Brazilians head to the polls today in a general election that spans all levels of government, from the presidency to local offices. All eyes are on the presidential race where nine different candidates are vying for the nation’s highest office.
For the first time since democracy returned to Brazil in the 1980s the name of Luiz Inácio da Silva does not appear on the ballot. The former union leader and founding member of Brazil’s Workers’ Party leaves office with an approval rating hovering around 80 percent. During his presidency, some twenty million Brazilians were able to escape poverty while income disparities and regional inequalities narrowed considerably. Brazil is well underway to becoming a global player, thanks in part to Lula’s successful Third Way policies at home and his ability to foster alliances with former Third World countries abroad.
Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Vana Rousseff, was largely unknown with most Brazilians before the popular president endorsed her nomination. A former Marxist revolutionary, Rousseff previously served as Lula’s energy minister and chief of staff. Like her mentor, who was a prominent labor leader before he joined in the founding of the Partido dos Trabalhadores at a time when the military government was still in power, Rousseff has moved to the political center since her youth. While committed to perpetuating Lula’s social welfare programs, Rousseff is also a proponent of free trade and open markets.
Rousseff is currently leading in the polls with a comfortable margin but running close second is current São Paulo governor José Serra who campaigns to reduce the role of government in the private sphere. The Social Democrats’ candidate likes to point out that Brazil holds three negative world records: it maintains the highest interest rates in the world (the central bank’s benchmark rate is 10.25 percent), it has the highest tax burden of any developing country and it has among the lowest rates of public investment. Unlike Serra, Rousseff has shown little concern over these long-term indicators.
While Lula’s welfare programs have been successful, they have also been costly. Brazil’s pension regime is particularly expensive. Although just 6 percent of Brazilians are of pensionable age, they eat up more than 11 percent of the national income. In the United States, for comparison, the numbers are almost perfectly reversed. The generosity of the system is largely to blame. Brazilians can often afford to retire in their fifties while their benefits are tied to the minimum wage.
Since Lula endorsed her candidacy and has publicly campaigned with her across the country, Rousseff’s popularity has steadily improved. Almost half of Brazilian voters are likely to support Rousseff whereas less than 30 percent has indicted to vote for Serra.
The Worker’s Party polls particularly strong in the north and northeast; regions still poorer than the rest of the country in spite of efforts on the part of federal authorities to develop these states with industries and infrastructure. Just two months ago, Serra enjoyed 10 to 20 point leads in the more urbanized south and southwest of Brazil but since the end of the summer, Rousseff has been able to narrow that gap.
Nationwide, Rousseff is expected to win a little over half of the votes. Unless she does, there will be a second round of voting without third party candidates, pitting Rousseff more prominently against her foremost contender, José Serra.