Brazilian presidential frontrunner Dilma Rousseff accused her opponent Jose Serra of spreading “lies” about her views on abortion, and the two candidates clashed over past sales of state assets, in their first head-to-head debate before an Oct. 31 runoff election.
Serra, in the debate yesterday hosted by Band TV network, accused President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s former cabinet chief of abandoning her Workers’ Party’s traditional support for abortion rights to woo religious voters as the race tightens.
“You clearly said you were in favor of legalizing abortion and then you changed and said the opposite,” said the pro-life Serra, who finished 14 percentage points behind Rousseff in the first round of voting Oct. 3. “It’s about being coherent, and not two-faced, saying one thing and then another.”
Rousseff, in response, said Serra has “a thousand faces” and accused his campaign of using “slander” and promoting personal attacks that falsely accuse her of favoring the killing of babies.
“The question is whether we are going to be hypocritical and pretend not to see the three-and-a-half million women who perform abortions in precarious conditions,” Rousseff said. “Are we going to arrest them or take care of them?”
Rousseff’s remarks during the campaign that abortion is a “public health issue” rather than a religious one may have cost her votes and pushed the election into a runoff. The issue dominated campaigning over the past week, as both candidates appeal to the 19 percent of voters who cast ballots for Green Party candidate Marina Silva, a pro-life, evangelical Christian.
Abortion is legal in Brazil only if a pregnancy results from a rape or if it puts the mother’s life at risk.
Rousseff had 48 percent support in a Datafolha poll published Oct. 9 compared with 41 percent for Serra, the former governor of Sao Paulo. Another 11 percent were undecided in the nationwide poll of 3,265 people taken Oct. 8 and which had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points. Rousseff won 47 percent and Serra 33 percent in the first round.
Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, has pledged continuity with her mentor’s policies that helped lift 21 million out of poverty since 2003. Latin America’s biggest economy will grow 7.3 percent this year, the most in more than two decades, according to central bank estimates.
Serra, the former governor of Sao Paulo state, has vowed to maintain Lula’s social programs while moving faster to reduce the world’s second-highest real interest rate and the highest tax burden in the developing world.
Both candidates have vowed to reduce Brazil’s debt levels as a percent of gross domestic product though have said little about how they intend to rein in public spending that rose 18.2 percent in July from the same month a year ago, more than twice the 8.8 percent rate of economic growth in the second quarter.
In last night’s debate, the two candidates avoided discussing their economic policies in detail, and instead traded attacks over the sale of state-run companies.
Rousseff, 62, questioned Serra’s commitment to Petroleo Brasileiro SA, saying his campaign adviser David Zylbersztajn, the former president of the National Petroleum Agency, favors privatizing the development of oil fields in the offshore so-called pre-salt region that Lula granted to the state-run oil company.
Lula’s government increased the state’s participation of the company through a $70 billion share sale last month, while Serra’s Social Democracy Party reduced its stake and saddled the company with debt when it was in power last decade, Rousseff said.
“This creates a doubt: are they only in favor of privatizing pre-salt or do they also want to privatize Petrobras,” said Rousseff, who stepped down as chairwoman of the Rio de Janeiro-based company in March. “Defending the privatization of pre-salt means taking away money for investment in education, science and technology and the environment.”
Strengthening the State
Serra, 68, denied he had any plans to privatize Petrobras. He said that as a student leader he fought to strengthen the company and would do the same as president by reducing political interference and corruption in its management.
He said Jose Eduardo Dutra, the president of Lula’s party and the former chief executive officer of Petrobras, praised the oil law he designed as President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s planning minister last decade that allowed private companies to bid for concessions.
’’Dilma doesn’t practice what she preaches,’’ Serra said, adding that Lula’s government sold shares in Banco do Brasil SA on the New York Stock Exchange.
Serra also vowed to “strengthen” state-run companies, including lenders Banco do Brasil, Caixa Economica Federal and BNDES development bank.
Serra, who trailed Rousseff by 24 percentage points in a Datafolha poll taken Sept. 13-15, was saved from a likely first-round defeat after media reports of alleged influence peddling by family members of Erenice Guerra, who succeed Rousseff as Lula’s cabinet chief.
In last night’s debate Serra accused Rousseff of turning a blind eye to her former aide’s alleged abuse. Guerra resigned Sept. 16 to fight accusations that her sons helped negotiate contracts for companies doing business with the government. Rousseff said she supports a police investigation into the matter.
“Your right-hand during seven years and three months organized a big corruption scheme and you didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “You were unaware of it all.”