Vulnerable Rousseff

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 15, 2013


A year before the presidential election in Brazil, incumbent president Dilma Rousseff is vulnerable. If the three most likely opposition candidates manage to form a united front against the incumbent president, the ruling Workers Party (PT) might lose power after 12 years in control of the presidency. Personal ambition and ideological differences will prove a difficult hurdle to overcome for the opposition parties that aspire to capitalize on Dilma’s struggling approval numbers.


After she easily defeated Social Democratic (PSDB) candidate José Serra in the 2010 runoff, Dilma became the first woman president in Brazil.  Her victory was due primarily to the popularity of outgoing president Lula.  After 8 years of strong economic growth and sustained poverty reduction, Lula retired with high approval and well-deserved international recognition. As his hand-picked successor, Dilma benefited from his overwhelming popularity.  Though she was not nearly as charismatic as her mentor, Dilma built support combining the center-left policies championed by Lula with a strong stance against corruption. 


In her first two years in office, despite the slow economic growth and the increasing political problems in her multiparty coalition dominated by the PT, Dilma had high approval levels.  Her strong reaction against corruption scandals helped her, but the perception that she was more interested in preventing corruption than in jump-starting a sluggish economy, hurt her.  Pessimism about the future of Brazil has become widespread. After it celebrated Brazil’s taking off in 2009, The Economist warned this last September that, after all, Brazil might have blown its golden opportunity to develop.


The street protests that rocked the country this past July, with Brazilians protesting against the excessive spending in infrastructure for the 2014 Football World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, sent a strong warning. Dilma’s popularity declined from the high 60s to less than 30%.  The slow and vacillating response by Dilma further eroded the trust Brazilians had placed in Dilma.  Though her approval has since recovered—and is now above 40%--there is a growing perception that she is vulnerable in next year’s election. 


Fortunately for Dilma, the opposition is divided among three likely presidential contenders.  Former governor and current senator from Minas Gerais, Aécio Neves, of the center-right PSDB has already thrown his hat in the ring. Since Fernando H. Cardoso completed two successful terms as president in 2003, the PSDB has lost three consecutive elections.  Neves, who was born in 1960, is a popular and pragmatic leader whose grandfather Tancredo Neves was elected president in 1985 but could not assume power due to a mortal illness.  Though he left office in 2011 as one of the most popular state governors, Neves has struggled in recent polls.  He has yet to convince Brazilians that he is up to the challenging job of being president of Latin America’s largest country.


Pernambuco governor Eduardo Campos (born in 1965) is the leader of the Socialist Party of Brazil (PSB). A former member of the ruling coalition, the PSB has left the coalition and is mounting a challenge against the PT to lead the political left in Brazil.  An economist by training, Campos competes with Dilma on the technocratic front, but is a much more personable and charismatic politician than the incumbent president.   He is far less known that Neves and has equally struggled in recent polls. 


The third candidate is Marina Silva, a charismatic leader who already ran as an independent candidate in 2010 and received 19% of the vote.  Born in rural poverty in 1959, Silva was an orphan at age 16 and moved to Rio Branco where she worked as a maid and concurrently obtained an education. She became political active as a labor union leader and eventually joined the PT, where she built an impressive career.  After serving as Federal Senator and environmental minister under President Lula, Marina Silva launched her presidential campaign as an independent in 2010. After her unsuccessful presidential bid, Marina Silva has remained politically active. She formed a political party, but after her party recently lost its legal status, Marina joined the PSB. She will likely challenge Eduardo Campos for the PSB presidential nomination.


Marina Silva is well ahead of Campos and Neves as the most competitive candidate against Dilma. But her radical left-wing views make it unlikely that the PSDB will back her candidacy if she does get the PSB nomination. Some analysts reckon that she will run as Campos’ vice- presidential candidate and will wait for a presidential run in 2018, when Dilma will be term-limited.


A year before the next presidential election, Brazil struggles to get back on the track of sustained economic growth and increasing social inclusion. President Dilma Rousseff looks increasingly vulnerable.  However, given the way the opposition is configured—with a strong PSDB led by an insufficiently popular candidate and a left of center PSB with a promising candidate who might not even run—Dilma’s vulnerabilities might not be sufficient to deny her of a second 4-year and deny her Worker’s Party of a fourth consecutive presidential term.