Back to square one in Brazil

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 7, 2014

 

Three months ago, most predictions on the outcome of the presidential election in Brazil anticipated a runoff between incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, of the center-left Workers Party (PT), and centrist Aécio Neves, of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB). The events that unfolded after the death of Eduardo Campos, the candidate of the Socialist Party, added much uncertainty to the race. The rapid rise of Marina Silva, Santos' running mate appointed immediately after his death, made Rousseff looked vulnerable. Yet, in the end, the October 5th vote only confirmed the earlier trends, Rousseff will face Neves in the October 26th runoff and, though much weaker than 4 years ago, she remains as the overwhelming favorite to lead Brazil from 2015 to 2019.

 

Presidential elections always have a component of unpredictability.  Because campaigns matter, candidates spent enormous amount of resources trying to persuade voters—or dissuade voters who are inclined to support alternative candidates.  Depending on the strength of the party system and the volatility of the electorate, presidential campaigns can drastically alter the political scene in a country.   In Brazil, as democracy has consolidated during the past 30 years, presidential elections have increasingly become a contest between the candidate of the PT and the candidate of the PSDB.  The irruption of Marina Three months ago, most predictions concerning the outcome of the presidential election in Brazil anticipated a runoff between incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, of the centre-left Workers Party (PT), and centrist Aécio Neves, of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). The events that unfolded after the death of Eduardo Campos, the candidate of the Socialist Party (PSB), added much uncertainty to the race. The rapid rise of Marina Silva, Campos’ running-mate appointed presidential candidate after his death, made Rousseff looked vulnerable. Yet, in the end, the October 5 vote only confirmed the earlier trends. Rousseff will face Neves in the October 26 runoff and, though she is politically weaker than four years ago, she remains as the overwhelming favourite to lead Brazil from 2015 to 2019.

 

Presidential elections always have a component of unpredictability. Because campaigns matter, candidates spent enormous amounts of resources trying to persuade voters — or dissuade voters who are inclined to support alternative candidates. Depending on the strength of the party system and the volatility of the electorate, presidential campaigns can drastically alter the political scene in a country. In Brazil, as democracy has consolidated during the past 30 years, presidential elections have increasingly become a contest between the candidate of the PT and the candidate of the PSDB. The erruption of Marina temporarily threatened to alter what has become a trend in Brazilian democracy. The fact is that, despite the surprises and up-and-downs in the polls, the runoff will, once again, be decided between a PT and a PSDB candidate.

 

Similarly, since immediate presidential re-election was allowed in 1998, two incumbent presidents have won re-election. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in 1998, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2006, both won second terms. As defeating an incumbent president is an almost insurmountable challenge, Neves faces an uphill battle in trying to unseat Dilma.

 

In the weeks after Campos’ death, pre-electoral polls reported wide fluctuations in voting intentions. Shortly after Silva entered the race, she placed first in several polls. In the subsequent weeks, her support declined considerably. In some polls issued the week before the election, Neves was already in second place. However, most surveys overestimated support for Silva and underestimated Neves’ support. In part, the strong anti-Marina campaigned pushed by the PT —including personal attacks by former president Lula, Brazil’s most popular politician — might have had an effect in undermining support for Marina. Since Dilma won a lower vote than predicted in the polls, it is safe to argue that the negative attacks against Marina primarily benefitted Neves. The protest vote that was heading for Silva ended up going for him.

 

Before Campos’ death in late July, the biggest question among Brazilian analysts was who he would support in the runoff. Many expected him to end up throwing his support behind the PT. After all, he defined himself as being to the left of the PT. The way the election evolved after Campos’ death makes it unlikely that Marina will support Dilma. In fact, in her concession speech, Silva hinted that she will end up supporting Neves. Citing a demand for change, Marina announced that her campaign team will consider the options before announcing a decision. But most analysts believe that she will side with Neves.

 

It remains to be seen if Marina’s supporters will follow her lead. To defeat Dilma, Neves will need to collect most of Silva’s votes. Rousseff only needs Marina’s supporters to abstain or nullify their votes. Without a strong endorsement from the PSB, Neves is unlikely to mount a credible challenge ahead of the October 26 runoff.

 

The reasons why Dilma was unable to win a clear majority in the first round has to do with her lack of charisma as a candidate and Brazil’s weak economy. After four years in office, she continues to rely on the popularity of former president Lula, Dilma’s former boss and her leading political supporter. When polls showed that Silva was threatening Rousseff’s lead, the former president actively began campaigning for his protégée. Lula did some real damage to Marina's credibility by questioning her credentials and her positions on key issues. Yet, precisely because she has not been able to convince voters on her own, Dilma has paid a high price for Lula’s support. Those who claim that she is not up to the challenge of being a strong leader point to Lula’s consistent support as evidence.

 

The economic slowdown in Brazil has strengthened the protest vote against Dilma. After 12 years of PT control of the presidency, many Brazilians want to see change. Having recovered from the third place he once had in polls — and now he must be the happiest candidate after the first round vote — Neves stands a sufficiently strong enough chance of giving Rousseff a good fight in the runoff. In fact, Neves’ chances look better now than at any point previously in the campaign. After all, when she entered the race, Marina showed that Dilma was vulnerable. It is now up to Neves to complete the difficult mission of unseating the incumbent president.