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An ambassador’s analysis: Mel Levitsky on Brazil’s presidential election

September 24, 2014
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Brazil’s presidential election on Oct. 5 could be tight. The incumbent is Dilma Rousseff, who has struggled to match the popularity of her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Nipping at Rousseff’s heels is Marina Silva, who jumped to the top of her party’s ticket after her party’s candidate died in a plane crash in August. Silva is a green activist and former environment minister who has enjoyed a surge in the polls in the final weeks of the campaign.

Melvyn Levitsky

Melvyn Levitsky

Running third in the race is Aécio Neves, a centrist candidate who many thought would be Rousseff’s biggest challenger before Silva decided to run.

One of the best experts on Brazilian politics is Mel Levitsky, professor of international policy and practice at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Levitsky is a retired ambassador who began his diplomatic career as a consul in the northeastern Brazilian city of Belem in the late 1960s. He returned in 1994 to serve as ambassador during the Clinton administration.

Levitsky discussed the election with Global Michigan:

Can you set the scene for the election by describing Brazil’s position on the world?

Brazil has become a big actor on the international scene. So, who is in charge of Brazil – what party and what political and economic philosophy governs the country – is important. Economically, Brazil has done better than most economies in recent hard times and is a strong economic and political player in the global arena. It’s not just coffee as it used to be. It’s auto parts, aircraft, airplane parts, agribusiness, orange juice, soy (where they have probably surpassed the U.S. in production.) Who’s their biggest customer now? It’s China. It’s not the U.S. anymore. Brazil is a Latin American powerhouse that has gone beyond the hemisphere and onto the world stage. The country wants to be a member of the U.N. Security Council. That’s not going to happen. But there’s an unwritten agreement among the Latin American group that Brazil will serve more often on the Council than any other country in Latin America. Brazil has a very sophisticated effective diplomatic service, many of whom have served in leadership positions in the U.N. Secretariat, World Trade Organization and other organizations.

What are the major issues in the election?

I think a big issue in Brazil in terms of political, social and economic development is corruption and the lack of civic pride among politicians. In Dilma’s time and in Lula’s time, the Workers’ Party has spoiled its image. The party was known as the most honest party in Brazil. They elected a number of popular and effective mayors around the country before Lula became president. Then a number of scandals were uncovered in both administrations. Many people are disillusioned; the idea that when you are out of power, you are honest, but when you have power, you pay off political debts by appointing sometimes unethical people to positions from which they reap improper or illegal benefits. The two Workers’ Party presidents have had more than their share of scandal involving graft, bribes and corruption.

Lula and Dilma didn’t watch this carefully. Now there is a major scandal involving Petrobras, the big state-owned gas and oil company. Also in terms of the economy, Lula was smart enough to keep the basics of the conservative monetary and fiscal policies of his predecessor Fernando Enrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president when I was ambassador. Dilma, has maintained many of Lula’s policies and programs but particularly in this election year, has expanded government spending and primed the pump for her constituencies, putting more money into social programs that tend to create higher inflation. The economy has not been as vibrant, nor has its strong growth rate continued but she still has a pretty good political and economic record.

Poor people during these two regimes have seen the gap between rich and poor narrowing somewhat but certainly not enough as they had hoped for. They see money being wasted on big projects, and there’s still a big rich elite class. The hundreds of millions spent on stadiums and other buildings for the World Cup and the coming Olympics at a time when bus fares were being hiked set off large, rowdy demonstrations throughout Brazil last year. What has Dilma done? People don’t seem to see a lot of positives lately. On the other hand, there is still a good deal of support for her party, and since Lula was a very popular president – sometimes called the “Teflon President” – his support is a huge benefit to Dilma Roussef. She does not have Lula’s aura about her, but she has Lula with her. She does have an interesting personal history. She was imprisoned and tortured during the military regime. They picked her up as a college student, as they did with many others. She was imprisoned and tortured and later amnestied. But she just hasn’t clicked as Lula did, and in Brazil, a lot has to do with personality.

What’s your assessment of Marina Silva and Aecio Neves?

When a charismatic figure like Marina Silva with such a compelling personal history arises, there is often an initial rush to her. There has been a series of debates on television and she’s done well. Her advertisements are effective. A person of mixed race, like a majority of Brazilians, who was illiterate into her teens in one of the most isolated and backward states in Brazil, but who studied, got a college degree, was elected to the Congress and served as minister of the environment during Lula’s presidency is and should be an object of admiration and enthusiasm. She is also admired for her honesty, candor and openness. But when you add up everything Marina Silva has to offer, besides her personal history, there’s not very much there in the sense of a record of governance. She has never really run anything except for the ministry of the environment, from which she resigned. The policies she would employ and the kind of people she would appoint are not clear.

The third major candidate, Aecio Neves, is certainly a respected political figure. He is the candidate of Cardoso’s party, the Social Democratic Party. He has been the governor of the large industrial, agricultural and mining state of Minas Gerais in central Brazil and a senator from that state. He is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, the first civilian president after military rule, but who died before his inauguration. He’s business friendly and is considered to be a centrist on the political spectrum. The two women with compelling stories have left him behind.

It’s an interesting race and quite a close race, according to the most recent polls. Those polls seem to indicate that no candidate will attain the 50 percent needed to be elected on the first ballot on Oct. 5 and that President Dilma and Marina Silva will compete in a runoff election a few weeks later. The question is whether Marina’s current popularity will carry her through, and my sense is that it will continue to be neck and neck through the runoff campaign. Both candidates are now in the mid-30s in popular support, though Marina has recently lost a bit of ground. She still polls as the slightly-favored candidate in a runoff election. The race could be determined by who gets most of the vote from Aecio Neves’ 20-some percent. Pundits seem to think that will be Marina because the business class seems to think Marina would be more in tune with their interests. After all she is a converted member of the steadily growing Brazilian Evangelical Church, which preaches a strong work ethic and free enterprise. Even so, both women have their major support among the middle and lower classes of Brazil, so who wins the votes of those groups will prevail. It’s a tossup, but I give the edge slightly to the incumbent, Dilma, based on leverage, largess and Lula. But, I could very well be wrong.

Do you have any personal experiences with the candidates?

I’ve never met Dilma, but I did meet Marina Silva when she was a deputy in the chamber of deputies at the time when I was U.S. ambassador. She was just coming up and was a very fascinating person. I remember we invited her to our residence when Jesse Jackson visited and she was in the Congress, and I had a chance to talk to her then and several times thereafter. She’s a very striking person. She came from a rubber-tapper’s family. She had no early education. She put herself through school at the Federal University of Acre. I remember visiting Acre back in the late 60s when she was growing up, and it was pretty desolate out there at the time. There is a real charisma about her that encompassed you. She had that quality of making you feel that what you said was really important to her. You could understand why she would be a compelling personality in politics. I just don’t know what kind of president she would be.

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