Brasil’s Election Surprise

Brazil’s presidential election campaign, already marked by tragedy, continues with high drama after the first-round results on 5 October 2014. The incumbent Dilma Rousseff received the most votes (41.5%). But her main rival was Aécio Neves (33.7%) rather than Marina Silva (21.4%), who had for weeks been competing for first place in the opinion polls. This was a major surprise that has turned many political calculations upside down. It remains now to be seen what the run-off on 26 October will bring.

A major influence in the electoral dynamics was the death of the candidate Eduardo Campos in an aviation accident, which pushed his running-mate Marina Silva into the forefront of the campaign. In retrospect, this stage has been a lesson in “the power of the status quo” in Brazil. In a little more than one month, Marina’s candidacy was completely destroyed by the two leading parties, the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) – especially by Dilma’s PT, when polls were predicting Marina’s victory in the second round after Campos’s death. The attacks were heavy and Marina showed no strength in dealing with them. Instead, she positioned herself as a victim and was unable to give answers to the questions posed by her adversaries. In the end, Marina could not answer important questions: about her more than twenty years with the PT and her current criticism of the party, her ever-changing positions on issues such as abortion and economics, and her inexperience as an administrator.

In this context, the fashionable idea of a “new politics” revealed an unexpected fragility. Instead, this election turned yet again into a dispute between the PT and PSDB – as had those in 1994, 2002, 2006, and 2010 – the only recent exception being 1998, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso won in the first round after the constitution had been changed to allow him to serve another term.

However, the change of mood in the two or three weeks before the 6 October vote was not only product of the weakness of Marina’s “new politics”, but also of the obstinacy of Aécio Neves. Before then, Marina had seemed to be the only person who could defeat Dilma, and because of that she was taking a lot of votes from Aécio himself. There had even been rumours that Aécio would resign his candidacy. But as it became clear that the “new politics” was more shadow than substance – and exposed as such by both the PT and PSDB campaigns – votes trickled back to Aécio Neves.

In addition, Aécio did very well in the TV debates, against both Dilma and Marina. When the polls measured a growth in Aécio’s support, but also that Dilma would defeat Marina in a second round, Aécio seized the moment and projected himself as the figure who could beat Dilma. The question then became whether he would have time to pass Marina and go to the second round. This proved to be the case, in the end with a very impressive 33.7% (and in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest electoral state and a PSDB stronghold, almost 45% -with 10,152,688 votes against Dilma’s 5,927,503).

A historic choice

The second round will thus be a classic dispute between the PT and PSDB, and Aécio seems to have the full support of his party, especially in São Paulo. In the governorship elections in this state, the incumbent Geraldo Alckmin won in the first round – thus, by the end of his four-year term, the PSDB will have ruled the state continuously for twenty-four years. The PT, on the contrary, is very worried about São Paulo: its candidate for governor, the former health minister Alexandre Padilha, did very badly, even with the support from Lula, the former president.

Aécio’s vote is based in the rich states of the Brazil’s south and southeast, whereas the poorer – but also less populous – north and northeast regions are backing Dilma. The president also has solid support in Rio; and she polled well in Aécio’s own state of Minas Gerais, with the two candidates almost equal in the first round.

The PSDB’s candidate will therefore try to take votes from Dilma in Minas Gerais, as well as gaining more support in the northeast. There is a lot to play for in the latter: in Eduardo Campos’s state of Pernambuco, for example, Marina won with 48% of the votes, against Dilma’s 44% and Aécio’s 5.9%! In this respect, Marina’s indication on 7 October of qualified backing for Aécio in the second round – if he agrees to end re-election (which seems to be a consensus) and to pursue an environmental agenda – may help Aécio, especially in the northeast and the big cities. Some analysts had predicted that decision, partly because the PT campaign against her was very hard. In the end, she changed her stance from 2010 when she refused to support the challenger José Serra in the second round after herself running against Dilma, and was greatly criticised for it.

Aécio will try to use corruption scandals, especially those within Petrobrás, against Dilma. And he will try to attack the PT and Dilma over economic issues and inefficiencies (such as the allocation of public benefits and infrastructure). With that, he will also probably receive support from conservatives (including evangelicals, who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage). But if he does go to the right – a move that Dilma and the PT will certainly encourage – there is a risk of losing much of Marina’s vote. His challenge is to keep the votes of those on both right and left who are tired with the PT. A large portion of the electorate already sees the PSDB as a right-wing party, and is also too left-wing for the PT; many in this category voted for Marina and the PSOL’s Luciana Genro in the first round, and will probably opt for Dilma in the second.

In fact, Dilma remains a strong candidate. Her vote may have fallen from previous elections (she received 46.9% in 2010, and her PT predecessor Lula 48.6% in 2006 and 46.4% in 2002) but she has a huge bank of support among the poor and in poor regions and she will emphasise the PT’s social programmes in the second round. The president also has improved her campaign skills, and is in a much better shape as a candidate than in 2010, when she won largely thanks to Lula’s huge popularity.

A deeper lesson

If the PT succeeds in pushing the PSDB to the right, it will be difficult for Dilma to lose. For its part, the PSDB will try to form a major alliance against a PT that has been in power for twelve years. If Aécio can evade the trap and form a strong alliance against Dilma, he may win. Aécio is in a good moment; he has political capital. Yet the PSDB’s recent history is still against him: Serra won 32.61% in the first round in 2010, Alckmin 41.64% in 2006, Serra 23.19% in 2002. Neither became president; not since 1998, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has the PSDB climbed above 50% of the vote.

Either way, there are two important signs about the Brazilian political system coming out from this election. First is the power of the status quo. A little more than a year after the protests in 2013, recent results show the amazing resilience and power of political institutions and traditional parties. In a sense this is a very good sign for Brazilian democracy. Despite all the complaints about them, the major political parties still rule Brazil’s democratic regime. It seems that Brazil has reached the point where democratic dynamics are both criticised and loved.

Second, the first round results consolidated the idea of a “long social-democratic period” that started in 1994 with the election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the PSDB. Differences between the PSDB and the current PT exist, but they are ones of detail, not radical or systemic. The PSDB is a little less statist, the PT a little more. In the real world beyond the campaign, there are no big differences in policy over economic management and social programmes.

This is what some are calling the long social-democratic period. It is very stable and positive for the country. The idea is: even if Aécio wins, there will be no big change. This is also the sense of an article I wrote on openDemocracy in 2010, of a “left vs left” choice in Brazil. I think this is still the case after the results of this first round. There will be more continuity than change under the next government.


This article was first published on 7 October 2014

By Arthur Ituassu

Arthur Ituassu is a leading Brazilian scholar of social and political science. He is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, and researcher at the Centro de Estudos Avançados em Democracia Digital(Centre for Advanced Studies in Digital Democracy and E-government (CEADD) in Salvador, Bahia.