Darth Vader Appears in Brazil Mayor's Race

Sao Paulo isn't just the biggest city in Brazil. With 19 million inhabitants, it's the biggest in South America.

Its rivalry with the prettier, more glamorous Rio de Janeiro is intense but, deep down, Brazilians know that Sao Paulo, the center of finance, business, advertising and banking, is where the big decisions are made.

Accordingly, Sao Paulo's mayoral election attracts considerable attention nationally. The vote isn't until October, yet the race is already stealing the front pages.

Jose Serra, who lost to Dilma Rousseff in the 2010 presidential election, ought to be a shoe-in. He's a former governor of Sao Paulo state from the opposition Social Democracy Party which, with its allies, has held the city since 2004. However, Rousseff's Workers' Party is determined to win back this most coveted of metropolitan crowns.

The party is so determined, it's done a deal with the notorious former mayor Paulo Maluf, who has been indicted in the U.S. for conspiracy and faces corruption and money laundering allegations at home. Maluf's Progressive Party will support the Workers' Party mayoral choice, former education minister Fernando Haddad. If he wins, presumably, Maluf's people will receive city jobs. Critically, the deal put the Workers' Party in charge of the minute and 50 seconds of free television and radio advertising time Maluf's party is entitled to twice a day, three times a week, under Brazilian electoral rules, starting Aug. 21. The Workers' Party already had 3 minutes and 58 seconds  allocated.

The arrangement was sealed at a meeting at Maluf's Sao Paulo house attended by Haddad and former president Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, the Workers' Party patriarch. When a photo of the three made the papers, the blog Humor Politico swapped Maluf's image for Darth Vader's, posting the doctored result with the caption: “Latest news: Lula and Haddad ally themselves with the dark side of the force.”

“The Workers' Party brought Paulo Maluf out of hell," tweeted a Brazilian identifying as Fabio Flores.

Maluf held a number of important political posts during Brazil’s military dictatorship and was twice mayor of Sao Paulo, with corruption allegations stemming from his second term from 1993 to 1997. Several civil and criminal cases against Maluf are tied up in Brazil's slow-moving legal system, and $1.7 billion in assets belonging to him, his family and various companies in his name have been frozen by authorities. In 2007, Maluf was indicted by the New York County District Attorney’s office for conspiracy in the embezzlement of public funds. According to the indictment, he directed the over-invoicing of a highway and received millions in dollars from the scheme. He is wanted by Interpol, but the constitution of Brazil does not allow for the extradition of its citizens.

Commentators seized on the cynicism of the alliance, given the past enmity between Maluf and Lula, a former union leader who fought against Brazil's dictatorship. The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper revived spiteful comments each had made about the other. Maluf on Lula in 1993: "Lula hasn’t worked for 15 years and doesn’t explain how he lives.” Lula on Maluf in 1984: “The symbol of national shamelessness is saying he wants to be president.”  The O Globo newspaper tweeted another from Lula in 1984: “We would give our own life to prevent Paulo Maluf from becoming president.”

Explaining himself, Maluf, who had been considering supporting Jose Serra, said, "You don’t have the world of left and right any more. What you have today is efficiency. I took the option of a strategic partnership with the federal government." Haddad added: “Divergence is natural in politics, but it is also natural to look for convergence.” The deal, he claimed, was “a pact for the city."

Columnist Eliane Cantanhede of Folha de Sao Paulo disagreed. Maluf, she wrote, "said he was sealing the alliance ‘for the love of Sao Paulo.’ The only winner in this whole story is him."

Certainly, the Workers' Party wasn't weathering the alliance well. Soon after it was announced, Haddad's running mate, vice-mayoral candidate Luiza Erundina from the Brazilian Socialist Party, dropped out of the race. Erundina had been at odds with Maluf for much of her political career. “If she stayed, it would be a crisis every day,” explained party president and Pernambuco state governor Eduardo Campos. “She would always be questioned about the presence of Maluf. It would be a permanent point of instability.”

Rousseff’s own vice-president, Michel Temer, from the Democratic Movement Party, a Workers' Party ally, expressed doubts about the Sao Paulo deal. “Let’s say that the episode wasn’t useful to the Workers' Party, but I don’t want to talk about it,” Temer said.

Rosangela Bittar, chief of the Brasilia newsroom of the business daily Valor, wrote in an editorial that the episode demonstrated that the once-popular Lula was losing his grip on political reality. Bittar noted that Lula had recently said that if Rousseff didn’t want to stand for re-election in 2014, he would be happy to step in -- a comment widely seen as undermining his protégé. In making the alliance, Bittar wrote, "the ex-president did not measure consequences because he acted, as always, without recognizing changes in the conditions of time and temperature.”

There was one sign, however, that Lula hadn't entirely lost his sense of decorum. As many Brazilians noted, after the infamous photo at Paulo Maluf's house, he didn't stay for lunch.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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