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Brazil's prospect: consensus vs division

A surprising first-round result in Brazil’s presidential election sharpens the fight between Dilma Rousseff and José Serra. Brazilian voters' choice is also between two scenarios for the country's democracy, says Arthur Ituassu in Rio de Janeiro.
Arthur Ituassu
19 October 2010

The unexpected has happened. Before the first-round vote in Brazil's presidential elections on 3 October 2010, some opinion-polls carefully qualified the substantial lead of the favourite Dilma Rousseff by saying that a second-round run-off was still a possibility. But few people really believed it - especially (it seems) Dilma herself and her mentor, for whom she had worked as chief-of-staff, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

No wonder, for Brazil’s incumbent president enjoys an approval-rating of almost 80% and had been closely involved in Dilma's campaign; the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT) that both figures represent had everything ready for the celebration; and for several months Dilma had been ahead of her main rival José Serra in the polls, usually with more than the 50% support required for a first-round victory (see "Brazil's big election: Dilma vs José", 14 September 2010).

But there she was: Marina Silva. The candidate of Brazil’s Partido Verde (Green Party / PV) - and Lula’s former environment minister - saw a burst of support in the last week of the campaign which delivered her 19.6 million votes (19.3% of the total), substantially more than the maximum of 15% the pre-election polls had suggested. Marina’s dramatic performance has given her a pivotal position in the frenetic days before the second round is held on 31 October: she has both changed the campaign’s political complexion and created an intense competition between Dilma Rousseff and José Serra for the votes of her supporters.

Rousseff’s limit

Why, in the end, did Dilma fail to win outright in the first round as so many expected? Four factors contributed to this outcome.  

First, at a very late stage in the campaign the president's chosen candidate lost support among the Brazilian lower middle-class and among less educated Brazilians. The contributory factors to this fall included a heavily publicised corruption scandal in Lula's government that directly involved members of Dilma's own staff; and the president’s aggressive tone against the opposition and the Brazilian press for highlighting those scandals.  

Second, Marina Silva benefited from a surge of support from Brazil’s women voters and (in particular) evangelicals, with whom she has an affinity. The concerns about Dilma's position on issues of abortion and gay marriage, which were widely spread, contributed to this trend.   

Third, the growing support for José Serra in some agricultural regions where there is discontent with the strengthening of Brazil’s currency (the real), which damages the country’s traditional exports.

Fourth, a high degree of abstention (sometimes as much as 45%) in some regions of Brazil’s north and the northeast, where Dilma Rousseff’s support is more weighty than José Serra’s.   

The accumulated result of these trends is that in the last ten days of the campaign, Marina Silva’s ratings rose by 5.5 points and José Serra’s by 1.7 points - while Dilma Rousseff’s fell by 7 points.

Thus when the ballot-papers votes were counted, Dilma Rousseff had 47.6 million votes (46.91%); José Serra had 33.1 million (32.61%), and Marina Silva 19.6 million votes (19.33%). To compound the setback delivered by voters to the government, the opposition won very important state elections in the first round - including the rich states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Paraná and Santa Catarina. At the same time, Lula’s political coalition made gains within the Brazilian congress and senate.

Lula’s strategy

Indeed, taken as whole it appears that at the overall pattern of legislative results reflected a deliberate political strategy of the wily politician that President Lula remains: namely, to seek to ensure the election of congressmen and senators who could provide ballast to Dilma if and when she became president.

Lula, during his two terms in office, has faced many problems with the opposition - especially in the senate, where he suffered some important defeats. The latter included the vote in 2007 to cancel a tax (the CPMF) imposed on all financial transactions in the country, whose proceeds were intended to benefit Brazil’s public-healthcare system; Lula's government had budgeted for this tax to raise $20 billion annually. More recently, Lula was obliged in June 2010 to sign an opposition bill that increased all public pensions by 7.7%, incurring an unforeseen additional cost of $1 billion in an election year.

The president, with these experiences in mind, thus focused on a strategy of prioritising the election of a new congress and senate that could work with Dilma Rousseff. In fact, if Dilma does win the second round on 31 October she will have enough votes in both houses even to change Brazil’s constitution.

