Serra to take on Lula's popularity

Brazilian opposition candidate Jose Serra launched his bid for the presidency yesterday, buoyed by an opinion poll lead and extensive experience ahead of what promises to be a tough race until the October 3 poll.

Beaten to the top job by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2002, Serra must develop a strategy to overcome Lula's disciple, Dilma Rousseff who can count on the president's huge popularity and a rebounding economy.

Those advantages make her the favourite for most pundits. But analysts say that Serra's broad executive experience and national profile make him a formidable rival for Rousseff of the center-left Workers' Party, who is untested in elections.

"The race is only really beginning now and it won't be easy but Serra stands a real chance," said Rio de Janeiro-based political analyst Amaury de Souza.

A member of the centrist PSDB party, Serra is favoured by some investors for his perceived fiscal discipline and reputation as a competent administrator, even though neither he nor Rousseff are seen as straying much from the current, largely market-friendly economic policies.

The 68-year-old former health minister resigned as Sao Paulo state governor last week in line with election laws and will be endorsed as candidate in the capital Brasilia.

Rousseff also quit her post as Lula's chief of staff to run in the election.

The official campaign begins in July, with Serra hoping he can extend an opinion poll lead that dwindled to a few points from 20 points six months ago as the little-known Rousseff gained from a jump in national exposure.

The latest poll showed him rebounding to a nine-point advantage. Opposition leaders say they plan to play up Serra's vast experience and try to prevent Rousseff making the election a plebiscite on Lula's eight years in power that have seen Brazil's economy power ahead, lifting millions out of poverty.

The economy recovered quickly from the global crisis, and Lula's popularity at around 80 percent is at historic highs.

"They want to make this a plebiscite on Lula; we want to know who is the best candidate to lead Brazil for the next four years," said Jose Anibal, a former PSDB president.

Strong election base

With training in engineering and a PhD in economics from Cornell University, Serra has held eight public jobs, including Sao Paulo mayor, and posts as both planning and health minister in the PSDB administration before Lula came to power.

A long-time critic of Brazil's high interest rates and inefficient public spending, Serra has the advantage of a successful spell as governor of Brazil's most populous state – the country's economic powerhouse and a strong election base.

Still, the former student leader who was exiled in Chile and the United States for much of Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship may struggle to hold a lead that pollsters say is in part due to him being better known than Rousseff.

Former leftist militant Rousseff has already reaped some of the benefits of having Lula on her side by tagging along with him to dozens of public works inaugurations, gaining valuable media exposure and helping her rise in the polls.

That "Lula effect" will also help her during the campaign as the president, who by law cannot run for a third consecutive term, joins her on the trail.

"It won't be an easy election. We're facing a populist government that is using the state apparatus to its advantage," said Geovani Pereira, Secretary-General of the PSDB Youth, in reference to Rousseff's shared public events with Lula.

Lula's shadow

Serra advisors say one of his biggest tasks will be to focus the campaign on the future, stressing that he will improve Lula's advances rather than disrupt them.

Serra must also tackle a widespread image that the PSDB is elitist, concerned more with middle-class issues than those of the poor, who make up the majority of the electorate.

In contrast to Lula's everyman touch and simple language that appeals to a broad range of Brazilians, Serra sometimes comes across as arrogant and pedantic.

Asked who would be his finance minister if he won, two PSDB leaders had the same answer: "He himself."

But Serra shows signs he is changing his approach.

In an effort to reach out to average citizens he has in recent weeks stressed his working-class origins as the son of an Italian immigrant. To break his often stiff demeanor he opens speeches by talking about soccer, a sure way to break ice with a Brazilian audience.

He also has begun to praise some of Lula's policies, modifying the questionable PSDB strategy of heavily criticizing a popular president.

Lula may be well liked, but an outgoing president's popularity is no guarantee of victory, said analyst Souza. He cited the failure of Chile's President Michelle Bachelet to elect her candidate this year despite similar approval ratings to Lula's.

Lula himself, who ran for Brazil's top office five times, admitted Serra will be a tough adversary.

"I sincerely think we won't have any easy campaign," Lula said on Thursday. (Reuters)


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