Corruption Makes Brazil Think Twice: Lula Faces Runoff

by Jake Ward

On October 1, presidential hopeful Geraldo Alckmin achieved what analysts earlier had predicted to be virtually impossible, squeezing out a second-place victory in preliminary elections.  Now, Alckmin, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, faces a runoff against incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – popularly known as “Lula”, the Portuguese word for squid – in a second round of voting on October 29. During most of the campaign, Lula held a strong lead in the polls, and victory seemed inevitable in the first round of voting on October 1, but the “Dossiêgate” scandal – named to mock the Watergate scandal in the United States – tarnished the allure of his party.  The scandal, which led to the immediate removal of Lula’s campaign manager, emerged only weeks before the election.  The party shake-up, combined with Lula’s mysterious absence in a televised presidential debate, soured his public image and ruined his seeming invincibility.

Lula’s scandal is nothing new.  Corruption is a nasty habit for Lula’s Workers’ Party. Last summer’s “Mensalão” scandal tarnished the reputations of dozens of congressmen, who only a few years before had championed a platform of ending political corruption.Mensalão literally means “the big monthly [payoff].” Officials accepted monthly payments in exchange for favorable votes in Congress. The Dossiêgate scandal plaguedcampaign staff more recently, when photos emerged that suggested a large cash payment was exchanged for a dossier meant to incriminate a rival gubernatorial candidate in São Paulo state.

Because of the number of important Workers’ Party officials burned by scandal, Lula has worked to distance himself to survive unscathed. In fact, honesty has been at the center of Lula’s platform for the past 12 years.  In his first campaign, Lula emerged as a man of the people.  He formed the Workers’ Party by mobilizing workers in Brazil ’s relatively poor northeast, where he still enjoys strong support.  Since its inception, the party has continually made promises to the working class, including elimination of government corruption.

While Lula’s detachment from corrupt Workers’ Party politicians is a shrewd move to save his personal image, the president needs to be wary of disconnecting party leadership from party members.  Lula’s intentional disentanglement has saved him from scandals before, but his refusal to confront corruption increasingly frustrates the Brazilian people. Lula’s own image was marred when he withdrew from a nationally televised debate only hours before it was scheduled to occur, probably to avoid questions from opponents about Dossiêgate.  The event continued as scheduled, and the two candidates who did show up took advantage of the time to criticize the corruption of the Workers’ Party.

While Lula’s party has not successfully defeated  corruption, they have tried, with only partial success, to fulfill other promises.  The party has reached out to its poor voters with the “Bolsa Família” program, which rewards families who take children to school and to regular medical check-ups with monthly stipends.  The poor also benefit from the economic stability Lula’s administration has achieved.  Stability has translated into lower interest rates, which has allowed Brazil’s poor to stretch their limited budgets. However, stability has come at a price: GDP grew only about 2 percent in 2005, the second lowest rate in Latin America, ahead of just Haiti .  While Lula’s economic policies have strengthened his relationship with the working poor, Brazil ’s stagnated growth has frustrated middle and upper class voters.

Alckmin, has tailored his image to appeal to this very bracket.  As governor of São Paulo state, a position from which he resigned for his presidential campaign, Alckmin developed a managerial style and conservatism that has won him the support of Brazil ‘s business and financial community.  As appealing an alternative as Alckmin may be, however, Workers’ Party corruption is the true force behind his increasing viability. Ironically, Alckmin’s backers have turned the anti-corruption platform against Lula with the slogan, “For a decent Brazil .”

While campaigns for the presidency continue, October voting has already redefined the Congress. Changes in party representation reveal that the nation, angered by repeated Workers’ Party corruption, seeks change.  Alienated voters abandoned incumbent Workers’ Party candidates, causing the party to lose 10 percent of its seats in Congress, and enabling several other parties to gain power. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party surpassed the Workers’ Party to become the largest block in Congress.  The results of congressional elections, however, suggest that Brazilians do not stay angry for long: seven Workers’ Party members tarnished by last summer’s monthly payoff scandal were reelected, along with a number of party members involved in other scandals.

In spite of the transgressions of the Workers’ Party, Lula is still likely to emerge victorious when Brazilians vote again in late October.  Polls suggest he is favored by an increasingly large margin. A survey conducted by Datafolha on Oct.17 shows Lula leading by 20 percent.  To bolster his confidence even more, he can rely on the voters who favored Heloísa Helena, of the Socialism and Liberty Party in the first round.  They must choose between the two remaining candidates, and they will be loath to vote for the center-right Alckmin.

Certainly, if Lula does come out on top, he will be forced to reconsider his mandate to govern.  Lula’s unsatisfactory first-round victory has already encouraged him to reassess his image and that of his party.  He has finally publicly recognized the corruption that plagues his party: His staunch refusal to accept Dossiêgate – even though he fired his campaign manager – gave way to acknowledgement only after the first round of voting. In addition, Lula has already participated in a televised debate between the remaining runoff candidates.  These shifts in methods of addressing his party and the nation suggest that Lula’s disappointing first-round outcome could be the shock needed to redirect his focus to his original promises.  Aécio Neves, Governor of Minas Gerais state, and likely presidential hopeful in 2010, summarizes Lula’s party’s situation in Veja magazine: “Government ruined the Workers’ Party.  The Workers’ Party is a party with a place in the history of Brazilian democracy, but it lost itself when it rose to power.”

The Workers’ Party may indeed have lost its way, but Lula still has a chance to steer his administration back to the idealistic platform that won him the presidency in 2002.  If the new Lula – publicly cognizant of his party’s shortcomings and willing to participate in televised debates – bolsters enough support to win by a comfortable margin in the second round of voting, he might attribute his first-round disappointment to fleeting public opinion.  But, if voters keep the president holding his breath until the last vote is counted, this election could prove to be the ethical kick to the head that will put Lula and his administration back on track.

Email Jake Ward at



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