On October 5th, the world’s fourth largest democracy will go to the ballot box. The first round of Brazil’s 2014 presidential elections are just around the corner.
This year’s presidential race took a tragically unexpected turn on August 13th, when a plane carrying Eduardos Campos, former governor of Pernambuco and head of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), crashed, killing him and several members of his campaign team. The nation was in a state of shock and an official day of mourning was announced by the government. The PSB quickly rallied to choose his successor, Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment in President Lula da Silva’s cabinet.
While Campos had been polling in third place, Marina immediately skyrocketed to second place passing Aécio Neves, a centre-right candidate for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), and is now right on the heels of President Dilma Rousseff. According to a poll carried out by IBOPE, the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics, on September 20th and 22nd, Dilma Rousseff (PT) stands at 38%, Marina Silva (PSB) at 29% and Aécio Neves (PSDB) at 19% for the first round of the presidential elections, with the remaining vote-intention going to minor candidates. However, the second round would see a situation of technical draw with both Ms. Silva and Ms. Rousseff polling around 41-42%, with a 2%-point error margin each, and the remainder as yet undecided.
Dilma Rousseff’s populist Workers’ Party (PT) has been in power since 2003, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president with the highest approval rating in the history of the country, was elected. Ms. Rousseff had been an obvious choice as successor to Lula. The daughter of a Bulgarian émigré, she was raised in an upper middle class household. In her youth she became militant socialist, joining various urban Marxist guerrillas that opposed the rule of the oppressive military junta. She was captured, imprisoned, and reportedly tortured between 1970 and 1972. She joined the PT in 2000 and served as Minister of Mines and Energy and subsequently as Chief of Staff under Lula. Such a heroic background and commitment to the party made her the perfect candidate. But that was back in 2010.
The PT’s platform runs centre-left. A controversial element of Ms. Rousseff’s policies are the many social welfare programs, a centrepiece of any PT programme, for which the party has been accused of buying the votes of the poor. The Bolsa Família (‘family allowance’) is the primmest example, a subsidy that provides financial aid to poor Brazilian families in exchange for assurance that the children attend school and get vaccinated, instituted in 2003 under Lula. Costing the state some R$ 18.5 billion (US$ 7,64 billion) in 2013, the welfare program has proven effective in the last decade, seeing the portion of Brazilians living below the poverty threshold fall from 39.3% in 2003 to 21.2% in 2013, and the average infant height in families benefiting from the Bolsa increasing by 0,8 cm in just four years from 2008 to 2012, a strong indicator of an improved diet and health.
But the PT’s solid years of governing has been tarnished in recent months. First, the huge bill of the 2014 World Cup and allegations of fraud and corruption in the building of the new stadiums and amenities hit home hard, seeing Ms. Rousseff’s popularity ratings plummet. Then the obvious national grievance at Brazil’s ignominious 1-8 defeat to Germany added oil to the fire. As political pundits always say, happy voters vote for incumbents —unhappy ones don’t. To add insult to injury, Brazil fell into technical recession in August, with two consecutive quarters of near zero growth. Lastly, some forty prominent members of all three leading parties have been inculcated in a kickback scheme scandal by the ex-director of Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras, Paulo Roberto Costa. Among them were members of the governing PT and groups which back Ms. Rousseff but the names also included several of her rivals. With accusations of disconnected and centralist governing and reckless spending, the incumbent’s re-election will be no easy task.
Meanwhile, support for Ms. Silva, an environmentalist evangelical, has surged over the last month. The poll numbers can be explained in part by the spotlight shone on Ms Silva since Mr Campos’s death, with the constant remainder of her equally remarkable life story; a poor rubber-tappers’ daughter, illiterate until the age of 16, but went on to become a world-renowned environmentalist. But Ms. Silva’s progress in the polls can also be accredited to her solid performance while being thrust front and centre, coming across as calm and composed during the first nationally-broadcasted debate and striking hard at Ms. Rousseff. Ms. Silva further gained ground with her detailed government programme released on August 29th, viewed as being full of quite sensible policies. It appeals to both the right for proposals of tax reform and fiscal discipline, and to the left for supporting gay marriage – seemingly at odds with Ms Silva’s devout Pentacostalism – and renewable energies such as hydropower. Ms. Silva has tactfully positioned herself as a viable and energetic ‘third way’ between Ms. Rousseff’s governing PT and Mr. Neves’ right-wing PSDB.
With just a few days to go before the first round, the race is simply too close to call.
– Adrian Carlesimo
Image license: Some rights reserved by Marina Silva