By Matthew Flynn
[The author writes for the International Weekly Edition of the Gazeta Mercantil, a Sao Paulo-based financial newspaper.]
With Brazil's October 2002 presidential elections less than a year away, presidential candidates, political parties, and power brokers are jockeying for position. While President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Partido Social Democrata Brasileiro (PSDB) would like to continue its hold on the presidency, it must contend with the spectacular rise of Roseana Sarney, daughter of ex-president Jose Sarney (1985-1990) and presidential hopeful of the Partido do Frente Liberal (PFL), which is part of the governing coalition.
Roseana Sarney's jump in the polls has forced Cardoso to admit that the governing coalition's candidate might not come from the PSDB. "My candidate is whoever has the best chance to unite forces to gain the election through alliances with other parties," he said. "If Brazil wants a woman's touch, it's a good thing."
In just over two months, Sarney leapt from obscurity to challenge poll leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the eternal presidential hopeful of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), who has fallen short in three previous runoff elections. Nonetheless, Lula and other opposition candidates remain confident that they have a strong chance of taking the reins of power because people's confidence in the governing coalition has dropped as a result of energy rationing and sluggish economic growth.
Sarney's rise coincides with problems in governing coalition
Even PFL leaders were surprised by the dramatic rise of Roseana Sarney, governor of the northern state of Maranhao. Without a strong party member to take the place of Vice President Marco Marciel of the PFL, party strategists decided to dedicate the majority of the party's free airtime to her in a move that bordered on infringing on federal campaign regulations.
But the strategy worked, and the party is in a stronger position to negotiate with other alliance partners. In a voter-preference poll by Ibope in November, Sarney was the choice of 17% of respondents, behind Lula who had 30% and eight points ahead of Ciro Gomes from the Partido Popular Socialista (PPS)--a significant jump from the single digits she received just two months before.
"Among the candidates, I would vote for Roseana because her presentation on TV is good, but then again it is [TV network] Globo that ends up choosing the candidate," said Gisele Campos, a student in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais state.
In a poll by Instituto Vox Populi, when the name of Health Minister Jose Serra was not included in the poll, voter preference put Sarney in a technical tie with Lula (26% vs. 28%, respectively).
Sarney's rise in the polls is having a strong effect on how alliances are being formed within the governing coalition--made up of the PSDB, PFL, Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (PMDB), and several smaller parties, plus different factions within those parties.
A few months ago, most attention concerning the coalition's candidate focused on the rivalry between two PSDB hopefuls, Serra and Ceara Gov. Tasso Jereissati. The rivalry, which also involves other PSDB names like Aecio Neves, speaker of the lower house, and Paulo Renato, minister of education, continues, but some realignments can already be observed, especially since neither Serra, said to be Cardoso's favorite, nor Tasso has made significant progress in the polls.
With the exit of PFL strongman Antonio Carlos Magalhaes from the Senate's presidency (see NotiSur, 2001-09-28) and his failure to handpick a successor, the PSDB began to move closer to the PMDB, which now holds the seat. The growing alliance benefitted Serra, who has more allies in the party than Tasso, who has cross-party support from the PFL camp. Now Tasso and Sarney have been meeting to discuss campaign strategies, and the former president is pushing the name of his daughter within his party.
Growing divisions within Brazil's largest party
Despite divisions within the PMDB, Brazil's largest party, there are pressures, both within the party and outside it, to form alliances with Serra or the Sarneys. Ever since Itamar Franco, ex-president and current governor of Minas Gerais, rejoined the PMDB ranks, division has been growing between those in the party who support the governing coalition and those who take a more oppositionist stance along the lines of Franco.
Party leaders who are allies of President Cardoso are doing all they can to keep Franco from winning the party primary election. Their latest move was to reduce the number of delegates eligible to vote in the party primary to 4,000 members, instead of 100,000 as defended by Franco.
