The Race Begins

The two front-runners in the race to succeed Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva ("Lula"), one of the world's most popular leaders, resigned from their current political posts yesterday, kicking off what is bound to be a competitive election.

Dilma Rouseff, 62, the candidate for the Worker's Party (PT) who is favored to win despite having never held elected office and trailing in the polls, resigned yesterday from her position as Lula's chief of staff. "See you soon," she confidently told colleagues at an event in Brasilia yesterday. "Brazil is no longer 'the country of the future,'" she reminded them. "The future has arrived, and we arrived with it."

The other front-runner is José Serra, 68, a veteran politician from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) with over 30 years in government and backed by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Serra resigned yesterday as Governor of the State of São Paulo, the country's most populated and economically-powerful region. "My major obsession has always been to serve the general interests of the State of São Paulo and my country, Brazil," he told an audience at the governor's palace. "Brazil can achieve more."

The resignations come on the heels of a March 27 poll, which shows Serra gaining a 9-point lead in the race. February polls had the two frontrunners technically tied, as the difference was within the margin of error. Analysts expected Rousseff to be leading in the polls by now. Recent polls, however, show Serra strengthening among the poor and women, two groups thought to be solid supporters of Rousseff and the Worker's Party. With campaign season in full swing, some now believe Serra, who garners wider name recognition in Brazil, will increase his lead even further, perhaps upwards of 15 percentage points. The election is up for grabs.

Unlike previous presidential elections in Brazil, markets have reacted gently to both candidates till now. Although there is talk that Rousseff may push for higher public expenditures and increased government involvement in the private sector, which caused a modicum of uncertainty among investors this week, both candidates largely share similar views on the broader role of state and economic policy. Voters will find it difficult to parse meaningful policy differences between them -- a stark contrast with elections in past.

The shared policy agenda means the front-runners must differentiate themselves on other grounds. But both candidates face serious challenges ahead. Seen as competent and unabashedly confident, Rousseff "the enforcer" is esteemed by party loyalists, especially Señor Lula -- the maestro behind her presidential bid. But she must cast a wider net among the public if she wants to win, perhaps taking a page from Lula's metamorphosis in 2002, when he conspicuously transformed himself from red comrade to pastel candidate for "peace and love." And her public speeches are monotone, uncharismatic, and rehearsed, a far cry from the working-class enthusiasm and sentiment that brought Lula to office, which explains the lackluster support from the poor and women.

A former gun-toting Trotskyist and guerrilla, Rousseff also faces serious questions about her past of the William Ayers sort. For better or worse, Serra is sure to unleash those skeletons during the campaign. Perhaps Rousseff's greatest challenge, however, is to avoid being eclipsed by Lula. The most remarkable thing about her resignation speech yesterday was that it was all Lula and no Rousseff -- not a great way to launch a presidential campaign. Riding on Lula's coattails may have some advantages; but Rousseff risks being completely overshadowed by him. Voters need to know why she is the better pick, not Lula.

With a doctorate in economics from Cornell, Serra is erudite and a seasoned politician, having lost the 2002 presidential election. He must tilt the debate away from the past and towards the future and avoid a mud-slinging battle with Teflon-like Lula at all costs. Serra's campaign looks poised to focus on character, leadership skills, and elected experience. But, like Rousseff, Serra faces a charisma deficit. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, can appear pedantic, and suffers from a borderline case of Al Gore syndrome (he claimed he was a former poet, actor, and school teacher at yesterday's event, which surely fell on deaf ears). And Rousseff will throw plenty of daggers at his checkered record in São Paulo.

Regardless, Brazil stands to benefit from demographic trends and a stable economy over the next decade. Whoever wins the 2010 presidential elections must provide responsible leadership on a heightened foreign affairs agenda while continuing to deal with difficult and pressing problems of inequality and social exclusion. Compared to the military coups, debt crises, and quadruple digit inflation of the past, that's easy-going.