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Serra must get his act together- or step aside

February 5, 2010

São Paulo’s state governor, probably the presidential candidate most able to push through necessary reform in Brazil, must finally start campaigning – if he doesn’t, the race will be lost before it has begun.

In Brazil, they say, things only get going after the Carnival. Maybe this is why José Serra, São Paulo’s  state governor, has so far refused to get on the campaign trail. While President Lula has long ago  switched into campaign mode, aiming to project his own dreamlike popularity on his chosen heiress, the much less charismatic and less known chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, José Serra continues to avoid campaign talk. “I am here as governor, and I don’t talk about [presidential] politics”, Serra announced at a recent press conference after journalists had inquired about his melting lead in the polls.

A loss of leadership in the opinion polls, however, is an  issue Serra cannot afford to ignore. Rather than mere reflections of voters’ views, opinion polls play a key role in the complex horse-trading and coalition-building that takes place before the elections. Unless Serra can project himself as a strong candidate and potential winner of this October’s elections, his chances to pull smaller king-making parties on his side are bleak.

While Serra would probably still win if elections were held today, he is up against an experienced campaigner who has participated as a major actor in every presidential contest since 1989. Lula himself is not be the candidate, but he is so popular that he may single-handedly carry Ms. Rousseff, his protegé, across the finish-line.

To run or not to run?

Such a scenario is not unheard of in Brazilian politics- in 1991, for example, São Paulo’s governor Orestes Quércia successfully pushed his heir, Luiz Antonio Fleury, into office. Insiders say that, aside from high-profile international trips, Lula will practically leave governing entirely to his aides during the final months of the presidency in order to promote Ms. Rousseff. Serra, if officially chosen as candidate, needs to resign as governor, which would give him all the time he needs to travel the country. But he can in no way match the star power Lula projects. Paradoxically, Lula’s highly effective predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is today seen in a critical light by most Brazilians, and he will be of no help during Serra’s campaign.

Given the urgency, why does Serra hesitate? While he correctly argues that he still has lots of work to do as governor, his strange reluctance to openly speak about his presidential ambitions may more simple reasons:  Some analysts wonder whether he really wants to run for President at all. His reelection as São Paulo’s state governor seems assured, and at 67, he may ask himself whether he should once more take on the pains of running for President after losing to Lula in 2002- especially given that he may very well lose to a Lula-powered Dilma Rousseff. If rumors are correct that Henrique Meirelles, Brazil’s popular Central Banker, is ready to run as Dilma’s VP, the Workers’ Party’s Lula-Dilma-Meirelles trirumvirate may prove invincible.

Serra’s dithering does not only hurt himself, but the PSDB’s chances to win the election. The party’s other contender, Aécio Neves, governor of Minas Gerais, is talented but relatively unknown on the national level, and his chances to beat Dilma are even lower. If he ran, he’d need every minute to assemble a campaign team and catch up with the Lula-Dilma campaign machine. If Serra decides to run now, he stands a good chance of becoming Brazil’s 36th President. Yet, every additional day Serra continues to remain quiet, his chances melt away. As The Economist has rightly pointed out, Serra may well become the best President Brazil has never had.

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