This Sunday, October 3rd, Brazilians hit the polls to elect a new president. Local, legislative, and governor seats are also up for grabs, and the Worker’s Party (PT) could take a Congressional majority. Their Presidential Candidate, Dilma Rousseff, is well ahead in the polls and if she can win over 50% of the votes this weekend she can propel herself into the presidency without a second round. But even if she does win, she’ll have big shoes to fill.
Tens of thousands of PT supporters amassed in Sao Paulo’s samba stadium to support Dilma in her end of campaign rally last Monday night. But the real hero was outgoing president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, with cheers erupting as he took the stage.
Lula is barred from running again due to term limits, but the president has an approval rating close to 80%. His social welfare programs like Bolsa Familia—which provides economic support to poor families with their kids in school—have helped to lift more than 20 million Brazilians out of poverty. Lula has carried his country swiftly into the international arena brokering the Iran-Turkey nuclear deal. The Brazilian economy is growing at nearly 8% a year, and the country barreled through the world’s recent financial troubles with a currency that strengthens daily. That’s a tough act to follow.
“I want to tell you that president Lula, the factory worker, led the best government that this country has ever had,” said Dilma to the crowds cheering in the pouring rain at the rally. “And he has passed to me a legacy to continue this project of Brazilian transformation.”
If elected, Dilma would become the first female president in Brazilian history. Since 2005 she served as Lula’s former chief-of-staff, and she has promised to continue Lula’s policies, but that is exactly what worries some.
Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement, the MST, has been critical of the Lula administration’s lack of agrarian reform. According to the MST, the Lula government has given ten times more subsidies to multinational agribusiness than family farming. These policies have led to deforestation, and environmental degradation from monocropping, pesticides, fertilizers and GMO crops.
“There have been many advances under Lula, but what I find the most disturbing, is that the environment is always sitting out there in the waiting room drinking tea, because they had a vision of development without the necessary attention to the impacts that this development generated.” said Flavio Lazaro co-founder of the Brazilian Green Party in Rio de Janeiro.
That’s part of the reason that former Worker’s Party Environmental Minister Marina Silva joined the presidential race under the Green Party. Silva is now polling at 13% but at a rally in Rio da Janeiro last Saturday’s rally she called on supporters to push the race into the 2nd round.
“What we are seeing on the streets is larger than what appears in the polls. The numbers will be there. Not as a possibility, but rather as the accomplishment of putting Marina Silvia, Green Party in the second round,” she called out to more than a hundred supporters circled around her, who cried out with cheers.
Nevertheless, Marina still lags 14 points behind Dilma’s closest challenger, the former Mayor of São Paulo, right-wing candidate Jose Serra of the Social Democracy, PSDB party.
Serra is a former economist, who wants to strengthen ties with the United States and has criticized Lula for his close connection to Latin America’s left-wing Presidents. Recently he has tried to capitalize off of a corruption scandal involving a close confidant of Dilma Rousseff.
“We can make this country advance, we can have an ethical government focused on the people and not for the parties, for buddies and groups, and friends, but a government for the Brazilian people, and that’s what I want for Brazil,” Jose Serra told supporters at his closing rally in Sao Paulo on Wednesday night.
But to be elected, Serra has an uphill battle. Many of those at the rally were paid “volunteers”, given weekly stipends of 200 Reais ($115) to wave flags and pass out propaganda.
Meanwhile, like the Lula government, the Worker’s Party is just one of a much larger coalition supporting Dilma’s presidency. With strong economic stability under Lula, some of Serra’s normal business constituents may even vote for Dilma.
“The PT has become extremely attractive for the Brazilian upper-class, because they have a much larger capacity to maintain stability, and governability, of a system that doesn't frighten the regime or the market,” said Arlei Assucena last week. Assucena is the Rio de Janeiro community liaison for the tiny left-wing party, PSOL, which split from the Worker’s Party shortly after Lula’s first victory.
“The Lula government is finishing up 8 years. In those 8 years under Lula, we’ve had one march of 80,000 of public servants in May 2003 in Brasilia. Then we had some marches of 10,000 people in Brasilia and we haven’t had any strong national demonstrations. This is compared with the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who confronted a general strike, who confronted a march of 100,000 people in support of the MST in Brasilia,” said Assucena.
Nevertheless, Lula’s government has been benefiting the lives of millions of people across Brazil. Like Maria José da Silva, who lives in the Americanopolis slum of Sao Paulo. She dropped out of school when she was 17 because she was pregnant. But under Lula she was able to go back and finish and now she is studying Education at the University, and organizing to improve her community.
“This would never have been possible when I was younger. Never,” she said with tears in her eyes this week in front of her family’s homes, a maze of cinder rooms piled one on top of the next winding up into the hills. These are the people who will likely vote en mass for Dilma Rousseff on Sunday.
The polls open at 8am on Sunday. The vote is mandatory in Brazil, so a massive turnout is expected.