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In a suddenly exciting contest, José Serra would be a better president than Dilma Rousseff
Oct 21st 2010
FROM June until the end of September, Dilma Rousseff seemed to be cruising towards Brazil’s presidency, with a poll lead that at one point put her almost 25 points ahead of her chief opponent, José Serra. But an election that had seemed a soporific canter has suddenly turned into a horse race. Having failed to win outright on October 3rd, Ms Rousseff, the former chief of staff and chosen candidate of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the hugely popular outgoing president, faces a run-off against Mr Serra on October 31st. Several recent polls put the gap between them at only five or six points (seearticle).
Mr Serra is lucky to have a second chance, for his campaign has until recently been hapless. He owes his reprieve mainly to the unexpectedly strong vote for a third candidate, Marina Silva, who won 19.3% on October 3rd. Less happily, religious leaders may have swayed some voters against Ms Rousseff, who once backed abortion rights. Ms Rousseff may still be the favourite to win, but Mr Serra has a spring in his step and the election is wide open. Brazil now has a choice.
That is a good thing in itself. Ms Rousseff did not deserve to win by default just because she was Lula’s hand-picked successor. Which candidate deserves the presidency more? Both might be described as social democrats; both agree on the broad outlines of economic and social policy. Neither presages disaster for Brazil. That said, on the issues on which they disagree, Mr Serra is the more persuasive of the two.
Ms Rousseff and the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) want the state to play a bigger role in the economy. They are especially keen on that in the oil industry, but they also want to keep lending public money to big business to create national champions. In return, in some cases, they want more influence over boardroom decisions. It is hard to see them putting a stop to the inexorable growth of the public payroll, swollen by many PT appointees, and of the tax burden required to pay for it.
The case for change at the top
Mr Serra also has faults, notably a worrying tendency to try to micromanage everything. But his record suggests that he would move faster to cut wasteful spending and eliminate the fiscal deficit, and that he would be keener to mobilise private capital for much-needed infrastructure. Monetary policy would no longer have to carry all the burden of keeping inflation under control, allowing Brazil’s egregiously high interest rates to fall (and helping to halt the excessive appreciation of the real). Ms Rousseff would tackle such distortions more gradually, if at all. In an uncertain world that is unnecessarily risky. For all his achievements in fighting poverty and making Brazil a fairer place, Lula is bequeathing a country where one in two homes lack mains sewerage and educational standards remain woeful. Those should be priorities for public spending.
There are two other reasons why Brazilians would do well to favour Mr Serra. The first is that Ms Rousseff is not Lula. She lacks his extraordinary political gifts and perhaps also his innate pragmatism. By contrast, although Mr Serra may be a poor campaigner, he has been an effective minister, mayor and governor. Second, although no political party has a monopoly when it comes to corruption, there are plenty of signs that the PT has become too cosy with power. After eight years under the PT Brazil would benefit from a change at the top.