José Serra: Continuity or Change?

By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – With an unwavering and sizable voter support for his bid for presidency, José Serra refuses to be the underdog, despite the ever-growing numbers for his main rival, Dilma Rousseff. In the second of three profiles of the leading contenders, The Rio Times looks into Serra’s life, from his humble beginnings to major achievements, and his second attempt to become the president of Brazil.

José Serra, the presidential candidate of PSDB, speaking during his party's national meeting in Brasília, photo by Antônio Cruz/ABr.

Due to the popularity of President Lula, and the economic stability his policies have brought to the country during his two terms, it was clear that the candidate of the principal opposition Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democratic Party), José Serra, 68, would face major challenges in attracting voters, the majority of whom are unwilling to shake the status-quo.

Having lost the presidency to Lula in 2002 in the run-off, this time Serra has emphasized his working-class credentials, and emphasized his successful track record as Minister of Health under ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration, during which he aligned himself with the masses and made generic drugs available in Brazil.

Whilst his official biography states he was born to semi-literate Italian immigrant parents in São Paulo and grew up in a small and crowded rented apartment, his opponents dispute this history, arguing he was in fact raised in relative comfort as the son of a fruit seller.

These and similar allegations remain unverified, but tensions persist as a result of Serra’s focus on the working-class and a perception that he is trying to benefit from Lula’s far-reaching, ‘man of the people’ appeal.

Associated with the Catholic Left during his university years, Serra was forced into exile following the 1964 military coup as a result of speeches he gave shortly before the government takeover. He remained abroad for fourteen years, first in Chile, where he received his Master’s in economics, then in the United States, where he earned a PhD from Cornell, and taught at Princeton.

Serra in Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, where he officially started his campaign, photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr.

Upon his return to Brazil, his initial attempts to run for Congress were prohibited by the military government due to a suspension of his “political rights”, but eventually he entered the fray first at state, then at a federal level. After losing the presidency to Lula in 2002, Serra was elected Mayor of São Paulo, and eventually went on to become State Governor, where he still has a large support base and loyal following.

Serra’s ability to connect with the people of Brazil was called into question recently, however, as he was accused of being out-of-touch with the less developed parts of the country after failing to answer questions directed at him in Minas Gerais, Goiás and Pernambuco states on the campaign trail, saying that he could not understand the heavy accents.

Dilma, on the other hand, has publicly criticized Serra on several occasions for attempting to align himself with Lula by using the current president’s name and pictures strategically in his campaign, claiming recently that the two of them are both men of deep historical importance.

In a period in which the country appears to be more content and prosperous than ever, the political climate indicates that the candidate who more successfully manages to ride the current wave will become the next President of Brazil. For the opposition leader to muscle in on the incumbent party’s popularity is looking like an increasingly tall order.