By Sibel Tinar, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL –The words ‘continuity’, ‘change’, and ‘alternative’ have lost their respective meanings in politics leading up to the 2010 elections in Brazil, instead, through political maneuvering all have been merged into a single concept that in essence meant “the continuation of President Lula’s legacy, and taking it one step further”.
The campaigns leading up to the elections have primarily focused on who could lay claim to Lula’s legacy and, since in politics winning over the median voter means winning the election, there is no doubt that with an approval rating over eighty percent, the median voter wants another Lula.
So what do the candidates mean when referring to, and pledging alliance to, Lula’s legacy?
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 64, was born in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco into the very conditions that exemplify the underprivileged conditions of rural Brazil. Dropping out of school after fifth grade to work, he never forgot where he came from. Having been elected president for the first time in 2002 after three defeats, he started his presidency by promising to eradicate hunger, as well as pledging to make social, political and economic reforms.
Aware of Brazil’s vast resources and potential, Lula quickly assumed the role of leader for the developing world, refusing to bow to demands from world powers such as the United States and the European Union, and calling for a more equitable world system, in which workers in the developing countries would get their fair share.
Lula’s moderate views on globalization, and his embrace of the market-economy to boost economic development turned him into a sympathetic figure at home, and a spokesperson for the developing world abroad, as evidenced by his efforts to get Brazil a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
In domestic affairs, poverty reduction was always a priority, and he started the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) welfare initiative, which included major programs such as Bolsa Família (Family Grant) in order to help the poorest families, the majority of whom are concentrated in the North and Northeast regions of the country, by offering them direct financial aid.
His populist approach, combined with the success of his efforts is beginning to shift the dynamics of Brazil’s inequitable distribution of wealth, afforded Lula a second win in the 2006 presidential elections, despite corruption allegations that troubled the PT (Workers’ Party) and led to the resignation of several government officials.
The second term of Lula’s presidency saw a remarkable increase in Brazil’s economic growth, and even though the role of the global dynamics that increased the demand for the country’s main exports such as soybeans and ethanol cannot be denied, Lula’s confident leadership helped lower inflation from thirteen to five percent, and reduced unemployment.
Lula did, however, face severe criticism from the Western world when he openly supported the controversial election results of Iran, as well as its nuclear enrichment program by opposing the imposition of additional sanctions on the country.
Twice named one of the most influential leaders in the world by Time Magazine, in 2004 and 2010, Lula’s domestic achievements also helped turn Brazil into a major player in world affairs, which, combined with his undeniable charisma and natural leadership abilities, has made him an immensely popular president with a cult-like following that the Brazilian public is reluctant to let go. Even Barack Obama went so far as to say of him, “This is the man”.
The electoral law, however, stipulates that a president can only serve two consecutive terms, and Lula will have to step down on December 31st, handing over his legacy to either the opposition leader José Serra, or more likely, to his protégée and designated successor Dilma Rousseff, depending on the outcome of the run-off round of the presidential elections.
Unlike some other world leaders, Lula has refused to change the constitution to allow himself a third consecutive run despite his popularity that almost certainly would guarantee his reelection, a decision that reflects his respect for his country’s laws, and is seen as an important legacy for Brazil’s political culture.
Amid speculation that he has been considering an appointment as the secretary general of the United Nations, or a similar leadership position at another international organization after his mandate as the president ends, Lula has chosen to remain ambiguous about the possibility of returning as president in another four years, saying: “I am speaking from my heart when I say that I will not run for president in 2014, but in politics you can never say no.”