Andres Oppenheimer

With Brazil's government-backed presidential hopeful Dilma Roussef rising in the polls, some of her most prominent critics are raising the specter that South America's biggest country will move closer to the radical left if she wins the October elections.

Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the architect of Brazil's economic recovery and one of the most respected opposition voices, certainly thinks so. In an interview this week, he told me that Roussef is more "dogmatic," "authoritarian" and closer to Venezuela's radical left than outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Roussef, an economist and former guerrilla activist, has been Lula's chief of staff since 2005. In recent months, Lula has paraded her throughout the country inaugurating public works projects with him, hoping that his 80 percent popularity rate and the country's expected 5 percent economic growth this year will benefit her candidacy.

A recent poll by Brazil's Sensus firm shows that support for Roussef has climbed to 22 percent, and pollsters say it will keep increasing as her name recognition grows. Her main opponent, Sao Paulo state governor and former Sao Paulo Mayor Jose Serra, has 32 percent of the vote. None of the two have yet officially declared their candidacies.


-- Will she win, I asked Cardoso, who is backing Serra.

-- "I think she will have difficulties. She will rise in the polls . . . because President Lula has accelerated the start of the campaign, the opposition has not yet officially elected a candidate and she is thus gaining visibility in the mass media. But I think that, at the end of the day, when people go to vote and look at which candidate inspires more confidence, things will change."

-- Why? I asked.

-- "Dilma Roussef still doesn't have any leadership experience. She hasn't been a leader of anything. She hasn't been governor, nor mayor, nothing. It's difficult to think that the people will put their trust in somebody who is a public official, who is not a leader, while on the other camp you have leaders with a proven track record."

-- Would she be managed by Lula?

-- "I don't know whether somebody who rises to power would allow somebody else to manage her. I wouldn't say that. Also, because of her personal characteristics. She is a very hard, authoritarian person."

-- Would her government be closer to the radical left than Lula's?

-- "She is closer to the Worker's Party. Lula has greater independence from his party. He has transcended his party. Lula is a skillful negotiator, a [former] union leader. He is not a confrontational man; he is a negotiator. He has the ability to change his mind . . . I don't think Dilma would do that, because she is more -- perhaps this is a little harsh -- dogmatic. She has a somewhat outdated view . . . favoring a greater state interference [in the economy.]"

-- Would Dilma Roussef be closer to Venezuela's radical leftist President Hugo Chavez?

-- "Probably. However, you have to take into account that the country's institutions are strong, and that people in power can't do whatever they want. She may want to, but the leadership of other political groups, the existence of a free press, strong companies, universities, etc. all of that works as a counterweight. But, having said that, Dilma's heart is closer to the left."


My opinion: Brazil's presidential race is in full gear, and we have to take both sides' rhetoric with a grain of salt.

The Serra camp's electoral strategy -- so far voiced by Cardoso, while Serra takes the high ground -- will be to paint Roussef as an inexperienced, radical candidate who would move Brazil closer to a Venezuelan-styled economic chaos. The Roussef camp's strategy will be to paint Serra as an old-time politician whose government would slash social programs and be insensitive to the poor.

In fact, Roussef will have to veer to the center if she wants to win. Her Worker's Party lost the 1989, 1994 and 1998 elections when it ran on radical leftist platforms, before Lula shifted to the center in 2002. And Serra is hardly a free market freak -- he is best known in Brazil for fighting drug companies when he was health minister and creating a generic drug industry for the poor.

Most importantly, as Cardoso himself recognized, Brazil has a strong system of checks and balances that would make it hard for any president to destroy the country's economic gains of the past 15 years. Despite Lula's repulsive foreign policy -- he is embracing the world's worst dictatorships -- Brazil is likely to continue as a model of responsible economic behavior and poverty reduction in Latin America.