Die Hard Dilma Rousseff

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 21, 2014


Despite her evident weaknesses as a candidate and notwithstanding her unimpressive four years in power, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff still stands a good chance of winning re-election on October 26. As the candidate of the powerful Workers’ Party (PT) and because of the enormous advantage incumbents have to use government subsidies and poverty alleviation programmes to shore up electoral support, she will be hard to beat. The centre-right opposition candidate, Governor Aécio Neves, can still make Dilma the first incumbent president to lose re-election in Brazilian history. Yet, with polls showing them neck-and-neck and Neves unable to transform Dilma's low presidential approval into tailwind support for his presidential bid, it is more likely that the razor-thin race will end up in Dilma’s favour.


In 2010, outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promoted Dilma Rousseff as the PT presidential candidate. As he was extremely popular and she was mostly unknown, Dilma benefitted greatly from his endorsement. The fact that Rousseff lacked Lula’s charisma constituted a drawback for many voters although they trusted the outgoing president. Having Lula at her side helped many voters make up their mind and opt to keep the PT in power.


Building on her reputation as a capable bureaucrat, Dilma campaigned on consolidating and deepening the reforms that Lula implemented during his eight years in power. Despite the favourable economic conditions in Brazil at the time and Lula’s popularity, Rousseff still could not win an absolute majority in the first round vote in 2010. Having received 47 percent of the vote, she was forced into a runoff by the candidate of the centre-right of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), José Serra. In the runoff Rousseff won, in part, due to the fact that many voters who had supported the pro-environment candidate Marina Silva in the first round ended up supporting her.


Four years later, Rousseff is running on her record as president. That record has some strengths and many weaknesses. She made some strides early on combating corruption, but midway through her term, the president ended up compromising with the patronage-friendly political centre-left coalition that the PT president needed to work with to get her legislation passed in Congress. Though she deepened and expanded some of the social programmes first enacted by Lula, her lack of charisma meant many Brazilians failed to associate those programnes and government subsidies with Rousseff. Thus, though funding for social programmes increased, Dilma was not able to build as strong a following as Lula did during his first term (2002-2006).


The president’s achievements have been overshadowed by the slowing economy. Frustration with mediocre economic growth and insufficient job creation took Rousseff’s approval to around 30 percent in 2012. The discontent with the government was aggravated by the perception that preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were taking up resources that should have been used for public housing, education, transportation and a better infrastructure. Rousseff’s response to the street protests in 2013 worsened the situation and the protests soon turned into an indictment of the government.


When the race for the 2014 election got under way earlier in the year, the two leading opposition candidates, Aécio Neves of the PSDB and Eduardo Campos, of the Socialist Party (PSB), presented their campaign platforms as alternatives to 12 years of PT rule. In turn, aware of her lack of charisma and her poor approval ratings, Rousseff’s campaigned on the continuity of the policies first implemented by Lula and has sought to undermine her rivals, saying they represented the right that, in the past, failed to help the poor (Neves and the PSDB) and a populist left that promised things that could not deliver (Campos and the PSB). After the death of Campos, Rousseff launched a fierce attack campaign against Campos’ successor, Silva. Though the environmentalist rose rapidly in polls, Rousseff’s negative campaign ended up doing real damage to the newcomer and kept her out of the runoff.


In the weeks since the first round vote, Dilma has again launched a similar campaign against Neves. The challenger has responded in kind, with accusations of corruption and nepotism. The final weeks of campaigning have seen more finger pointing than discussion of specific government programmes. Fortunately for Rousseff, the negative campaign has transformed the race into a choice of the lesser of two evils. In such an unattractive match-up, the president has an edge. In order to unseat an incumbent, a challenger has to attract the enthusiasm of a majority of voters. When the campaign turns negative, as candidates trade accusations and highlight their opponents’ weaknesses, voters end up ignoring personal attributes.


Five days before the runoff, the race remains very tight. Last-minute events could end up tilting the race in either direction. Neves has a real chance of defeating Rousseff, but the fact that the challenger has not gone clearly ahead of Dilma, and that the race remains so close, is a clear indication that, despite being vulnerable, Rousseff still has the upper hand in what will likely be Brazil’s narrowest presidential election since democracy was restored.