On Friday, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva announced he would miss this weekend’s G20 summit in Toronto so that he could supervise relief efforts in Brazil’s flood-stricken northeast. Heavy rains in Alagoas and Pernambuco states have in the past week left 51 people dead and displaced more than 160,000.
It was the first time that the leader of a member country has not attended a G7, G8 or G20 summit since Japanese prime minister Masayoshi Ohira died a few days before the Venice meeting in 1980. Brazil’s Toronto delegation was instead headed by the country’s finance minister, Guido Mantega.
While the no-show was little remarked upon by the other leaders, behind the scenes many observers were taken aback. Lula has been one of the leading proponents of the fledgling G20 as it assumes its new role as the primary forum for discussing global economic issues. By skipping he also sacrificed an opportunity to press European nations dragging their heels on reforms to the International Monetary Fund that would ensure a bigger say for developing nations.
“It was a bad call for Brazil,” says John Kirton, co-director of the G20 Research Group at the Munk Centre of Global Affairs. “Lula is not just another leader, he’s a star of the G20 show and he’s been an important leader on a number of issues. Western leaders will listen to Lula more than they will to (China’s) Hu Jintao.”
Commentators in Brazil are speculating whether Lula would have made the same decision were his preferred successor, Dilma Rousseff, not in the midst of a tightly fought election campaign. Flooding on this scale is hardly unprecedented in Brazil’s north; in May 2009, more than 180,000 were forced from their homes in Amazônia and Bahia due to flooding.
Rousseff’s electoral hopes are firmly hitched to Lula’s popularity. As his chief of staff for the past five years Rousseff has won respect for her administrative skills, but lacks her boss’s charisma and she has never held elected office. Although Lula now enjoys a staggering approval rating of 85 per cent, Rousseff has only recently pulled even with her main rival José Serra in the polls.
However Lula’s decision plays with voters, Brazil’s performance at this summit clearly suffered as a result. When the final communiqué was issued last night, consensus opinion was that Brazil did not get what it wanted, including the concessions needed from Europe on IMF reform or a firm commitment to completing the Doha Round of trade negotiations.
“This communiqué didn’t offer a lot about development, or food security, things Lula has pioneered at home,” says Kirton. “There are a number of issues that had Lula been here to make the case, to work other leaders in the corridors, more probably would’ve got done.”