From “Lulismo” to “Rousseffismo”

Marcelo de Paiva Abreu

Recent analyses of shifts in President Lula’s political strategies since 2002 emphasized contrasts between the pre-2002 “PTism” and “Lulaism,  a political agenda marked by Bonapartist strains. Yet, such analyses fail to highlight the key changes occurring in the newest transition from “Lulaism” to “Rousseffism.”

It is difficult to agree with their conclusion that Lula dropped “PTism” when [ in June 2002] he agreed to sign the “Letter to the Brazilian People,” the letter in which Lula committed to maintain the economic policies of the Cardoso administration. In fact, the circumstances led to an opportunity for Lula to escape absurd programmatic promises and attribute his shift to the economic crisis of the time. Adopting economic policies in line with the original PT agenda would have caused enormous difficulties. Lula would have to pay the political cost of ruining the stabilized economy he inherited. It is not easy to imagine a stable Lula administration committed to the PT original economic agenda.

A more convincing explanation of Lula’s ideological transition is that “PTism” was, in fact, ejected when the mensalão corruption crisis hit the party in 2005. The scandal clearly revealed the PT’s inability to fulfill its role as an inspiring force that would encourage other parties to improve their own practices. An appropriate metaphor is the “fall of an angel.” As the vision of a serious and coherent PT party waned, pragmatism took over, enhanced by the president´s  populist propensities – already demonstrated, for example, by the exacerbation of a presidential diplomacy with an emphasis on pyrotechnics. “Lulaism” version 1.0, lasting until the end of 2007, combined quite effectively the president’s prestige due to his spectacular life story as a migrant-metalworker-president with the adoption of prudent political economic policies.

After 2007, the question of who would follow him as president dominated Lula’s agenda. This subject prompted the shift to Lulaism version 2.0. The elimination, amidst the “mensalão” turmoil,  of the natural PT candidates, José Dirceu and Antonio Palocci, caused a crisis of “PTism.” After considering the costs and benefits of campaigning for a third-term, Lula, in a spectacular dedazo, selected Dilma Rousseff as his successor.

Lulaism version 2.0 depended still more on protagonism combined with the use of the federal machine to prematurely start a massive electoral campaign. Electoral demands impacted the fiscal stance of the government, leading to a significant boost in spending. The world economic crisis allowed the government to attribute the increase to anti-cyclical policies, even if most of the expenditure increase is irreversible. Although Lula, all things considered, tended to maintain commitment to a prudent monetary policy, fatigue of the central bank has become evident, as it constantly battles with the rather less prudent rest of the government.

If President Lula succeeds in securing Rousseff’s victory, there will be necessary changes in style and substance. Indeed, what would “Rousseffism” be compared to “Lulaism?” Even biographical circumstances will force Rousseff into a less prominent role, implying significant reconversion costs of government stances in Brazil and abroad. Internally, the great contrast between creator and creature will lead to transition costs resulting from the wide differences  in their respective capacity both to play the political game and clearly define political strategy.

In contrast to Lula, Rousseff will depend on her advisors to act politically and also keep under control the damage entailed by her abrasive style. There are several potential candidates for this position, including Antonio Palocci and Marco Aurélio Garcia. The contrasts between these two polar scenarios stress the deep uncertainties surrounding “Rousseffism.” Palocci is emblematic of “Lulaism” version 1.0, while Garcia, remained faithful  to “neo-Bolivarianism” throughout Lula’s administration and also much more aligned to PT´s original economic radicalism.

On economic issues, while Lula sought to preserve ambiguity when dealing with differences concerning economic policy within his administration , Rousseff has always forcefully defended spending increases and loose monetary policies. In several occasions she has shown more than a tinge of nostalgia for the old days, back in the 1970s, when there was an adequate emphasis on development and a prominent role of the state. Rousseff, although relatively new in the PT, supports “PTism” more emphatically than Lula himself.

Not surprisingly, many voters do not consider “Rousseffism” very appealing. Her political agenda’s uncertainties — and, even worse, the certainties — make compulsory a search for alternatives. The evaluation of such alternatives need to take into account the  powerful arguments in favor of the alternation of political parties in power. This would counter the offensive by the present ruling coalition to gain permanent control of government machinery   so evident during Lula´s government. It could also lead to a reevaluation of the public polices adopted since 2003, preserving those that have distributive merit and adjusting those that constitute mere rent seeking for the benefit of special interests.

A responsible political evaluation of alternatives, however, depends crucially on the opposition candidate breaking his silence. On economic policies, one can only hope that the recent interview of Sergio Guerra, national president of PSDB, the main opposition party, stressing how flexible economic policies would be if the opposition wins, did not reflect accurately the opposition candidate´s intentions.

*Marcelo de Paiva Abreu, Ph.D. in Economics, University of Cambridge, is Professor of Economics at the Department of Economics PUC-Rio.

Translated by Amanda Earley, Brazil Institute intern, with author’s permission, from article “Do ‘lulismo’ ao ‘rousseffismo’”, published in Portuguese in the Brazilian daily O Estado de S.Paulo, February 8, 2010.

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