BRASILIA (Reuters) - The global economic crisis has caught up to Brazil’s popular president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, denting his approval ratings for the first time in well over a year as unemployment rose sharply.
The charismatic former union leader remains the most popular president in Brazil’s recent history after six years in office. But political analysts warn the worsening economy could undermine his ability to get his hand-picked successor, chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, elected in October 2010. She trails heavily in early opinion polls.
Lula, who is barred from seeking a third consecutive term, has often been dubbed the Teflon president for emerging unscathed from several corruption scandals involving close advisers. Blaming the economic crisis on the United States, he had so far dodged bad economic news and hit record high approval ratings as recently as December.
But opinion polls released on Friday showed the largest drop in his popularity since April 2007.
An Ibope poll showed Lula’s approval rating falling to 78 percent from 84 percent. In a separate Datafolha poll published in Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, Lula’s approval rating fell 5 percentage points from November to 65 percent.
“It is a large fall in only three months, albeit from a record high,” Amaury Teixeira, executive director of a consulting firm that analyzes poll results, said in reference to the Ibope figures.
Dissatisfaction with rising unemployment was the main reason for the drop in Lula’s popularity, both polls showed.
“One thing that causes anxiety in society and stands out in the poll is unemployment,” said Marco Antonio Guarita, director of the National Industry Confederation, or CNI, which published the Ibope poll.
A majority of Brazilians disapproved of Lula’s employment policies for the first time since December 2007, the poll showed.
Unemployment is now seen as the country’s foremost problem, ahead of health or public security issues, according to Datafolha. The percentage of those who expected unemployment to rise jumped to 59 percent from 44, it said.
Brazil, which enjoyed five years of solid growth before the global crisis hit last year, has shed nearly 800,000 jobs since November. The economy shrank at its fastest pace in 12 years in the last three months of 2008.
If the economy does not bounce back later this year, Rousseff, the likely candidate for Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party, could see her chances in next year’s presidential race erode, analysts said.
Rousseff edged higher to 11 percent support from 8 percent in November, Datafolha showed. She still trails Sao Paulo state Governor Jose Serra, the opposition’s leading presidential hopeful, by 30 points.
Rousseff, a tough-talking former left-wing guerrilla, has stepped up her campaign in recent months, inaugurating public works projects beside Lula, parading during Carnival celebrations and undergoing facial plastic surgery.
“After so much exposure ... Dilma didn’t rise as expected,” wrote Eliane Cantanhede, a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo.
Datafolha polled 11,204 people from Monday to Thursday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Ibope surveyed 2,002 people from March 11 to 15 and also had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Peter Cooney