Over the past decade Brazil has become a major player on the world stage. Under President Lula, the country has become an economic powerhouse, whilst its fast-growing military and uranium enrichment programme (currently further ahead than that of Iran), highlight the government’s desire to ensure that Brazil remains a global power. But, as Nathan Shachar reports in this month’s Prospect, Latin America’s largest economy is still crippled by major problems on its own doorstep. That is why this Sunday’s presidential election is so crucial. President Lula—who is stepping down after two terms—is hugely popular and has undoubtedly changed the country for the better, yet he has failed to get Brazil’s widespread corruption, poor infrastructure and lawless slums under control. For his successor, these must be urgent priorities.
The overwhelming favourite to win on Sunday is Lula’s anointed candidate, Dilma Rousseff. When I spoke to her (in her office that sits alongside Lula’s) earlier this year, she confidently asserted that under her rule growth would continue unabated: “it’s more difficult to make this economy not grow than to make it grow,” she claimed.
Is this really so? Inflation, despite its sharp drop under the Lula administration, remains a real problem for Brazil. Rousseff seems untroubled by this. Lula’s government runs a hefty trade surplus, she says, and has managed to repay the International Monetary Fund for an earlier large loan. She claims that Brazil is on a trajectory of high growth in its exports, one superior to China.“No country in the world has such a high rate of growth despite interest rates being so high. So we have space for accelerating growth without inflation,” she says. She also plans to lower tax, a policy which, she hopes, will also contribute to a lower inflation rate.
Before her promotion to chief of staff in 2005, as minister of mines and energy Rousseff oversaw the rapid expansion of Brazil’s offshore oil industry. Now, however, she is keen for the petroleum and gas industry to “act as an enterprise with a conscience”—which means keeping their prices at a level that doesn’t penalise the poor.
In his article, “Lula’s legacy”, Shachar reports that Rouseff is unpopular within her own party, but thanks to Lula’s support and her ability to clearly articulate the economic, social and political needs of the country, she is sailing ahead in the polls. This macho society appears to have few qualms about making a woman president.
Her main rival, José Serra, the present governor of Brazil’s most powerful state—São Paulo—is no novice. He has been in politics since he was a young man in the early 1960s. His policies, as I found in a long meeting with him earlier this year, are considered—and address Brazil’s most pressing problems. Indeed, his political programme is rather similar to that of Lula and Rouseff. What he lacks, however, is Lula’s primary gift: charisma. Without the ability to excite and win over voters, Serra is almost certain to lose to the candidate with Lula’s backing.
For all the chatter about its remarkable economic progress, Brazil remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. São Paulo, for instance, is ringed by favelas home to hundreds of thousands of citizens living in abject poverty. Yet it is also home to more Tiffany stores than any other city in the world. Whoever becomes the next president will need to keep the economy flourishing in order to tackle the country’s deep-seated inequalities. At least for the moment, Lula’s legacy looks strong. But there is no room for complacency.