Brazilians face an unfamiliar ballot today when they enter polling booths to elect a new president. For the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the name Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will not be on it.
Mr. da Silva, known widely as "Lula," cannot run for a third consecutive term. Yet he remains the most important figure in this year's race. His 80 percent approval rating and enthusiastic support for Workers' Party (PT) candidate Dilma Rousseff nearly guarantees her victory.
"The PT made it a plebiscite: If you like Lula, then vote for it to continue under Dilma," says Carlos Manhanelli, president of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants. "She can tell her tailor to prepare her dress for the inauguration."
Polls show she will garner close to 50 percent of the vote, far ahead of her closest challenger, José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party. And she remains the clear favorite even amid a series of ethics scandals hitting the PT and one of her closest collaborators – underscoring the general approval of Lula's leadership.
Simply put, Brazilians want Lula, whose charisma is unmatched by Mr. Serra or Dilma, as everyone in this informal nation knows the former energy minister. She is seen as authoritarian and harsh, and although she was one of the few Brazilians courageous enough to fight against the military dictatorship, she only joined PT in 2001 and has never run for office. In contrast, Serra has a long political career, serving as governor of Brazil's most populous state and then as health minister. But he is no more likable than his opponent.
Both candidates are essentially vying to show they can continue the prosperity found during Lula's eight-year term. Under his watch, inflation remained low and debt fell, while trade increased and bolstered foreign reserves to record levels. Confirmation of the country's newfound economic respect came from international ratings agencies, who last year awarded Brazil investment grade for the first time.
Lula stimulated spending, freed up credit, and injected money into previously moribund parts of the economy through a nationwide program that pays mothers to keep their kids in school and vaccinate their babies. More than 40 million people have benefited from the Bolsa Familia (or Family Aid) program, creating a trickle-up economic model that gave the poor disposable income for the first time.
The global economic crisis caused only ripples here. Jobs disappeared and sales dropped, but Brazil did not suffer the home repossessions, failing businesses, and redundancies that demoralized much of Europe and North America. The economy is expected to grow 7 percent this year.
Why didn't Lula do more?
But amid such incredible growth, critics question why Lula did not seize the moment to implement more reforms. Brazil's education standards remain pitifully low, corruption is endemic, and violent crime remains unacceptably high. Moreover, Lula failed to implement pressing tax, social security, labor, and union reforms.
"Lula has an 80 percent approval rating but he hasn't used that mandate to make tough decisions and push through the necessary reforms," says Oliver Stuenkel, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of São Paulo. "He's missed a great opportunity."
He's also been lucky. Brazil, with its abundant commodities, has become the world's No. 1 producer or exporter of beef, chicken, coffee, soybeans, sugar, and iron ore. Oil, too, has recently emerged as a major source of jobs and income. The sector got a huge boost in 2007 with three major discoveries off the Atlantic coast. The presalt fields, so named because they are found under more than 5,000 meters of sea, rock, and salt deposits, contain at least 12 billion and perhaps as much as 50 billion barrels of oil.
All that has given Brazil a more prominent role in world affairs and Lula has seized on it. Brazil's troops have anchored peacekeeping efforts in Haiti, negotiators have been influential in climate and trade talks, and diplomats have sought to broker peace deals in Honduras, Iran, and between feuding Colombia and Venezuela. As if to crown its arrival on the world stage, Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
A hero at home and revered abroad for his work slashing income inequality, Lula has said he may now take a position at an international body, help Africa, or advise Ms. Rousseff – a move sure to be welcomed by most Brazilians.
"The principal explanation that so many people want to maintain the status quo is that the economy is doing well," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst with CAC Political Consultancy. "It's like Clinton's slogan in 1992: It's the economy, stupid."