RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — For the first time since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will not be on the presidential ballot. But you wouldn’t know it from watching the closing weeks of this year’s campaign.
Hand-distributed fliers display candidates shoulder-to-shoulder with the current president. Lula smiles from the sides of Volkswagen buses rigged with loudspeakers to fill the streets with campaign music. Even the main opposition candidate for president, Jose Serra, ran television ads last month linking himself to the country’s most popular politician.
But it’s Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, who seems to be benefiting most from her patron’s record. Six months ago she trailed Serra by as much as 10 percentage points in the polls. A poll released Tuesday put her 25 points ahead of Serra, with 51 percent of the total vote. A series of corruption scandals implicating members of Rousseff's Worker's Party party have so far failed to blunt her edge in the contest.
“This is really Lula’s lead. He has thrown so much into this campaign that he could have nominated his wife, and she would probably win,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.
Rousseff, 62, who served under Lula as energy minister and then chief of staff, has a reputation as being a combative, but effective, administrator. She lacks Lula’s charisma and, until now, had never run for public office.
“This was seen as mission impossible at first,” said David Fleischer, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. “But Lula has gone by the polls. And the polls showed that a vast majority of people said, ‘Yes I’m going to vote for Lula’s candidate.’ But these people did not know that she was his candidate.”
Long before the legal campaigning period began, Lula started appearing alongside Rousseff at public events, and he put her in charge of a high-profile, multibillion-dollar program aimed at improving the country’s roads, ports and other infrastructure. Some say he crossed the line, and electoral officials fined him several times for campaigning prematurely for Rousseff.
“She was the chief of staff, but she was elevated to a position as if the chief of staff was someone at the same rank as the president,” said Amaury de Souza, a political consultant to businesses in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. “It’s as if she has been, for the past years, an acting president.”
But these past years have left many Brazilians feeling better off — a fact that indisputably boosts the ruling party’s chances at the polls.
Brazil’s roaring economic growth, estimated at 7 percent this year, has helped restore the country’s image as a developing superpower alongside the other so-called BRIC countries, Russia, India and China. Under Lula, Brazil won bids to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 — and its growing international stature has been matched by gains at home.
The strong economy and unprecedented social programs like Bolsa Familia, the largest conditional cash transfer program in the world, have reduced income inequality and helped pull millions out of poverty. The program began as a pilot project under Lula’s predecessor, but Lula expanded it and has managed to garner much of the credit for its success.
In the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsa Familia has won the vote of Dania Ferreira, a 50-year-old street vendor with two children to support. Ferreira couldn’t buy food and medicine without the program, she said, making her electoral logic simple.
“I’ll vote for Dilma, because of Lula,” Ferreira said as she made change for customers on a recent afternoon. “Lula created the Bolsa Familia.”
But even if such seemingly simple calculations can win the election for Lula’s chosen successor, the job facing Rousseff remains tough.
She’ll inherit already-delayed efforts to build infrastructure needed to host the Olympics and World Cup. In addition to dealing with perennial issues like tax and pension reform, she’ll also be in charge of how the country develops a field of deep-sea oil reserves rumored to rival those of Russia or Kuwait. Lula may have helped Brazil get its seat at the table of world power, but analysts say it will be up to Rousseff to ensure the country stays there.
“If Dilma makes some serious policy mistakes the whole image of Brazil as a BRIC collapses,” Roett said. “This is not an easy country to manage.”
But Moises Furtado de Morais, a 70-year-old snack vendor who plies the streets in Rio de Janeiro’s Centro neighborhood, says little of that will matter when he heads to the polls.
He said he supports Rousseff, because “she is from Lula, from his party.” In fact, when initially speaking about the election, Rousseff’s name didn’t come up at all.
When a stranger first asked whom he’s voting for, Morais simply said, “Lula.”