As Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) assembled to celebrate ten years in power in February, President Dilma Rousseff took the opportunity to announce that she would seek a second four-year term in office. At her side was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor, who endorsed her candidacy and described it as the best way to carry on with the PT’s progressive political project. “The opposition can put up whomever they want,” proclaimed the former-mechanic-turned- popular-politician, “but we are going to re-elect Dilma in 2014.”
Lula could have chosen to run for president himself -- and, prior to his endorsement of Rousseff, there had been speculation that he would. But Lula, ever the shrewd political strategist, decided that the best way to achieve his goal of winning electoral hegemony for the PT would be to back Rousseff. In doing so, Lula solidified his role as campaign manager and PT champion as the party tries to fulfill its long-term agenda of transforming Brazil into a more equitable society with ample safety nets for the needy while also making its economy the fifth largest in the world within a decade.
How well has the party done so far? When Rousseff took over the presidency in 2011, she said her priority would be to “end misery” in Brazil. Her tool for doing so would be increasing public stipends for those living on incomes of less than $35 per month. The stipends, part of the Bolsa Família program (which costs about $4 billion per year), go to poor families that keep their children in school and take them for regular health checkups.
By all accounts, Bolsa Família, which reaches about 16 million families, has succeeded in improving nutrition for children, increasing vaccination rates among infants, and providing a minimum income for Brazil’s poorest. The feel-good program has few detractors, which might be why, on the eve of launching her candidacy, Rousseff announced that the government had discovered another 700,000 families that needed support. She promised to register them for the payments. Naturally, she assumes that doing so will make them more likely to vote for her.
At the same time, Rousseff has cut prices for electricity and eliminated taxes on basic foods. She has also pumped up consumer spending by reducing interest rates on loans at the powerful public banks, which forced private banks to follow suit.