Elections in Brazil: The Force of the Latin American Left

By Eric Hershberg and Luciano Melo

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Aécio Neves – Senador & World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election has set the stage for a runoff playing primarily to class differences.  By the eve of the election, polls hinted at the real possibility that the center-right candidate Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) would edge out the other principal opposition contender, former Minister of the Environment Marina Silva.  Silva enjoyed a spike in the polls after she replaced the late Eduardo Campos, who perished in a plane accident in August, as the Brazilian Social Party (PSB) candidate.  Sunday’s results confirmed Silva’s decline, as she captured only 21.3 percent of the votes compared to 33.5 percent for the PSDB and 41.6% for incumbent President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT).  The PT used its potent propaganda machine to portray Silva as a potentially dangerous candidate – an indecisive leader who could not be trusted to sustain popular social programs such as the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program, which has helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty.  Also, Aécio and Rousseff built their images upon two iconic ex-Presidents – the former on Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) – seen by the middle and upper classes as the leader who managed to defeat hyperinflation and putting Brazil on track for economic growth – and the latter on Lula, Rousseff’s mentor, who is idolized among the most disadvantaged parts of Brazilian society as the President who helped the poor become less poor.

To win the runoff on October 26, Aécio needs at least 70 percent of Silva’s votes – she has only hinted at supporting him – while Rousseff would succeed with only half of that.  It is clear that Dilma and the PT will double down on their negative advertisements, now aiming at Aécio rather than Marina.  The PT’s barrage over the airwaves will highlight the risks of abandoning the course set out by Lula and followed by Rousseff.  Voters will be told that the opposition may underfund cash transfers, privatize the state oil company Petrobrás or treat it as a profit-making enterprise rather than as a development bank, thus increasing unemployment as occurred during the Cardoso years.  And the PT will no doubt remind voters of its consistent efforts to boost minimum wages and chip away at the vast inequalities that had long characterized Brazil.  Surely they will portray Neves as an elitist out of touch with the majority that has benefited from the PT’s redistributionist agenda.  Aécio and the PSDB, by contrast, will highlight the worrisome slowdown in growth under Rousseff, the failure to significantly improve public services – it was frustration over health, education and, particularly, urban transportation that drove the social protests that began in mid-2013 – and the over-regulated and over-taxed economy.  Most of all, Neves’ campaign will harp on the persistent scandals that have bedeviled the PT over the past decade and that have helped to fuel popular disdain for politicians.

The election results in Brazil are likely to become increasingly polarized in terms of class.  Dilma appears poised to prevail in the poorest states of North and Northeast, where Bolsa Familia and other cash transfer programs, subsidies, wage increases and Lula’s image are compelling.  In turn, Aécio should come out ahead in the richer states such as São Paulo, which offer the largest pool of voters and where highly educated and middle- and upper-income Brazilians are concentrated.  We make divergent predictions: Hershberg anticipates a PT victory, since for all the speculation about the travails of the Latin American left, it has built very substantial foundations of support in societies that credit the left with finally making some advances to tackle Latin America’s yawning inequalities.  Warnings that Aécio represents a return to elite rule will resonate among the PT’s electoral base, and the PT’s success will be nourished by its powerful organizational capabilities.  Melo, by contrast, anticipates a PSDB triumph.  In this scenario, the corruption, disappointing growth rates over the past two years as the commodity boom has slowed, and widespread frustration about the quality of public services will generate an anti-incumbent dynamic that will bring to an end a dozen years of PT rule.

October 10, 2014

Brazilian Presidential Election: Challenging a Divided Society

By Luciano Melo

Dilma Rousseff | Photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Aécio Neves | Photo credit: Agência Senado / Foter.com / CC BY-NC Marina Silva | Photo credit: BrasilemRede / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Dilma Rousseff | Photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Aécio Neves | Photo credit: Agência Senado / Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Marina Silva | Photo credit: BrasilemRede / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

The Brazilian presidential elections are nine months off, but President Dilma’s adversaries are starting to present more clear and consistent visions of their values and positions.

  • Aécio Neves, from the main opposition PSDB, was a successful governor of the state of Minas Gerais and is currently a well-respected senator in Brasilia.  But his party has long suffered from “oppositional apathy” – the inability to position themselves as a real alternative.  This weakness appeared when former Ministry of Health José Serra was the party’s candidate in 2010.  Now, in opposition to the highly criticized welfare state represented by Dilmas’s Workers Party (PT), Neves has been defending a liberal (or more libertarian) state that will not stand in the way of people’s initiatives.
  • On the other side of the spectrum is the unlikely coalition represented by a former senator and minister in the Lula administration, Marina Silva.  She is a leader of the PSB party, and she earned a strong reputation for fighting for environmental protection alongside assassinated Brazilian hero Chico Mendes and for resigning as Minister of Environment over disagreements with the PT policies.  Marina Silva brings a certain gravitas and edge to the alliance, which, as a former ally of PT, has never differentiated itself well as a real competitor.

Neves and Silva are seen as possible game changers, but no one is under the illusion that it will be easy to surpass Dilma.  Her popularity has been steadily increasing since she stood up against the NSA’s spying activities, and she still benefits from the PT’s popular welfare policies.  The latest polls show that 67 percent of Brazilian Facebook users disapprove of the current government, but Dilma’s primary support remains from the poorer states located in the Northern and Northeastern regions, where the main beneficiaries of PT social programs live.  Neves is the clear representative of the frustrated middle class that was behind large protests in July, and it is behind the current social media campaigns attacking Dilma and the corruption perpetrated by PT’s leaders.  Marina Silva and coalition leaders, also representing those regions, would have to strategically target swing voters in order to obtain a larger margin in the next elections.  At this early moment, Dilma seems to have a good chance of obtaining a second term – but leading a highly divided society, with a middle class unwilling to accept excuses for poor results in the economy, education and security.