Dilma and the Seleção
Buenos Aires Herald, July 1, 2014
As the host of the 2014 World Cup, and despite having played poorly, Brazil has a fairly good chance of winning the tournament and becoming champion. Similarly, Brazil’s incumbent President Dilma Rousseff seems poised to win re-election in October, in spite of having led an unexceptional government for the last four years.
When she was tapped as the presidential candidate of the ruling Worker’s Party in 2010, Rousseff benefited from the high approval rate of retiring President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011). After presiding over a period of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction, Lula put Brazil back on the world map. By attracting foreign investors and expanding economic opportunities to traditionally-excluded sectors, Lula became popular at home and abroad. As a left-wing leader whose history made him a champion of the poor, Lula also sought to appease economic actors by introducing market-friendly reforms. Because Lula also actively campaigned on her behalf, Dilma had an easy time in the election, securing 47 percent in the first round and 56 percent in the runoff. The fact that turnout was relatively high, with 80 percent of eligible Brazilians voting, gave Dilma a clear mandate to carry out her planned reforms.
After taking office on January 1, 2011, Dilma sought to distinguish herself from her predecessor by tackling corruption, which prevents economic growth and is seen both as cause and evidence of inequality and exclusion. Political graft became a leading cause for the president. She shuffled her Cabinet a few times as a result of corruption scandals. Though Brazilians welcomed her efforts, they were critical of their first female president in other ways. A few months into her term, Dilma’s approval rate fell below 50 percent — her struggle against corruption helped bring her back over 50 percent at the end of her first year.
Sluggish economic growth in 2011 and 2012 (2.7 percent and one percent respectively) made many Brazilians nostalgic for Lula’s time in office — when the economy expanded by an average of 4.7 percent between 2006 and 2010. Inflation also increased from a four-year average of 4.8 percent under Lula’s second term to 6.6 percent in Dilma’s first year. Though unemployment was only six percent in 2011 — down from 6.7 percent and 8.1 percent in the previous two years — rising prices reduced the purchasing power of the aspiring middle-class.
The preparations for this year’s World Cup and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 turned from a blessing into a curse. Initially seen as an opportunity to show its new economic status, the tournaments have become symbols of everything that was wrong with Brazil. Massive protests in 2013 put the focus on what many considered ill-conceived government priorities. Spending on stadiums rather than public housing, and putting the focus on improving infrastructure instead of schools, led millions of middle-class Brazilians to take to the streets and protest against the government. Instead of using the mass mobilizations as an opportunity to step up her fight against political graft and to rally support for her social programmes, Dilma’s initial response showed her as a confused and reactive leader. Her approval ratings fell again and many, even within her party, started having doubts about whether she deserved a second term as president.
The protests continued, albeit with less numbers, until the opening game of the World Cup. Understandably, soccer has relegated politics to a far lower position in people’s priorities. As the most successful team in World Cup history, Brazil was the overwhelming favourite to win the tournament. Yet, as the team struggled to qualify from its group and barely survived the first stage of the knockout round, defeating Chile only on penalty kicks, many doubt that the national team has what it takes to win the World Cup. Still, with some of the best players in world, Brazil continues to be among the favourites to win the tournament. The team has not played well, but the championship is still within reach.
Similarly, Rousseff looks vulnerable ahead of October. Her popularity is lower than Lula’s when he won re-election in 2006, but while he was recovering from a low point, Dilma’s popularity is in a downward slope. Moreover, while Lula was a master campaigner and a charismatic leader, the president seems uncomfortable on the campaign trail. Her opponents are gaining ground, though the anti-Dilma vote will inevitably be split between Aécio Neves of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) and Eduardo Campos of the leftist Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB). As she will probably end up ahead of her two rivals in the first round, Dilma will need to attract a fraction of those who will vote for the candidate who ends third to secure her re-election.
Despite her lukewarm style and unimaginative campaign, Dilma continues to be the favourite to win. That is why if the unconvincing Brazilian national football team goes on to win the World Cup on July 13, Dilma will want to believe that the presidential election will be a replay of the World Cup.