Brazil, let’s talk

Arthur Ituassu
3 October 2006

The first day of October 2006 will remain in Brazil's political memory for a long time. What had seemed impossible - that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could fail to win a decisive first-round victory in the presidential election and be forced to contest a second round on 29 October - became a reality.

At a late stage in the campaign, a fresh corruption scandal involving another "dirty money" transaction and Lula's refusal to join a pre-election TV debate with rival candidates combined to generate serious frustration among some Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party / PT) supporters. The consistent evidence of several months' opinion polling came to naught, as Lula's vote fell below the 50%-plus-one of valid ballot-papers required for automatic victory. The president is forced to wait for his crown.

But will he get it at all? Lula may still be the favourite to win, but his victory is no longer assured. At midnight on Sunday 1 October, Brazil's electoral authority announced that Lula had received 48.79% of the valid votes (8% of the total cast were declared invalid), while his main rival Geraldo Alckmin of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) had received 41.43%. Most polls had given Alckmin a little below 30%; either they were seriously wrong, or Alckmin's support grew rapidly in the last hours of the campaign.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro. His website is here

Also by Arthur Ituassu on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end? "
(May 2005)

"A big mess in Brazil"
(June 2005)

"Lula: the dream is over"
(August 2005)

"Brazil: never the same again"
(October 2005)

"Farewell José, farewell 2005"
(December 2005)

"Lula’s flame still burns"
(January 2006)

"Lula in London"
(March 2006)

"Brazil’s next winning team"
(March 2006)

"The sum of all fears in Latin America"
(May 2006)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty"
(May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads"
(August 2006)

"Lula’s second wind" (September 2006)

"The Green and yellow phoenix"
(September 2006)

The space of manoeuvre

The other two notable candidates - Heloísa Helena of the leftist Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Party of Socialism and Freedom / P-SOL, a breakaway from the PT) who won 6.85%, and Critovam Buarque of the PDT, who got 2.67% - were far behind. Indeed, their marginalisation (with some qualification in the case of the P-SOL) has confirmed the theory that current politics in Brazil is a fight for the "middle elector". The logic of the result is that a "third way" that can challenge the PT-PSDB hegemony is unviable, unless the platform on which it is based becomes centrist enough to compete with the two major, well-established parties.

This interpretation has a negative as well as a positive confirmation: the actions of two of Brazil's historic (even legendary) political formations: the conservative nationalist Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), and the rightwing liberal farmers' Partido da Frente Liberal (PFL). Each refrained from running presidential candidates, and focused their efforts instead on trying to maximise their influence and negotiating power in congress and in Brazil's regional assemblies.

There is, then, no significant political space for new forces between either the PT and the PSDB or the PMDB and the PFL, in areas where they are most active. This combination of centrism and polarisation is one of the big institutional gains for Brazilian politics in recent years, and it makes the situation in Brazil very different from that in (for example) Venezuela and Bolivia.

The distribution of votes is revealing. Lula won in sixteen states, and kept his support among the poor in Brazil's deprived north and northeast; but voters (including trade unionists) in the large urban centres are moving away from him. Alckmin won in eleven states, mostly in the west and in the south (and including Brasilia).

The results were especially interesting in two of Brazil's three most populous states and the country's major electoral colleges: Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.

In Minas Gerias, Lula won with 50.80% of the votes against Alckmin's 40.62% in the national election. At the governor level, the PSDB's Aécio Neves (grandson of former president Tancredo Neves) was re-elected with a historic 77%.

Aécio had recently flirted with Lula in return for Lula's signal of support for the governor's own possible presidential candidacy in 2010. The tentative alliance appeared to be of mutual benefit: for Lula, a division in the PSDB's ranks; for Aécio, an advantage over his party rival José Serra (who lost to Lula in the 2002 presidential race, and who was elected governor of São Paulo state on 1 October in a decisive victory over the PT's Aloizio Mercadante). In the event, the costs of a partnership that excited commentators prematurely compared to that was compared to Chile's concertación proved too high for Aécio, who would have been forced to leave the PSDB had it been formalised.

The scale of Aécio Neves's victory, set against Alckmin's only 40% in Minas Gerais, has created a feeling that Aécio has to do more for Alckmin to win support for him in the second round. To win Neves’s (and Serra's) support, Alckmin is proposing a change in the constitution to prevent a presidential re-election - so opening the way for both to compete for the presidency in 2010. Meanwhile, Minas Gerais and São Paulo together gave Alckmin 19.8 million votes (49.7% of his total), and he won the latter (the state where Lula and his PT were born politically) with 54.34% against Lula's 36.66%.

In Rio de Janeiro state, it is Lula who has the advantage. The president won with 49.18% of the votes against Alckmin's 28.86%; Heloísa Helena's huge support here gave her 17.13%. The P-SOL candidate has refused to endorse anyone in the second round, though it is hard to imagine a far-left figurehead and her followers backing Geraldo Alckmin.

The margin of dialogue

The result in Rio explains why Sérgio Cabral, the PMDB's candidate for state governor (in an election poised for a second round) is moving towards Lula. This proximity may both help him attract some PT supporters and in turn allow Lula to draw PMDB voters into his fold. But Rio's political destiny is open: the state is currently ruled by a populist-religious coalition, and one of its challengers is a green-conservative alliance campaigning for a judge, Denise Frossard. In his favour, Alckmin has the public support in Rio of the populist former PMDB governors Anthony and Rosinha Garotinho, two bitter enemies of Lula.

These calculations highlight the point that the key variable of power in Brazil at present may be divisions within the PMDB (a party that likes to call itself "the umpire of governance" - a more beautiful expression for seeking always to be close to the winning side). In the lower house of the Brazilian congress, the Alckmin alliance is ahead of Lula's by 154-97 after the 1 October vote, but the PMDB has eighty-six of the former, making it the biggest single party. In the senate, Lula's coalition is also in trouble: it has only fourteen of the eighty-one seats, against the PMDB's twenty-two, and a combined total of thirty-one for the PSDB and the PFL.

An unpredictable three and a half weeks are in prospect before the 29 October vote. Whatever happens in the interim, 1 October has made possible. After more than a year of dirty corruption scandals, and against all expectations, this historic day has infused Brazilian politics with new life, creating a fresh atmosphere of debate, citizenship and participation. It is still unclear if the leading candidates will now take the opportunity to talk honestly about Brazil's problems. But that is what the people want.

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