The figures are clear. When the new president and legislature are inaugurated in 2011, the coalition built by Lula will control more than 70% of the votes in both congress and senate. The PT alone will be the biggest single force in congress with eighty-eight seats, leading a majority coalition of 372 out of 513, which also guarantees it a strong position when the speakership is decided. The PT also gained six seats in the senate (from eight to fourteen), making it the second force behind the twenty held by its ally the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB). The PMDB, which supplies Dilma Rousseff’s vice-presidential running-mate in her campaign, should thus have a decisive say in electing the speaker of the senate.

In this light, the flaw in Lula’s strategy - albeit a big one - has been the unexpected second round, which has also altered the psychological dynamics of the campaign: for while Lula and the PT now worry about the low mood within Rousseff’s's campaign, Serra and his Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Paty / PSDB) are celebrating a victory after defying the apparently inevitable and keeping the contest alive and fluid. 

Serra’s cards

In addition, Serra has three new forces on his side. The first is the evangelical vote. If Dilma and the PT cannot change the perception in socially conservative Brazil that she supports abortion and gay marriage, this could further damage her campaign. The attempts to defuse the issue are reflected in her new slogan, "Dilma is in favour of life", and emphatic statements that she does not favour abortion.

The second force that will probably help Serra is Aécio Neves, the former governor of Minas Gerais (the second largest Brazilian state in votes after São Paulo). This powerful politician from the PSDB has just scored a double victory: he has been elected to the senate, and saw his candidate Antonio Anastasia chosen as his successor as governor over Lula's Hélio Costa.

An internal dispute within the PSDB, and a political decision to refrain from fighting Lula directly in Minas Gerais, meant that Neves did not work hard for Serra's campaign in the first round; in fact, Dilma won in Minas Gerais with 46.91% of the votes against Serra's 32.61%. Now, however, Aécio Neves is free to work for Serra and has assumed an important place in the PSDB's presidential campaign. Serra came first in the contest in São Paulo with 40% of the votes; a victory in Minas Gerais too could yet make a big difference on 31 October.

The third force that could help José Serra in the second round is the votes behind Marina Silva. The Partido Verde, after much debate and media speculation, declared that it would stay neutral between the two candidates in order to maximise its freedom of political manoeuvre. But even without outright backing from the greens, Serra has two advantages over Dilma concerning Marina’s 20 million votes.

First, Marina Silva resigned from her post as environment minister in Lula's government amid bitter condemnation of his administration’s neglect of the issue (especially in relation to infrastructural projects that were under Dilma's command) (see Sue Branford, "Brazil's Amazonian choice", 19 May 2008). Second, the PV is allied to the PSDB in several important states, such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These factors may contribute to current poll findings that show more than 50% of Marina's votes going to Serra and only 20% to Dilma. 

The people’s choice

The only absolutely clear thing at this crucial moment is that the next presidency of Brazil is far from decided. The latest poll published by the newspaper Folha de São Paulo gives Dilma Rousseff a 48%-42% lead over José Serra.  

But what will the Brazilian people’s final choice portend for the future of their democracy? If in the end Dilma Rousseff does make it, the PT and the PMDB in Brazil’s congress and senate will create a solid political consensus between the executive and the legislative branches that will shape the country's politics in coming years. This hegemonic alliance could provide strong backing for a Dilma-led government and carry Brazil through a further stage of development. But it could also be institutionally dangerous for the country, with a sharp polarisation between the Brazilian government and the press adding to a sense of tension.  

If, by contrast, José Serra wins - and this is no longer impossible - he will probably have many difficulties in governing with the congress and senate. In that event, the famed checks-and-balances of democracy will have to work in the most effective way possible. The PMDB, which has already supported a PSDB government during Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration (1995-2002), may change sides again - though not easily and not without charging a price.  

A powerful or a more balanced government? Brazilians are keeping this once-predictable election open until the last possible moment. Whatever they choose, the political drama now unfolding will define their next decade.

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