"Part of the PMDB, people who unfortunately direct the party that I helped to found at a time when it was difficult to speak of democracy, want to block city councilmen and councilwomen from participating in party elections. Our name is on the ballot of the party elections. We will compete," Franco said.
PT will hold party elections
Even though Lula is the PT's de facto candidate, Brazil's largest opposition party will also hold primaries. "It is absurd to submit Lula, who has 36% of voter-preference support, to a primary just because of the capriciousness of one or two people," said Geraldo Magela, the PT's pre-candidate for the governorship of the Federal District.
Party leaders respond that primaries form part of a democracy, and Sen. Eduardo Suplicy, former husband of Sao Paulo mayor Marta Suplicy, has been clamoring for a chance to launch his name nationwide. Another person wanting to run against Lula under the PT banner is Edmilson Rodrigues, the mayor of Belem, capital of the state of Para.
As for coalitions, the PT has not been making overtures to other parties or presidential hopefuls, but party leaders do not rule out the possibility. "You can't have a government only made up of the PT or only the left," said PT president Jose Dirceu in an interview with Primeira Leitura magazine.
Candidates advocate stronger state involvement in economy
One shift in recent campaigning is a general movement away from strict adherence to neoliberal policies, mostly associated with Finance Minister Pedro Malan. Because of sluggish economic growth, growing external vulnerabilities, and an energy crisis--largely blamed on the government's refusal to invest in increased electricity generation--even candidates of the governing coalition are advocating positions that tend to coincide with those of the political left. Not only the policies backed by the PT but also some advocated by other candidates have market analysts worried.
"Will the next government continue to produce primary surpluses in public finances?" asked Jane Eddy, managing director of Standard & Poor's for sovereign debt ratings for Latin America.
Along with advocating a stronger role of the state in society, there has been a general movement toward the center, evident from both sides of the political spectrum. While Marta Suplicy is often called "PT lite," Roseana Sarney is sometimes referred to as "red PFL."
"When I entered the PFL, they used to call me the person from the PFLdoB because of my ties to the PCdoB [Partido Comunista do Brasil], which comes from my involvement in the student movement," said Sarney.
If she were to win the presidential election, however, the calls for a stronger government role in the economy could be short-lived. The PFL continues to defend Malan's policies, and Sarney's economic advisors say they support how the economy is being managed.
Persistence of northeastern oligarchs and "patrimonial state"
Two months ago, the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper ran a special about the decline of the national political reach of the rural oligarchy based in the poorer states of Brazil's Northeast. The fall of political heavyweights Antonio Carlos Magalhaes and Jader Barbalho (see NotiSur, 2001-09-28) exemplified this change. But the rise of Roseana Sarney, from another elite family in the region, shows their staying power.
Despite the economic and political reforms promulgated by President Cardoso, elite rule remains firmly entrenched. "The vestiges of the patrimonial order remain firmly in place in Brazil. It will take some years before it is successfully removed," said Riodan Roett, a political scientist and Brazilianist. "The public sector and the political elite still work within that frame of reference."
Roett used the term "patrimonial state" to describe how the Brazilian political elite uses state power to expand their dominance over the rest of the country through mechanisms that include handing out contracts to political allies in the business sector and giving jobs and other benefits to supporters. Roett doubts that the PT will come to power next year and believes that some kind of PFL-PSDB-PMDB coalition will win again.
Besides Lula's rejection rating, which roughly equals his approval rating, those in power continue to control the purse strings and have closer ties to Brazil's media moguls. Nizan Guanas, Cardoso's chief public-relations consultant, said the government's candidate is going to exploit as much as possible the "fear of the unknown," by citing recent terrorist attacks in the US and economic crises affecting the world.
In the end, Sarney's rise and the likelihood that the PFL will return to power either with a candidate for president or vice president, means that the party, through its rural oligarchs, will continue the involvement in ruling Brazil they have had for the past 500 years. And, given their past record, significant social or economic change will remain elusive.…