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LATIN AMERICA | 13-10-2022 16:52

Meet Simone Tebet, kingmaker in Brazil's presidential runoff

A little-known woman senator has emerged as kingmaker in Brazil's knife-edge presidential runoff.

Many Brazilians saw Simone Tebet, a lawyer and university professor, for the first time when she took stage the night of August 29 for the campaign's first televised debate, standing alongside rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist icon and ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. 

She made a strong impression.

When Bolsonaro at one point insulted a woman journalist asking questions at the debate, the senator leapt to her defence, pointing at the president with her index finger and saying firmly: "I am not afraid of him."

Tebet, 52, finished third in the first round voting with four percent of the votes, far behind Lula, who took 48 percent, and Bolsonaro with 43 percent.

But her share of the pie amounts to 4.9 million votes -- and the difference between the two frontrunners was 6.1 million.

Instantly, Tebet became the candidate to woo. And she endorsed Lula.


'Third option' 

Tebet's candidacy was organised by centrist parties and supported by part of the Brazilian establishment as a way to temper the polarisation generated by the far-right president Bolsonaro and the leftist hero of the working class and poor, Lula, of the Workers Party.

Tebet is from the city of Tres Lagoas, which has a population of 125,000, and she was its mayor from 2005 to 2010. It is in the west-central state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where the economy is based on agribusiness.

Tebet played a prominent role on a congressional committee that in 2021 investigated the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. And while on this panel, she clashed loudly with Bolsonaro allies. 

Tebet, a Catholic who describes herself as a feminist, was also the first woman to preside over the Brazilian senate's Constitution and Justice Committee, considered the chamber's most important panel.

But her biggest jump to notoriety came with her presidential candidacy, which was promoted as a third way between the right and left.

Tebet managed "to fill a lagoon that was empty," said Marco Antonio Teixeira, a professor of political science at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.

She succeeded because "she billed herself as an actual third option, strong in her criticisms of Bolsonaro and of the Workers Party in a balanced way, not simply seeking confrontation," said Teixeira.

In the presidential debates, she challenged Bolsonaro and urged him to show respect for women; the president has a penchant for making remarks seen as sexist.

This helped Tebet grab third place from centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who polls had predicted would take that spot.


Conservative and close to agribusiness 

Up through the midway point of Bolsonaro's term, Tebet supported his government in 86 percent of the votes taken in the Senate, including one that extended gun-carrying rights to land outside rural properties, according to investigative news outlet Agencia Publica. 

Tebet owns three rural estates, one of which sits on land claimed by Indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul.

She broke with Bolsonaro after she joined the congressional commission that probed the pandemic, which killed more than 680,000 people in Brazil.

During the campaign for the first round of presidential voting, Tebet promised to bring transparency to huge amounts of money administered by Congress, boost spending on science and technology, and provide scholarships for students at the intermediate level of education to head off school dropouts.

Now, as analysts say Lula has to veer toward the centre to win new supporters, Tebet — who has said Brazil is conservative and not ready, say, to legalise abortion — is an important person to have on your side.

Last week, she formally endorsed Lula in the runoff on October 30, while denying that this gesture meant she has given up on creating a third path in Brazilian politics.

Tebet's party, however, called the Brazilian Democratic Movement, chose to remain neutral in the race between Bolsonaro and Lula.

"What is at stake is bigger than each of us," she said.

Tebet said she would vote for Lula because of his "commitment to democracy and the constitution," which she said she does not see in Bolsonaro.

But she criticised Lula, credited with bringing millions of people out of poverty during his rule from 2003 to 2010, for not really "looking in the rearview mirror" and making new proposals for how he would govern if he regains power.

"Tebet has a way of speaking with agribusiness and women that is much more direct than Lula," said Teixeira.

She can lure for Lula the centrist voters who are tired of the tensions born of Bolsonaro-Lula polarisation, he added.

Brazilian press reports have suggested Tebet, who is married to a politician from her state with whom she has two daughters, could become a minister in Lula's government if he wins. Tebet has denied being interested in such a job.


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