Brazil: A Divided House

There were no surprises in Brazil’s runoff election: just as the polls had predicted in the days leading to the vote, President Dilma Rousseff beat Senator Aécio Neves by over 3 percentage points (51.6% to 48.6%). Despite high inflation, widespread corruption charges, and threats of a recession, the incumbent Workers’ Party (PT) won an unprecedented fourth term in power. Now what?

Brazil’s electoral map shows a divided country: the poor north and northeast states voted for Rousseff while most of the rich south and south-eastern states went for Neves. This divide has become more pronounced during the years of PT rule, as the incumbent party increases welfare spending every election cycle and warns voters about how the opposition would get rid of these programs if elected.

President Rousseff gave a conciliatory speech where she talked about bringing together Brazilians, being a better president than the previous four years, and the need for economic reform. Can she do it? The acrimonious tone of her campaign will make it hard for Rousseff to win over the half of the electorate that voted for Neves. Her appeal to voters wasn’t based on promises of a better future but on scaremongering of what a Neves victory would represent to Brazil’s poor. Moreover, new revelations on the growing corruption scandal at Petrobras that seem to show that Rousseff and her predecessor Lula da Silva were aware of the shenanigans at the state-owned oil giant threaten to taint her second term.

As for the economy, during the campaign Rousseff said that she would replace her Finance Minister, Guido Mantega, who is blamed for Brazil’s lackluster economic performance. Still, the stock market took a beating today and the real fell by 3%. Two reasons the bad shape of the economy didn’t play a decisive role in the election is that unemployment is low —which has a lot to do with many younger Brazilians going to university instead of looking for a job— and the fact that the government held back on the publication of bad statistics until after the election.

Can Rousseff deliver reform? Doubtful. As Mary O’Grady points out today in the Wall Street Journal, “Ms. Rousseff ran as the anti-market, welfare-state candidate.” With an economy not even growing by 1% and a stubbornly high inflation rate, the question Brazilians are asking themselves is whether Rousseff will reform or instead double-down on interventionist policies. One area to pay particular attention to is freedom of the press. What we’ve seen in a number of other Latin American countries ruled by left-wing governments is that, as the economy sours and corruption scandals mushroom, the authorities push for more regulations on the media. Will Brazil follow this pattern?

There are good reasons not to be optimistic about Brazil in the next four years.