Brazil: let down on and off the pitch

José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo and current candidate for the Brazilian presidency, can probably empathise with his disgraced national football team. Like them, he has watched a steady advantage against a far weaker opponent gradually dissipate and then suffered a virtual implosion in his own campaign. Unless he can turn this around quickly he could even suffer a humiliating exit at the first round of voting in October.

Brazilian politics are difficult for non-Brazilians to follow, and foreign observers often reduce the political arena to a simple left-right divide. In reality, though, it would be difficult to squeeze a credit card between the politics of Serra and his opponent, Dilma Rousseff, and one of the frustrations for many Brazilians is how little choice they are being offered by the two main blocks. Despite some of Brazil's recent social and economic improvements, it remains one of the most corrupt, violent, bureaucratic and unequal countries on earth, yet neither candidate seems to be offering anything other than a continuation of the status quo.

Serra and Rouseff are both now in their 60s and belong to the generation whose politics were shaped by opposition to the Brazilian dictatorship. Serra was a student leader, forced into exile, who later helped to organise the street protests demanding direct elections. Rousseff joined the underground resistance and was part of Brazil's short-lived guerrilla movement. Both considered themselves Marxist in their youth, but joined mainstream social democratic parties when Brazil returned to democracy, shunning the more radical Brazilian Workers' party (PT) led by the then trade union activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Serra became minister for health in the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and unsuccessfully ran against Lula as presidential candidate for the Brazilian Social Democratic party (PSDB) in 2002. The FHC government is associated with the neoliberal "Washington consensus" in which high interest rates supported an over-valued currency and post-privatisation power cuts blacked out large parts of the country. However, it also brought inflation under control and Lula kept most of its macro-economic policies in place, using the resulting economic growth to fund his social policies.

As minister for health, Serra took on the power of both tobacco and the international pharmaceutical industry and so attempts to portray him as some type of stooge of Washington are, to put it politely, rather far-fetched. His bigger problem is simply that he is dour, uncharismatic and a deeply boring public speaker as his official campaign launch painfully demonstrated.

However, these charges equally apply to Rousseff, who is now the PT candidate, but who has never been elected to public office in her life. Rousseff's roots and traditions lie firmly outside PT, which she only joined in 2000, having been an activist in the rival Democratic Labour party for the previous 25 years. Lula appointed her as his minister for energy in 2002 and then elevated her to his chief of staff in 2005 after the forced resignation of José Dirceu during the Mensalão scandal.

The so-called "big monthlies" were an attempt by PT to govern the country during Lula's first term by making regular payments to politicians from minor parties in exchange for their support on crucial votes. The scandal implicated almost all of PT's existing leadership and Lula promoted Rousseff precisely because she came from outside his faction-ridden party. She helped him to form a far more stable coalition during his second term with the centrist Brazilian Democratic party (PMDB) and this is one of the parties now backing her election bid.

The alliance with PMDB also brought a formal end to what remained of PT's reputation as a radical alternative party. Rousseff's strong backing for Brazilian agribusiness led to the resignation of Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, who is now running against her for the Green party and whose campaign is gathering the support of many former Petistas.

Rousseff was also starting from a position of practically zero name recognition and without having gone through any form of democratic selection. When Lula picked her as his chosen successor two years ago she had less than 5% support in the opinion polls, while Serra was cruising comfortably at over 40%. Her rating has since steadily risen, though, and last month she pulled ahead of Serra for the first time.

Serra's support has held fairly steady, at around 35%, over the same period, but he failed to capitalise on any of Rousseff's obvious weaknesses, largely because they reflect his own. He was selected as PSDB's candidate through behind the scenes manoeuvring, despite demands within the party for a national convention, which might have backed his more charismatic rival Aécio Neves. He then dithered for months about naming his vice-presidential candidate before a spectacularly mishandled announcement last week in which he first picked a candidate from his own party and then withdrew the name in favour of a nominee from his rightwing allies. While it did not quite match Felipe Melo's wretched efforts on the football field (scoring an own goal and then reducing his squad to 10 men) the impact on his reputation for competence was not far off.

Serra's candidacy has so far been endorsed by figures such as Roberto Jefferson and Joaquim Roriz, who are bywords for some of the country's worst corruption scandals. With backers like this Serra has little chance of donning the mantel of a "clean hands" candidate, which is probably the issue with most traction in contemporary Brazilian politics. Instead he appears to have tacked to the right, giving a recent speech to landlords in which he attacked the landless workers movement, MST. But this simply gives more space to Rousseff in the centre and assures her of the second preference votes of Marina Silva and the other leftwing candidates.

Rousseff's only campaign strategy is to be seen with Lula as much as possible and avoid expressing any independent opinion. This means that very little is known about the woman who could be the leader of the world's third largest democracy in a few months' time. A closely contested election could bring a proper level of political debate, but so far Serra has failed to put forward any alternative vision. The country deserves better of its politicians as well as its footballers.

Conor Foley, a humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of human rights and humanitarian aid organisations.