Thursday, May 12, 2011

Comments on Comments about Dilma Rousseff's Administration

With Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff having been in office for more than five months now, early evaluations have begun regarding her governing style. Certainly, the end of her first 100 days in early April brought a slew of the arbitrary articles about "what the first 100 days tell us" (as if things drastically changed from day 99 to 100, or that from day 100 onward, things would be the same).
Ituassu's essay in particular highlights why these articles are simultaneously interesting and problematic. Any discussion of a president that points out that "The substance of Dilma Rousseff's presidency has yet to be defined" clearly has its shortcomings, but Ituassu takes the hint by focusing not on policy, but "four ways [that] she seems different" from the three previous presidents of Fernando Collor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. [Ituassu goes back only to Collor, who was elected in 1989, because he was the first popularly elected president after Brazil's military dictatorship of 1964-1985; Congress indirectly elected Jose Sarney, who was the first civilian president from 1985-1989.]
Ituassu claims that there's a lack of "self-mythologizing" to Dilma that characterized her predecessors:
For the first time in two decades, the country has a president who does not seek the media glare or popular attention - and in particular appears to have no 'self-mythologising' ambitions. Collor, Cardoso and Lula alike wanted to change Brazil in so radical a way that the outcome would give them a shining place in Brazilian history.* Dilma is modest by comparison: suddenly, the country has a president who wakes up early, works very hard, is very demanding with her team and very serious with her duties.
This shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who paid attention to the actual substance of Rousseff's work, rather than the partisan rhetoric that tried to smear or praise her as a candidate. Early criticisms of Dilma were that she was unknown, that she "only" worked for Lula. It was never difficult to see that she worked hard behind the scenes rather than out front. It was these issues that led to inherently unfair criticisms of Dilma even before election that she would just be a parrot for Lula, devoid of her own character, voice, policies, etc. (And I say unfair because they were founded upon baseless forecasts that in no way considered her actual accomplishments or shortcomings as a member of Lula's cabinet; in short, there was no evidence for these predictions, while she had a solid work record that, whether one agreed with the policies or not, pointed to her actual abilities rather than relying on speculation.) That some are now shocked that she has been "discreet" and simply worked hard just shows that they paid no attention before.
Ituassu also points out that she seems free of the "campaigning" nature of Lula's government (and I'd suggest this criticism absolutely should apply to Cardoso as well, who spent much of his first term trying to get the constitution changed so he could run for re-election). I would agree that her administration has been much freer, as if she weren't serving as president while also trying to openly promote her party. But again, this shouldn't be remotely surprising when one considers the historical context here. Simply put, Cardoso was the founder of the PSDB, and Lula was the founder of the PT. By contrast, Dilma benefits from not being founder/figurehead of party. Within Brazilian politics since the return of democracy in 1985, parties have often had trouble overcoming the dynamism of their founders to become viable long-term parties in their own right. Collor's National Reconstruction Party (PRN) collapsed as Collor was forced to resign in 1992 amidst a massive corruption scandal; Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) has had a strong presence in Congress, but has had a hard time creating a truly national base. And Lula's administration marked the first time that the Workers Party (PT) had successfully gained office in national elections. No single party had ever been re-elected to the presidency.
Indeed, that's why the 2010 election was so fascinating, and historians and political scientists may end up seeing a turning point: it marked the first time that the PSDB and PT were squaring off without either party's founder as a candidate (Lula ran against FHC unsuccessfully in 94 and 98, ran and won in 02 and 06). In 2010, neither Lula nor FHC were candidates, and the election thus provided a unique opportunity to see which party would be the first to succeed in a "post-founder" context. Ultimately, the PT triumphed with Dilma (and while many have claimed that Lula's presence and campaigning helped her election, I think it had as much if not more to do with how the economy was doing; either way, I'd like to see more data and evidence before we start assigning the reasons why Dilma won). In the wake of last year's election, it's not clear how the PSDB can/will gain the type of leadership needed for a presidential candidate, as it is an increasingly old party that has failed to inject dynamic young leadership at the national level. Returning to the original point of Dilma's "discreet"/"non-campaigning" administration, though, it's a logical departure from Lula, and shouldn't be surprising: Lula had to govern in a way that would prove his party was viable beyond him; Dilma is that proof, and doesn't need to "campaign" daily to prove viability.
Ultimately, it is interesting to trace the differences between Dilma's style and others, but that's all it is - an exercise in fun thought, without much substance to it yet. After one, two, four years we'll be able to better grasp how Dilma resembles or differs from her predecessors in substantive matters of policy.
*This is also an extremely problematic and borderline-silly passage for another reason. While presidents are in the media and can seem to enjoy it, that doesn't seem to be their purpose in running for president; indeed, running for president seems like a terrible way to gain attention, as there's way too much work-related stress that would accompany the fame. Put simply (and snarkily), if Lula simply wanted fame, he could have tried to get on Big Brother Brasil. Additionally, the implication that other presidents didn't wake up early to work seems unfounded, and the historian in me would like to see some actual evidence behind such claims. Likewise, I'd like more than assertions that Collor, Cardoso, or Lula were in it for their role in history.
In short, I think scholars or journalists alike would be hard-pressed to prove that the presidents were not working in what they perceived to be the best interests of their country. Even Collor, who was doing quite well personally in his corrupt dealings, probably thought he was working for Brazil by implementing neo-liberal policies. The suggestion that only Dilma is not interested in herself but in her job and country seems flawed, to put it mildly.