A Veteran of Brazil Politics Bets on Yearning for 'Clean Past'

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(Bloomberg) -- On paper Senator Alvaro Dias embodies much of what Brazilians say they want in a presidential candidate in October’s election -- an experienced, principled leader with an exemplary track record bent on cleaning up the country’s corrupt politics.

The 73-year-old ex-governor, who began his political career in the 1960s, has made a point of refusing the perks and pensions he has accrued over decades in public life and is giving up benefits he says are worth around one million reais ($300,000) a year.

And yet Dias sounds, well, a bit like a politician. There’s a degree of inconsistency in his plans for ruling the country. He is for a massive privatization of state assets but against selling Brazil’s four largest state companies on national security grounds. He described the current military intervention in Rio de Janeiro as a mistake, but quickly pointed out he didn’t oppose it. And he believes legislators would actually vote to cut back their own benefits, as well as those of their peers in the executive and the judiciary as part of a broader downsizing of the state.

"The proposal may seem ingenuous but I have a lot of faith," he said in an interview with Bloomberg News in Brasilia. "Those who resist it will be crushed because there is a desire, in the collective subconscious, for a break from the past."

In a crowded field, Dias currently polls fifth with four percent of voter intentions, or fourth if the front-runner, ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is ruled out of contention. His party, Podemos, didn’t exist four years ago -- now it has 18 lawmakers in the lower house of Congress.

The senator prefers to describe Podemos as a political movement, rather than a party, given that he regards Brazilian political parties as mere acronyms. And the fact he’s switched parties half a dozen times over the course of his career is proof of his consistency and their lack of ideological backbone, he says.

Privatization Plans

As part of his plans to eliminate the fiscal deficit in four years, Dias wants to sell off 149 companies, with the exception of oil company Petrobras, energy utility Eletrobras, and the banks Caixa Economica Federal and Banco do Brasil. He also wants Brazil’s social welfare programs, such as the conditional cash transfer Bolsa Familia, to be better run.

"We are proposing a radical shrinking," he said. "The state has to be smart, it has to be modern."

But he acknowledged that the major challenge in this election, which he called Brazil’s most significant since the return to democracy, will be addressing voters’ skepticism with the country’s politicians after years of corruption scandals.

Still, he believes that the electorate is unlikely to be fooled by the idea of a "national savior" from outside of the country’s conventional politics who could solve all of its problems.

"Brazilians are not looking for outsiders," he said. "Brazilians are looking for administrative experience and a clean past."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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