drew the line, and FHC had to step back a bit). While some say this did improve services, it also raised prices (when a French company bought out Brazil's public phone system, for example, phone prices in Brazil immediately went up 30%, even as they dropped 30% in France); what is more, as Lula demonstrated, investing in state-run companies and improving efficiency are not mutually exclusive terms, and when both are executed, can make an even stronger company than privatization could, all while offering greater benefits to your own citizens.

-In addition to adhering strongly to neoliberalism, FHC kept his economic relations connected almost strictly to the European Union and the United States, meaning Brazil's economy was by and large dependent on the fluxes of the American and European markets (no small irony, given that, in the 1970s, FHC was a leading theorist in dependency theory). While Lula did not shed the mercantilist policies of his predecessor, he did extend them to all of the world. Trade with Africa; deals with Arab countries in the Middle East; agreements with China; partnerships with India; collaborations with the United States - all were fair game, and Lula fostered these agreements in all parts of the world. This was beneficial both economically and politically; on the economic front, it diversified Brazil's trade, making it less susceptible to one country's or region's economic decline and strengthening its own economy (indeed, it was one of the last countries to enter the 2008 global recession, entering into recession in June 2009 and emerging from it just one quarter later.) Politically, Brazil was able to strengthen its role as a global player, working with everybody but dependent on nobody. Thus, Brazil enjoyed a level of both political and economic autonomy it had never witnessed before. The old joke used to be "Brazil - the country of tomorrow, forever." Yet Lula seems to have guided it very close to being the country of tomorrow today.

-Thirdly, there has been Lula's emphasis on state programs. A sort of flip-side to neoliberalism, Lula proposed a greater state presence and higher government spending on programs like Zero Hunger and the Bolsa Familia, which provided money to poor families for food or for their children to attend school longer. These programs have by all accounts been massively successful, and thanks in no small part to them, more people are joining Brazil's middle class than had ever taken place before. These policies ran directly counter to FHC's emphasis on "trickle-down" economics, something that Serra also emphasizes. While there are still enormous gaps between the wealthiest and the poorest in Brazil, the middle seems to be growing, and has done so through increased state spending (something the U.S. could learn from), and not from privatization and hopes for a trickle-down effect.
This is why describing Lula as "continuist" is not wholly accurate. Sure, he didn't radically alter the political or economic system, but there are major and important differences between Lula/PT and FHC/PSDB, and these differences I think in large part explain why Brazil has become such a major player in the global community in the 2000s, and not in the 1990s. And these differences continue between Rousseff on the one hand and Serra on the other. The election of either will not be the same thing (in much the same way that Bush and Gore were not the same thing in 2000); the election will determine whether Brazil continues down the path that garnered so much success in the first decade of the 2000s, or if it returns to the path of the 1990s that continued to perpetuate social and economic inequalities and sent the country spiralling into debt in the 1990s and inflation and recession after 1998 (when the exchange rate of the real to the dollar doubled overnight, immediately after FHC's re-election).

We are already getting good examples of these differences in Rousseff's pledges to continue those social programs, even while Serra denigrates of Mercosur and Brazil's relationship with Paraguay (fostered under Lula), while expressing his desire to return to policies focusing on neoliberalism and partnerships with the EU and the US. That type of policy is pure PSDB, and I think explains in no small part why Brazil did not take off under FHC but did under Lula. Lula did indeed continue to focus on market policies, but he did so with everybody, rather than just the EU and US; in doing so, he was able to expand Brazil's market even while retaining autonomy, rather than becoming dependent on one or two major economies. That success explains in no small part some of that hatred for Lula among the PSDB and its supporters - he succeeded where they failed, and did so by pointing out the weaknesses in their own policies. That these university-educated politicians were schooled by a laborer who never went to college particularly stung.

For these reasons, to suggest that Brazil will be the same whether Rousseff or Serra wins overlooks some very important distinctions. Yes, an overall mercantilist worldview will continue, but the differences between Serra and Rousseff are not just the differences between believing in privatization vs. a strong state with social programs for the poorer sectors, or partnerships with the U.S. vs. partnerships with the whole world. They are the differences between Brazil in the 1990s and Brazil in the 2000s; ask any Brazilian, and those differences are enormous and almost uniformly better in the 2000s. And that is why this year's election is so important and worth watching.