Facing a runoff, Brazil’s Rousseff Must Look to Uruguay for Answers

Author: Liam Murphy, Johns Hopkins

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In May, Forbes magazine listed Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the fourth most powerful woman in the world, second among world leaders to Germany’s Angela Merkel. At the time, such praise seemed appropriate. After all, Rousseff presided over Latin America’s biggest economy and was preparing her country to host the FIFA World Cup. It was a decidedly optimistic time for Rousseff and for Brazil as a country.

Less than six months later, as Rousseff confronts the reality of a tight runoff election against Social Democratic candidate Aecio Neves, optimism in Brazil has given way to uncertainty. Its seemingly burgeoning economy has stalled, mired by rising inflation and dwindling foreign investment. The political atmosphere has grown increasingly tumultuous, with widespread protests and charges of corruption rocking the government, and Rousseff’s critics have gained sizeable public support. These developments spell trouble for Rousseff, who must now battle the pro-business Neves for the 22% of voters made available by the defeat of environmentalist candidate Marina Silva. To her credit, the incumbent is no stranger to runoffs; Rousseff dismantled Social Democratic candidate José Serra in the second round of the 2010 election. This time around, however, circumstances are quite different. Widespread protests plagued this summer’s World Cup, and following Brazil’s crushing loss to Germany in the semifinal of the tournament, the reality of widespread protests and a possible recession confronted Rousseff’s government. Since then, her political opponents, especially Neves and Silva, have capitalized on her sudden vulnerability, targeting her accountability and neglect towards the economy.

Now, with time and the patience of Brazilian voters running out, the former guerrilla fighter turned reformist president must find a way to win her job back. It is not an impossible task; Rousseff still holds the support of Brazil’s poor, and an 80% turnout in the first round of this year’s election bodes well for the president. Moreover, as a leftist female candidate with a history of radical activism – she participated actively in Marxist resistance groups including the National Liberation Command and the VAR Palmares, for which she was arrested in 1970 – Rousseff still benefits to an extent from her radical fervor, a trait that has been central to the success of Latin American leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in the past. Nevertheless, many are projecting this month’s runoff election as too close to call, citing the president’s mismanagement of the economy and corruption as significant political obstacles. As Rousseff comes to this crossroads in her political career, it is clear she needs to reevaluate her image and her policies. She must recognize the failures of her impractical radicalism and opt instead for a combination of the social reforms she values most and more moderate economic policies. In short, she must resist the allure of misguided Chavismo and consider a more calculated approach. Fortunately for Rousseff, a model for this transformation already exists nearby: Uruguayan President José Mujica.

Described as by many as the “world’s humblest president,” President Mujica has garnered a reputation of being a radical yet pragmatic leader. In many ways, the Uruguayan president’s political rise resembles that of his Brazilian counterpart. A former guerrilla leader of the Tupameros, a violent Marxist resistance group during the presidency of Jorge Pacheco Areco, Mujica underwent a drastic political transformation, from radical Marxist to humble pragmatist, before becoming president. During his rise, he displayed an uncanny ability to win over the Uruguayan people and fellow politicians alike, portraying himself as a small-town, flower-growing farmer with a profound distaste for politics. This image has proven to be an accurate depiction of the president’s lifestyle: after winning the presidency in 2009, Mujica chose to live in his rural one-bedroom home rather than the presidential palace and to donate the majority of his government salary to charity.

His critics claim this seemingly ordinary persona is a tactic intended to sentimentalize his public image and whitewash his violent past. Yet even the most cynical observer cannot deny the achievements of Mujica’s first term as president. In 2011, the president signed a bill decriminalizing abortions, making Uruguay one of Latin America’s only countries to have such legislation in place. In 2013, Mujica, with tremendous popular support, penned legislation that legalized the sale of marijuana and a bill in favor of same-sex marriage in the span of less than a month. In Central and South America, such reforms are almost entirely unprecedented – Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. Brazil, by contrast, still finds itself bogged down on all of the aforementioned issues, with President Rousseff opting against the pursuit of any such legislation.  But Mujica’s success ought not to be defined solely in terms of liberal social policies; he has toed partisan lines deftly on a consistent basis, particularly with regards to economic policy. Since his election in 2009, President Mujica has delegated matters of fiscal policy to his finance ministers, Fernando Lorenzo and Mario Bergara, the latter of whom had arrived from his post as head of Uruguay’s Central Bank in late 2013. As a result, the country has seen stable economic growth and, for the most part, limited inflation and unemployment. Make no mistake: Mujica is no neoliberal. He has been vocal about his pessimism regarding free market policies and the potency of global consumerism. Nevertheless, the 78-year old president has opted to not captain his country’s economic ship, preferring rather to pursue the social reforms and humble lifestyle that have defined his political career.

In spite of Mujica’s many successes, there remain problems in Uruguay. People are speaking out about the need for education reform and a crackdown on urban crime, both of which are issues many believe to have been greatly neglected by President Mujica. Another problem Mujica faces is Uruguay’s presidential term limit, which will force the popular president to leave office this winter. Despite the persistence of these problems, the Uruguayan president remains a compelling example for Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff. Instead of focusing on rampant crime and antiquated social policies, Dilma Rousseff must answer questions on the economy and political accountability, questions that have clearly damaged her public support. These are concerns José Mujica has for the most part been fortunate and savvy enough to avoid, no doubt in part due to his relentless pursuit of targeted social reforms and his willingness to let his advisors pursue free market policies, even those with which he disagrees. Thus, as Rousseff and Neves square off in the coming weeks, Rousseff must abandon her attacks on liberal economic policy and paint herself as a candidate of change and trust. After all, her opponent is no stranger to questions of corruption and trustworthiness. During his time as Governor of Minas Gerais, now Senator Neves attempted to censor the press online, including sites like Yahoo and Google, and illegally hired public school teachers at below minimum wage. Furthermore, Neves’ biggest bargaining chip, a shift in emphasis to a liberalized economy, can be easily overcome if Rousseff considers a tactic similar to that of President Mujica and permits more economic openness. Ultimately, though, the Brazilian president’s success in the next few weeks will depend on her ability to salvage her public image and restore a sense of trust and accountability among voters. It will be difficult, but with a dose of Mujica’s pragmatism Dilma Rousseff can win back her office and continue her relentless pursuit of much-needed social reform.

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