Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Brazil's Halloween elections: Too much mystery?

Elections are supposed to tell us something: where a country is heading, how it will be governed, or at the very least who will govern it. Brazil's Oct. 31 presidential elections told us nothing of the sort. The meaning of Dilma Rousseff's victory is shrouded in mystery, not only for outside observers and most Brazilians, but for Dilma Rousseff herself.

Clearly a few things won't change, and they matter a lot: state-led but market-friendly economic policy are here to stay, there is no real debt repayment to suspend, and inflation is widely seen as too dangerous a monster to let out again. Above all perhaps, Bolsa Familia, the country's famously successful conditional cash transfer program, is a sacred cow nobody will touch. In a sense, this election was thus about nothing much, an accident of institutional design that prevented Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's most popular politician ever, from staying in power for at least four more years, doing roughly what he has done since 2002.

Yet Lula will soon be out, and Dilma Rousseff in, as quite a different political game will get under way. That game has many levels and their dynamics and combinations are so complex that nobody can say what will come out. Hence the mystery.

The first of these levels is the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Labour Party) itself. Having finally reached power in 2002, but exclusively thanks to Lula’s charisma, the party had to let him govern, which he did, but often in a way and with people the party establishment did not quite like. The petistas have swallowed it for eight years but now, many feel that the party's time has come and they will clearly try to stake their claims on government priorities and budgets.

It may not be easy. Their first problem is with Lula, who is out, but not quite, and could well be tempted by a comeback in 2014. Call him the party's zombie: dead in a sense but well alive in another. Their second problem is with Lula's social base, which some analysts have called lulismo. As it now appears, lulismo forms a large movement, mainly rooted in the Northeast but spanning the whole country through its poorest sectors. Those sectors were not reached by the social movements and political organizations linked with the PT and to this day they remain impervious to the orthodox leftism or sophisticated post-Marxism of PT intellectuals. They are devoted to Lula himself and to what he has given them: stability and a sense of security through prudent economic policy, and a cheque every month that for the first time enables them to make ends meet. They used to be the social base of the old oligarchy and they are resolutely conservative, in part by necessity as they know they will be the first to fall off if the boat is rocked, but also by choice as the vast majority —Catholic or Protestant— is intensely religious. Rousseff discovered it the hard way when her ambiguous stand on abortion became a major issue and probably played a key role in pushing the presidential contest into a second round.

If Rousseff takes a chance, sides with the petistas, and moves a bit to the left, will the lulista base follow? Above all, will Lula let it happen, leaving his chosen successor —"himself with a skirt" as he put it, perhaps already thinking about Halloween— turn against "his" people?

As if these uncertainties were not enough, Rousseff will also need to piece together majorities for every law she will try to push through Congress. To do that, not only will she need to garner support from the whole PT delegation, a large part of which got to power thanks to lulistas' support, but like all Brazilian presidents, she will need to threaten or buy off a great many "centrist" deputies and senators, mostly from the PT's major ally, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). Though not quite the "gang of bandits" former governor and presidential candidate Ciro Gomes called them, most of its elected members move only under threat or when bought off with ministerial posts for party members, jobs for their followers, expenditures for their constituents, or raw cash. Lula, whose immense popularity meant he could impose political sanctions, nonetheless had to resort to one or another of those other ways to get what he wanted. Rousseff, who is devoid of her predecessor’s massive political legitimacy and most unlikely to build it in the short or medium term, won't have a choice: she will pay dearly to get what she wants from Congress. How much? Nobody knows because what the lulistas will think, what Lula will do, how PT congresspeople will react, how much the centrist "allies" will demand, and how all this will play out, is anybody's guess.

By the way, nobody knows too well what lies behind the mask Rousseff has been wearing during the campaign, how much of a lulista or petista she is, how she plans to deal with the Zombie and how much she is willing to pay to get her way in Congress. Her program tells us nothing either and, as if to emphasize its irrelevance, it was launched in the last week of a two-month-plus campaign...

In the end, for the next few years, all this may not matter much, because Brazil's "fundamentals" are so sound. But over the longer term, or soon if Goddess Crisis strikes again, Brazilians may wish to have had a less mysterious election night.