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São Paulo Mayoral Election – a Foretaste of the Brazilian Presidential Race?

President Lula and governor José Serra The humiliating defeat of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s candidate in the São Paulo mayoral vote is being treated with glee by the anti-Lula media which is painting it as a setback for him. This is wishful thinking as Lula still enjoys massive popular support and the defeat was more of a rejection of the Workers Party (PT) candidate, Marta Suplicy, who is detested by a large section of the electorate.

The real winner was not the incumbent, Gilberto Kassab of the DEMs, but the state governor, José Serra, who backed him against the wishes of a section of his own PSDB party. Kassab’s victory paves the way for Serra to target the Planalto Palace after Lula steps down. In fact, the São Paulo contest may well have been a forerunner of the 2010 election with Serra pitted against another woman candidate backed by Lula, Dilma Rousseff.

Another victor may have been the DEM party, which used to call itself the PFL and originated in the ARENA party, which backed the military. When democracy was restored, the PFL tried to position itself as a center-right party which supported free market policies. It failed in ideological terms since there is little appeal for this message in Brazil even among right-wing parties, which are strongly nationalist and in favor of a strong role for the state.

The party was also closely identified with Senator Antonio Carlos Magalhães who died last year and the northeastern state of Bahia, which he dominated for almost 50 years as an old-style autocratic boss. Despite this background, the PFL has always had a good relationship with the PSDB which is a social democratic party. The PFL even provided Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s vice president during his two terms in office – a Northeasterner called Marco Maciel.

The DEMs aim to use Kassab’s four-year term to build up a power base and become a national force. Whether this will work is doubtful as Kassab is seen in many quarters as being almost a puppet of Serra. Some reports say he even wanted to join the PSDB but agreed to stay put at Serra’s command. At the same time, Kassab has little dynamism and if there had been a stronger candidate facing him he might not have won.

His victory was due to a combination of antipathy for Marta Suplicy from voters who blamed her for high taxes and poor services during her administration plus an incompetent campaign by the PT, which tried to insinuate that Kassab was a homosexual. One particularly inept TV slot targeted his background and raised questions such as “Is he married? Does he have children?” as though being unmarried and childless ruled anyone out of politics.

Returning to Serra, he will now have to win over the faction within the PSDB that was annoyed with him for ditching the PSDB candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, for Kassab. This should not be a problem as Serra is now the one of the strongest politicians in São Paulo. A tougher task will be to entice the PMDB, which did well in the elections and (narrowly) won Brazil’s second-largest city, Rio de Janeiro, where its candidate, Eduardo Paes, made much of the message of support he received from Lula.

Although the PMDB officially supports Lula’s government, it was also a member of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s governments. It is more interested in sitting at the top table than having the presidency itself and if it feels that Serra is a winner then it would not hesitate to ditch the PT and return to a PSDB-led government. The same goes for a number of the smaller parties which back Lula.

In any case, the presidential election is not usually seen as a contest between parties but individuals and much will depend on the PT’s choice of candidate. At the moment this looks like being Lula’s chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff. Despite being Lula’s favorite, Rousseff has no political experience and is unknown among the general public.

The PT may decide that a heavyweight would be a better choice and opt for someone like Jaques Wagner, the governor of Bahia, or the justice minister, Tarso Genro. One long-standing PT member who will not be called up to dispute the presidential election is Marta Suplicy although, who knows, we might see her returning to the federal government as a minister or stand for the state governorship elections in two years’ time. 

One final point, there is still a long way to go to 2010 and, given the present financial and economic volatility, it would be unwise for Serra to take anything for granted. Lula might find that the last two years of his presidency will be devoted to coping with the fallout of a world recession which could hammer Brazil and overturn all the benefits of recent years.

This could lead to him throwing caution to the winds and turning his back on the “neo-liberal” policies hated by leftists in the PT and returning to its traditional policies of raising government spending, ignoring inflation and sending Brazil back to the bad old days.

In circumstances like this the next election could become a battle between a social democrat like Serra and a socialist like Rousseff where ideology rather than personality plays a big part. In this case, Serra could face a tougher battle than he might imagine at the moment.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2008

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