This time eight years ago, Brazilian democracy took a stress test—and passed with distinction. The onetime radical union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took charge of Latin America’s largest nation and impressed the world with his moderate politics and prudent economics. More than a personal triumph, the election of this peasant’s son turned workingman’s hero was proof that Brazil was not just a land of the privileged and powerful but an inclusive democracy with room for all views and voices, even at the top. As Lula himself stated just last year, demurring as his boosters lobbied to rewrite the Constitution and allow him to run for a third term, “the alternation of power is an important measure of a full democracy.”
That was then. Though Lula himself is not on the ballot, the Oct. 3 presidential election is his to lose. According to all polls, his handpicked candidate, former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT), is heading for a landslide victory over Social Democrat José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo state. This is political craftsmanship at its best. Where Lula is an everyman and never more at home than when he’s working the crowds, Rousseff is a technocrat with a wooden delivery and a tin ear for politics (the “telephone pole,” her rivals call her) who just a few months ago was running a poor second to Serra. But with one eye on posterity and the other on the 2014 election, when he will be eligible to run again, Lula has hit the stump with a fury. Powered by 80 percent approval ratings, he has done everything he legally can, and sometimes a bit more (he’s drawn record fines for campaign irregularities), to shake some star-dust onto his protégée. The result is the rise of an overnight political phenomenon with few parallels even in volcanic Latin American politics and, with it, the potential collapse of Brazil’s democratic opposition.
Now pundits talk openly about the Mexicanization of Brazilian politics, a reference to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the iconic PRI, which for 70 years lorded over Mexican politics through fear, favor, and a weighted ballot box. That might be a stretch. The PRI’s reign was at its height a half century ago, when Mexico was a mostly rural nation beholden to corrupt and powerful oligarchs. The Brazil of the 21st century—cosmopolitan, politically wired, and allergic to demagogues—is one of the sturdiest democracies in the developing world. But the coming political cycle will test this emerging democracy as few others have. Lula’s allies are set to win control of both houses of Congress and 17 of 27 state governorships, a ruling coalition that could prove a political steamroller for a decade or more to come. “We are running the risk of becoming a one-party country, dominated by a single ruling coalition,” says political scientist Bolívar Lamounier.
The main worry over a Rousseff government is not that Brazil will suddenly careen to the left. A former Marxist guerrilla who was jailed and tortured by the military dictatorship, she has nonetheless followed Lula to the solid middle ground of the political spectrum and surrounded herself with moderates, like Antonio Palocci, the market-friendly former finance minister who soothed the financial world’s nerves when Lula took office. Rejecting calls to loosen Brazil’s money belt, Rousseff has vowed to keep inflation under control. She is also said to favor reining in the country’s loss-making pension system, a proposition that lefties decry as part of the “neoliberal” agenda. Though she supports a muscular bureaucracy and backs Lula’s call for tightening state control over Brazil’s new deepwater oil reserves, one of her trump cards in this campaign has been her ability to draw support from major businesses and industries, starting with Brazil’s richest man, the mining mogul Eike Batista.
The risk in Rousseff’s rise is less dramatic, but no less real. While she may be poised for glory, Brazil’s fractious political system means she will have to share power with a half-dozen parties known for their narrow political agendas and large appetites. The more daunting challenge will be marshaling the votes to unshackle Brazil’s economy, which is still hobbled by rigid labor laws, a bloated pension system, and the highest taxes in the emerging markets. With the economy humming, unemployment falling, and a rising middle class—and no forceful opposition to hold a government’s feet to the fire—these seem like distant worries. But if there is any certainty in the troubled global economy, it’s that good fortunes will turn. That’s something not even a political steamroller can fix.