Dilma: a victory, not a mandate

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 4, 2014


Dilma Rousseff’s re-election victory will make her the third consecutive Brazilian president to serve two terms. The Workers’ Party (PT) will complete 16 consecutive years in control of the presidency. Yet, because there are more questions than certainties about what comes next for Brazil, Dilma needs to spend her honeymoon period crafting a roadmap for the next four years in Brazil.


Unlike her predecessor Lula (2002-2010) Dilma did not build a consistent platform in her first four years in office. She expanded many of Lula’s programmes but did not champion reforms of her own. Early in her first term, Dilma attempted a fight against corruption, but the reality of Brazil’s multiparty system forced her to make concessions to pork barrel-prone coalition partners. When street protesters rocked the country denouncing lavish spending on infrastructure projects in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Dilma’s anti-corruption platform was fully abandoned.


Dilma’s economic legacy in her first term was not stellar. Under her watch, the Brazilian economy stagnated. Although the government continued its aggressive social spending to help the lowest income quintiles, insufficient job creation prevented millions from entering the ranks of the middle class. Millions of others who had left poverty behind saw their future threatened by stagnant wages and rising prices. In fact, to a large extent, the difficulties Dilma had in securing re-election resulted from the discontent of the middle and low middle class. The incumbent president had strong support in the poorest areas of the country — among recipients of government subsidies — but elsewhere, Dilma received fewer votes than her opponent, the centre-right charismatic politician Aécio Neves. Because her advantage among the poor was solidly higher than Neves’ advantage among middle-class voters, Dilma won re-election. Yet, she won because the poor believed that the subsidies they have received since Lula brought the PT to power in 2002 would be threatened if the PT were to lose power, not because they trusted Dilma. The poor did not vote for Dilma, they voted for the continuation of subsidies. Dilma was the option who, in the eyes of the poor — and in the campaign message of the PT — would best guarantee the extension of subsidies.


Because her victory was so narrow, many people anticipate that her second term will be characterized by gridlock and an ineffective government. Dilma’s government coalition has 53 of the 81 seats in the Senate and 304 of the 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Yet, the PT only has 12 seats in the Senate and 70 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The other seats in Dilma’s Coalition with the Strength of the People are held by allied parties which are ideologically diverse and have different policy priorities to the PT. Unless Dilma can turn herself into a leader with a vision and a plan to restore economic growth, employment creation and presidential leadership, there will be difficult times ahead for Brazil.


Now that she has won, Dilma has to put together a new cabinet which reflects the new power balance within her coalition and responds to the criticisms made by Dilma’s allies about her leadership style and policy priorities. At the same time, Dilma needs to send a clear signal to economic actors in Brazil — and abroad — that she is in control and that she has a plan to jumpstart the economy and make Brazil an attractive country for foreign investors who are increasingly concerned about the strength of emerging economies. Because of campaign promises designed to attract the support of the poor, Dilma has committed herself to deepening and expanding social programmes. That will not go well with economic actors who want more fiscal responsibility before they begin re-investing and creating jobs. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Dilma needs to deliver on her promises to low-income voters and, at the same time, show that she is capable of making some tough decisions which can put the economy back on the track of sustained growth.


Perhaps the biggest problem ahead for Dilma is that many people doubt that she will able to come up with a plan in the next few weeks. Instead, many observers expect that she will govern during her second term in a similar manner as she did during her first term. She will attempt to maintain the programmes which have worked well and will abstain from taking on special interests opposed to her growth-friendly reforms. That way, Dilma will avoid alienating her supporters. Unfortunately for her, that strategy will also fail to earn her new supporters. In the end, her second term will be as disappointing as her first term. After all, because Dilma won the election but did not win a mandate, it is unlikely that the President of Brazil will choose to undertake bold policy reforms in an effort to jumpstart the economy and wake Brazil up from the siesta the country has fallen into since Dilma came to office.