Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Substantive Issues Missing from Election Campaign

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 29 2010 (IPS) - In Brazil, 136 million voters will head to the polls in Sunday’s presidential runoff election, after a campaign heavy on recriminations and moralistic attacks and weak on substantive issues.

The elections have been “tough and tense,” said analyst Jairo Nicolau of the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

In addition to choosing a successor to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, voters will elect governors in nine of the 26 states into which this country of 192 million people is divided. Voting is compulsory in Brazil.

Tough, because of the flurry of mutual accusations of corruption. In the case of governing Workers Party (PT) candidate Dilma Rousseff, the allegations involved one of her closest aides, Erenice Guerra, members of whose family were accused of influence-peddling.

Rousseff’s rival, José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), meanwhile, was governor of Sao Paulo state when overcharging occurred in the bidding on contracts for the subway in the state capital.

“In the second round, allegations emerged on both sides, so the corruption effect did not affect Dilma (as she is universally known) as much as in the first round. The effect was diluted,” Nicolau said.

The opinion polls indicate that Rousseff — who took nearly 47 percent of the vote on Oct. 3, against 33 percent for Serra — will beat her opponent by at least 10 percentage points on Sunday.

The decriminalisation of abortion, another key issue that kept Rousseff from winning outright in the first round, also reared its head again, especially in the last stretch of the campaign.

Groups with ties to the Catholic and evangelical churches accused the candidate of being in favour of the legalisation of abortion — an allegation that she denied, but which was exploited by her rival.

The controversy peaked when Pope Benedict got directly involved in the campaign, telling Brazilian bishops that they had a duty “to make moral judgments” on issues like abortion and euthanasia “even in political matters.”

In response, President Lula pointed out that Brazil is a democratic, secular state, and that each person has to vote “according to their conscience.”

Nicolau said Lula’s popularity — he has ratings of over 80 percent after eight years in office — is sufficient to buoy the candidacy of his former chief of staff and energy minister.

According to the IESP analyst, Brazilians who vote for Rousseff, “whose career was in the state bureaucracy and not in politics, and who has never before stood in elections,” are basically voting for Lula.

“Lula’s strategy was to transfer his popularity to whoever he chose” as his successor, Nicolau said. “Some of the poor say they are going to vote for ‘Lula’s wife’.”

The analyst said that aside from these hot button issues, the campaign was “poor,” as it was more focused on “administrative aspects” than on what kind of development the country needs.

An example of that were the constant references in Rousseff’s campaign to successful programmes carried out by the Lula administration, like Bolsa Familia, consisting of monthly cash transfers to poor families on condition that their children attend school and are vaccinated, or housing and scholarship programmes.

Serra, in the meantime, frequently mentioned policies he pushed as health minister under former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), such as the production and distribution of generic AIDS drugs.

“What the country actually discussed were the practices of each (PT) ministry, by contrast with those followed by PSDB state governments,” Nicolau said.

On one hand, Rousseff promised voters that she would continue doing what Lula has been doing. According to official figures, his government pulled 28 million Brazilians out of poverty, and created 138 new universities and vocational-technical institutes.

On the other, Serra pledged to continue Lula’s social programmes, like Bolsa Familia, and to further increase the minimum wage.

“It’s a kind of auction, with each one promising more for the poor,” Nicolau said.

Nor have there been clear differences in the discussion of privatisation, a process that received a strong impulse from the Cardoso administration, in areas like telecoms, power and the steel industry.

While in earlier campaigns against Lula, the PSDB emphasised what it saw as the benefits of privatisation, such as broader access to telephones, this time around Serra did not openly defend the process.

Instead, he chose to make a counterattack, accusing Rousseff of also having engaged in privatisation, by granting oil contracts to foreign companies, for instance.

For her part, Rousseff accused Serra of planning to privatise the country’s deep-sea oil reserves, which began to be explored on a large scale after Lula took part in the inauguration of the first production system Thursday.

Although the issue of privatisation “was present in Dilma’s campaign, and to a lesser extent in Serra’s, that doesn’t mean it divided public opinion one way or the other,” Nicolau said.

The candidates also touched on other questions, like the environment, but with the apparent aim of winning over voters who cast their ballots for Green Party candidate Marina Silva in the first round, when she came in third with nearly 20 percent of the vote.

Although the Green Party voted to remain neutral in the runoff, many of its leaders expressed a preference, either for Rousseff or Serra.

According to the polls, at least two-thirds of the Green votes will go to Serra in the second round.

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