Monday, August 30, 2010

Brazil's Next President: Where Things Stand With Dilma Rousseff

Brazil's next president: Where things stand

By Gabriel Elizondo in Americas
on August 28th, 2010

Dilma Rousseff has never been elected to public office, but the polls indicate her first such position could be the most important one in Brazil: Mrs President.

Brazil is leaning heavily towards electing the country's first female president.

Dilma Rousseff has never been elected to public office, but the polls indicate her first such position could be the most important one in Brazil: President. Mrs President.

That is the basic conclusion from the array of new polling data released in the past two weeks that show Rousseff, the Workers Party candidate, has taken clear command of the presidential race for the October 3 election.

In a new poll released this weekend by Ibope, Rousseff has 51% of the intended vote, while main opposition candidate, Jose Serra, has dipped to 27%. This is the first poll since the campaigning began that shows Rousseff has exceeded 50%, but the third poll in the past week that has showed Serra dropping below 30% mark.

Rousseff is Lula' s hand picked candidate. In Brazil this election, a vote for Rousseff is a vote for Lula.

To see how far Rousseff has come, keep in mind when the first poll came out way back in February 2008 – before any candidate was officially declared - Rousseff was polling at 9% and Serra at 57%.

As recently as January of this year, Rousseff, who by then was very much a declared candidate, was steadily rising but still polling at about 29% while Serra was hanging strong with about 41%.

The perception amongst most political analysts back then was that Serra was either in command of the race and/or at least in a dead heat with Rousseff and the election would be decided in an eventual runoff.

(If no candidate gets 50+1%, it goes to a second round of voting October 31).

Rousseff was not well known nationally, and needed to be remade as a continuation of Lula's success story for her to catch Serra. Based on the new polling, that is exactly what has happened - and then some.

Serra, according to the polls, is losing a key part of Brazil that he should be winning.

Serra’s party, the Brazilian Social Democrat Party (PSDB), has a traditional stronghold in the south of Brazil, where Lula’s approval numbers are the weakest (but still above 50%).

In the new poll, Rousseff has pulled ahead of Serra in the south of Brazil, opening up a 5% lead. This is sort of like a Democratic presidential candidate having a 5% lead in the polls in Texas against a Republican candidate.

Here is a look at how three important Brazilian benchmark states are looking now:


With a population of 39.8 million (it's bigger or almost as big as most other countries in South America), almost 1 in 4 votes will come from this behemoth of a state. Serra most recently was, by most accounts, a successful governor in Sao Paulo, and before that, he was mayor of the city of Sao Paulo.

He was born here, and is pure ‘Paulistano’ as they call people from the state. But in the latest poll of Sao Paulo voters, Rousseff has pulled ahead of Serra 42% to 35%. If you are a Serra campaigner, this is very troubling.


Most people who have never been to Brazil have probably never heard of this state. But for national elections, it’s the second most important place in all of Brazil.

This state of 19.2 million people is eclipsed in population only by Sao Paulo state (Rio de Janeiro state has about 15 million people), and will account for 10% of all votes cast for president. It’s also a “swing state,” meaning it traditionally does not lean in any one direction politically.

The voters here are unpredictable. Serra should be doing well here, considering the state’s most recent governor is the hugely popular Aecio Neves, who is from Serra’s own PSDB party and one of Serra’s most vocal supporters. But Rousseff, according to the new poll, is in command here with 51% of the vote compared to 25% for Serra.

Historically you can’t win the presidency in Brazil without winning, or at least being competitive, in Minas Gerais and right now, Serra appears to be neither.


Nobody ever expected Serra to win this state of almost 8 million people. Pernambuco is Lula’s home state, and Rousseff was expected to do very well here. But early on in the campaign, Serra’s people had hoped to keep Pernambuco and the entire northeast of Brazil (a traditional Workers Party stronghold) at least competitive to cut into Rousseff’s support - at least a little.

The idea was to separate Rousseff from Lula, and Serra initially tried to campaign hard in the northeast, and gain significant support. That has not happened, as Rousseff is walloping Serra in Pernambuco. The new poll has Rousseff with 71% of the vote in Pernambuco compared to 17% for Serra.

So the snapshot is this:

Rousseff with a marginal lead in Serra’s votes-rich "home state".

Rousseff with a commanding lead in a huge swing state.

Rousseff with a ridiculously big margin in her stronghold state.

With the new polling data, there has been a tectonic plate-type shifting of the dynamics of the race in every single demonstrable way. The next obvious question is...

How has it happened?

Rousseff’s Workers Party has run a strong campaign, and her first television advertisements that went on air two weeks ago were brilliantly produced. They featured a long list of advancements made under Lula and made clear she was his "chosen one" to carry on those advancements after he leaves office in January, due to being prohibited from running for a third consecutive term.

Make no mistake, Rousseff is an awkward campaigner who often has trouble connecting with voters the way Lula naturally does, but that doesn’t appear to matter at this point. Her biggest ally, Lula, has been campaigning for her relentlessly, and when a politician who has almost 80% approval ratings supports you with all the fibers in his body, well, needless to say that goes a long way.

So in many respects, Rousseff is riding his wave of popularity and the prosperity millions of Brazilians have experienced under Lula. And she has apparently articulated well enough to the people how she would carry on his legacy and expand some of the most popular programmes that have reached millions. Simple as that.

But the Serra name is a hardened political powerhouse in Brazil, so the obvious next question is...

How has Serra let a political novice take command?

Serra, a technocrat centrist, is also not a terribly charismatic campaigner, but up until recently, his support was holding in the mid-to-high 30% range. The new polls showing him dipping below 30% are troublesome, to say the least, for his team.

His PSDB party said last week they are going to consolidate their limited remaining funds to campaigns in four key states, rather than try to compete in all of Brazil's 26 states.

One of Serra’s main political allies, highly regarded former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (the last man who can say he beat Lula in an election), has been speaking out to the international press about how Rousseff is beatable, although inside Brazil, Cardoso has oddly been "missing in action" on the campaign trail with Serra in recent weeks. PSDB candidates in other states have even cut Serra out of their commercials.

Serra has been trying to gain traction by focusing on healthcare issues. Polls indicate the main issue concerning voters is healthcare, and this is a Serra strong point given he was the former minister of health under Cardoso.

But it does not seem to be a winning issue. Whenever he focuses on healthcare – even dedicating an entire campaign commercial to the issue - Rousseff has countered with a long list of government accomplishments and programmes under Lula (which she can at least partly take credit for – like 24 million people lifted from poverty, 12 million jobs created, 54% increase of Brazilians who have entered the middle class) which drown out anything else Serra is trying to get across.

Amazingly, Rousseff, who has never held elected office, has a real record to run on. While Serra, the career politician, seems to have few. At least few that are gaining votes. That is a real political twist.

As an editorial in the weekly news magazine Carta Capital recently noted, Serra appears to be, “without money, without anything to talk about, and without allies”.

Not a good place to be with a little over a month until an election.

Serra has been down this road before, having run for president and lost to Lula in 2002. Then he at least forced the election to a runoff second round of voting. No doubt Serra and his campaign team know the challenges he faces in September - the final month of this campaign.

But this time, he might have to change tactics quickly to upend the dynamics of the race if he has any chance of keeping pace with the Lula-Rousseff political machine that is gaining speed and doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing.

There might be a time in the future in Brazilian politics, when Lula doesn't matter anymore. But that time won't be 2010. All you have to do is look at the new polls to realise that one bit of political truth.

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