Brazil’s Presidential Election: More Surprises to Come?

The first chapter of Brazil’s presidential election was a roller-coaster: It kicked off with the country’s demoralizing exit from the World Cup, then its economy entered into a recession and widespread corruption charges engulfed the ruling Workers Party (PT). In August, Eduardo Campos, the candidate of the Socialist Party and a rising star in Brazilian politics, suddenly died in a plane crash.  His VP candidate, Marina Silva, also a charismatic figure, ran in his stead and experienced a meteoric rise in the polls to the point that two weeks ago she looked certain to defeat President Dilma Rousseff in a runoff. But Silva’s support steadily eroded in the last week, and yesterday it was Aécio Neves, from the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), who finished a strong second and will challenge the president in a runoff three weeks from now.

With so many things going on, it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise factors behind the electoral result or predict what will happen next. But here are some of my impressions:

  • Dilma’s performance: The president received 42% of the vote, which at first looks like a poor showing for an incumbent seeking reelection. However, it doesn’t look that bad when taking into account Dilma’s lack of charisma, the bad shape of the economy, and the pervasive corruption charges surrounding her Workers Party. She still finished first, 7 percentage points ahead of Neves. Undoubtedly, the Workers Party has built a strong constituency around the millions of Brazilians who receive subsidies and handouts from the government. It’s been the tone of the latest presidential campaigns that the PT candidate accuses his/her rivals of trying to dismantle popular programs such as Bolsa Familia. Moreover, 12 years of incumbency have helped the PT to create a formidable electoral machine. She is still the favorite to win on October 26.
  • Neves’ comeback: In the last week polls indicated that Aécio Neves could actually finish second. But his strong showing —13 percentage points ahead of Marina Silva— took everyone by surprise. Neves did pretty well in the last debates, and most of the attacks from the PT in past weeks focused on Silva. So it seems that Neves’ surge came at the expense of Silva’s downfall. Can he count on most of Marina’s votes for the runoff? Not necessarily. A lot of her support came from voters tired of traditional politicians, such as Neves. Moreover, the PSDB candidate is a far easier target for PT attacks than Marina, whose humble background made it difficult to portray her as a heartless neoliberal. Neves belongs to the party responsible for the reforms of the mid 1990s that, although successful in bringing macroeconomic stability to Brazil, are not fondly remembered by many Brazilians.
  • Marina’s rise and fall: It could’ve been the stuff of Hollywood —or a Brazilian telenovela: the daughter of poor Amazonian rubber tappers who grew up illiterate, taught herself how to read while being a maid, became engaged in environmental activism that eventually led her to politics – first as a senator, then as a minister. She received 19% of the vote in the last presidential election in 2010. This year she joined the ticket of Eduardo Campos, the candidate of the Socialist Party, but found herself on top after his tragic death in a plane crash in August. She immediately skyrocketed in the polls, which showed her comfortably defeating President Rousseff in a runoff. But Brazilians began having second thoughts: she lacked an experienced team —or even a party of her own— to govern. The PT accused her of planning to cut social programs. Her past as a political maverick took a toll on Brazilians who want a competent manager. And even though she presented herself as the candidate of diversity, her evangelical faith led her to adopt conservative positions on gay marriage, abortion and drugs that alienated some of her potential voters. Still, her presence in the campaign was positive, particularly because she represented a segment of the electorate tired of corruption and cronyism while also espousing some free market ideas. She could still tip the election if she endorses Neves for the runoff.
  •  It’s going to be ideological: An external observer would perceive a lack of center-right electoral options in Brazil: A Workers’ Party, Social Democrat Party and Socialist Party. However, Aécio Neves’ platform openly calls for reducing the scope of government intervention in the economy: cutting spending and taxes, pursuing bilateral trade agreements irrespective of Mercosur, giving more independence to the Central Bank, etc. These are some of the reforms that Brazil badly needs to reignite its stagnant economy. But they will also provide ammunition for President Rousseff, who will demagogically try to portray Neves as the enemy of the poor. It will depend on Neves’ well-honed political skills to confront those charges.

The campaign for the runoff on October 26 starts with Aécio Neves riding the momentum of his strong second finish, but as we have seen during this election, three weeks are an eternity in Brazilian politics.