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Lula's Throat Cancer: Why Brazil Is Sorely Missing Its Voice Of Reason

Analysis: Rumors have it that Lula is on the road to recovery following treatment for throat cancer. That's particularly good news for Brazil's governing PT and its political allies who have suffered without the powerful ex-president&

Lula and Dilma in December
Lula and Dilma in December
Izabelle Azevedo

BRASILIA -- Brazilian television presenter Fernando Mitre summed it up best when, upon hearing the news of Lula's illness, said: "He's the best communicator out of all our politicians. And the illness is hitting him right where he has his most important tool, his voice, the key to his charisma."

For years, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has used that voice, which is at once humorous, wise and pragmatic, to great effect as the leading mediator amongst Brazil's political class. He has been especially adept when it comes to assigning government posts, sorting out candidacies and taming competing egos within the governing Workers' Party (PT) and its allied parties. It's a role that Lula's low-key successor, current President Dilma Rousseff, never agreed to take on.

Nationwide municipal elections are scheduled for October, and there is growing concern about how both intra- and inter-party negotiations will play out for some of the more emblematic posts. An example: before being diagnosed with throat cancer, Lula had brokered an agreement within the PT over the coveted Sao Paulo mayorship. Marta Suplicy, who was mayor in 2005 and has since lost two elections, agreed to step aside to give current Education Minister Fernando Haddad a shot.

Lula has a way of using his gift for the gab – combined with a few promises – to solve political conflicts. Members of the PT's inner circle openly admit the party has no one else who can really do that, which is why – without Lula acting as referee – the governing party is suddenly taking hits from all sides. In key cities like Belo Horizonte and Recife, the ex-president's influence is waning and there are now signs of rebellion among the PT's political allies.

"Lula always sought unity," says André Vargas, communications secretary for the Republic Party (PR), a center-right ally of the PT. "Finding it now will be a challenge."

Hoping for a speedy recovery

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez's cancer has both his backers and opponents buzzing with nervous anticipation. Things haven't reached that level in Brazil, although Lula's health problems do complicate things for the PT, which faces a potentially difficult year ahead, especially with the evolving international financial crisis. Recent figures from Brazil's Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) suggest that the economy has begun slowing down over the past few months.

Outside the party as well, many Brazilian politicians are simply crossing their fingers in hopes that Lula will make a speedy recovery and get back to work as soon as possible. "We're counting on him being back on the scene after Carnival," says Congressman Enrique Eduardo Alves of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB).

Alves is a good example of someone who really relies heavily on the ex-president's personal touch. Looking toward 2013, the PMDB member has his sights on the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil's lower house of congress. Lula, if he were available, could use his influence and negotiating skills to make that happen. Without Lula to tell them otherwise, PT leaders may deny Alves the post.

The Chamber is made up of 513 deputies, 311 of whom form the so-called "Lulist" block. The Lulists maintain a certain amount of loyalty to the ex-president despite hailing from 10 different political parties, including the center-right PR and far-left Brazilian Communist Party. Another 48 seats in the Chamber are held by parties that also lean Lulist but are technically not part of the coalition.

A circus-like voting system

According to political commentator Paulo Vannucchi, the problem stems from the fact that since 1985, Brazil's various democratic governments have institutionalized the practice of awarding ministerial posts to cooperative parties in exchange for support in Congress. Many of the parties are little more than alliances of local interest groups. The PR, for example, is represented in Congress by people like "soy king" Blairo Maggi, a wealthy planter; Magno Malta, an evangelical leader who has bounced from party to party; and Tiririca, a professional clown whose real name is Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva.

Tiririca, which translates roughly as grumpy, is a good example of just how strangely Brazil's electoral system operates. In the 2010 general election, the comedian managed to win 1.3 million votes (out of 30 million in the state of Sao Paulo), making him the single biggest vote getter among congressional candidates – despite the fact that he offered no real platform and has been publicly accused of being illiterate.

Because of the country's unique voting system – which the Economist referred to last year as a "global oddity" – the wildly popular Tiririca not only earned himself a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, but won seats as well for three equally off-the-wall members of his so-called Nano Party.

But as much as Lula's hefty political influence is missing at the moment, his absence could also be an opportunity for the PT and its allies. It won't be easy, but they would do well to develop a more institutional approach to the business of divvying up political posts and renovating party leaderships.

For inspiration, they might look to the center-left Concertación coalition that governed Chile for 20 years (1990-2010) after dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down. The Concertación's member parties did a good job for each election of mixing up their candidates and adapting to changes in public perception. Uruguay's left-wing Broad Front coalition seems to be heading in that direction as well.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

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