Rousseff on track to be Brazil's first female leader

 

BRAZIL’S PRESIDENTIAL election campaign drew to a close last night with the final televised debate ahead of tomorrow’s vote.

The televised set-piece provided opposition candidate José Serra with a final chance at halting the growing bandwagon behind frontrunner Dilma Rousseff.

After a wobble in recent weeks when she was caught off balance by a controversy concerning her stance on abortion, the ruling Workers Party candidate has recovered and latest polls show her powering ahead. She has extended a double-digit lead over Mr Serra and is on track to become Brazil’s first woman president.

The dour 62-year-old economist is little known by voters but has the strong backing of the charismatic and popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose job-approval rating this week reached an all-time record of 83 per cent thanks to a booming economy and record low unemployment.

Tomorrow’s vote will close a campaign that in its final weeks has descended into a bitter slagging match with both sides hurling accusations of wrongdoing at each other.

Mr Serra had a corruption scandal involving a close aide to Ms Rousseff to thank for his place in the second round. Accusations of influence-peddling by the woman who replaced her as Mr Lula’s cabinet chief robbed Ms Rousseff of vital momentum in the days before the first round of voting, leaving her just shy of outright victory.

In campaigning for the second round, Mr Serra has sought to capitalise on the ongoing investigation by police into the case involving the aide. But his attempts to portray the Workers Party administration as corrupt have been undermined by revelations involving his own party, the Social Democrats.

The Social Democrats’ administration of the state of São Paulo has come under scrutiny after claims a bidding process for a metro system extension was rigged, with kickbacks from construction firms used as illegal campaign financing by the party.

Anti-graft campaigners say illegal funding of expensive political campaigns explains much of the corruption in Brazil, which has slipped from 45th to 75th on Transparency International’s ranking of the world’s least corrupt countries during Mr Lula’s time in office. Numerous police inquiries show parties of every stripe at all levels of government peddling contracts for kickbacks with the cash then used as undeclared funding of campaigns.

“Today the system’s main ideology is easy money. Those who do not enter into this dirty game are shut out,” says Jovita José Rosa, executive secretary of the Movement to Combat Electoral Corruption.

Public disgust at this corruption has in recent years given birth to a civic movement demanding political reform. “To confront corruption it is vital to have a political reform. The current system provides too many ample opportunities for corruption,” says Roberto Livianu, president of the Democratic Public Ministry, an organisation of public prosecutors involved in the campaign for political reform.

This broad-based movement for reform scored a major success earlier this year when it collected more than 1.5 million signatures which constitutionally forced congress to vote on a Bill drawn up by the campaign to exclude politicians convicted by a court from standing in elections.

With the public in favour of the Bill, congress reluctantly approved it. Now campaigners are seeking to repeat this success by collecting signatures to back a broader political reform Bill, including public funding of political campaigns.