The King of the Northeast Is Dead

Eduardo Campos's death has left Brazil's presidential election up for grabs and the country's poorest region without a clear champion. 


When Eduardo Campos died in the fiery wreck of a tiny airplane on Aug. 13, Brazil lost a rising young political star and one of three candidates in a tightly contested Oct. 5 presidential election. A wife lost a husband and five children lost a father. Many people lost a colleague, mentor, and friend. And the people of Brazil’s northeast lost one of their most promising political voices in a decade.

Campos, 49, led the PSB, Brazil’s Socialist Party. In recent polls, he trailed in third place in the presidential election, behind the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, and her more conservative challenger, Aécio Neves. He died, along with six others, including photographers and press managers, when their small campaign plane crashed in the drizzle of the São Paulo winter. After the plane smashed into the orange, clay-tiled roofs of the port city of Santos, it left behind plumes of smoke and burning questions about Brazil’s political future.

No one wants to think of next steps in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy; the other presidential candidates suspended their campaigns for several days in mourning for Campos. But with the Oct. 5 ballot looming, electioneering will soon begin again.

In the northeast, where Brazil was founded and where the country’s 17th-century sugar industry boomed, many are mourning a promising young leader. The region, particularly the state of Bahia, has strong African roots and is famous for its distinct culture. It is also unmistakably poor. While the northeast represents 28 percent of the country’s population, it only accounts for 14 percent of GDP. The region also features staggering illiteracy rates: One in five adults are illiterate, double the national rate.

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, giving power to the poor and socially marginalized; these disadvantaged voters may determine the future in what is now a tightening race.

For many people in the northeast, Campos represented the best option for the future: one in which social welfare policies were balanced with business development. Campos was a native son from an old northeastern political family and had promised to prioritize the region’s development if elected. He had publicly criticized Rousseff’s government, saying in May, "The current government was elected mainly with northeastern votes and it doesn’t even look at us."

Some believe that in the vacuum left by Campos, his supporters will throw their votes behind the current president, Rousseff, whose party the northeast has supported since 2002. In polling earlier this month, the party received 51 percent of support in the region. Others believe his absence will leave more business-minded votes to Neves, Rousseff’s main rival.

Those calculations may all change, though, now that the PSB, Campos’s party, has agreed to allow his vice-presidential candidate, Marina Silva, to run in his place. Silva’s entry could divide the vote, drawing away support from Rousseff and forcing the election to a runoff between the two leading candidates.

Polls released since Silva took the PSB’s nomination show an even more intriguing result: Silva winning it all. Datafolha published results of a survey of nearly 3,000 Brazilians in the immediate aftermath of Campos’s death — even before Silva was selected to carry forward the PSB ticket. The news is rocking Brazil: According to Datafolha’s survey, Rousseff would take 36 percent of the Oct. 5 vote, while Silva would win 21 percent, and Neves 20 percent.

The poll found that in the case of a second-round runoff between Silva and Rousseff, Silva would win with 47 percent of the vote to Rousseff’s 43 percent. Prior to Campos’s death, the PSB was a third-party ticket, winning just 9 percent of the vote in most polls. Silva’s own base of support, combined with the PSB’s base, could combine to make her a leading candidate.

Of course, this is only one poll — and one conducted in the wake of tragic events — but it makes clear the extent to which Campos’s death has shaken the electoral landscape.

Silva is the daughter of a rubber-tapper in the Amazon and is of Afro-Brazilian and Portuguese descent. She paid her way through school by working as a maid. A longtime environmentalist, she ran as the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2010 and garnered an impressive 19 percent of the vote. She is also a member of the evangelical church, as are almost a quarter of Brazilians and she could potentially grab chunks of that important bloc.

The latest polls indicate that she may have picked up votes from dissatisfied or undecided voters. The number of voters who had previously indicated they would cast a "null" vote — actively choosing none of the candidates — or a "white" vote, a vote of no preference, dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent. The number of undecided voters fell from 14 percent to 9 percent.

Like many young people, Eudes Raony, a professor at the Federal Institute of Paraíba, had planned to vote for Campos simply due to his alliance with Silva. "I liked Silva for her life history, for her non-negotiable standards, and principally in regard to environmental and urban issues," Raony says. "Her thinking is the most contemporary and progressive of all the candidates. She is the only one that I trust could do real reform in our political system."

* * *

The northeastern region spans the gap between the Amazon and the south of the country, where most Brazilians live. The northeast’s major cities include Fortaleza, Recife, and Salvador, but on the whole, the region is more sparsely populated than the southeast, which is anchored by the sprawl of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. And yet more than 54 million people make their home in the nine states of the northeast region.

The northeast is perhaps best known for its climate, where a merciless heat bakes the region during the summer months, making its turquoise waters all the more appealing, but also exacerbating a century-long drought in the interior, where 22 million live, and where farmers and ranchers have suffered dramatically.

Since the founding of the country in 1822, the northeast has held many of the cards of Brazil’s future up its sleeves.

Campos hailed from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where his grandfather was once governor. Trained as an economist, Campos also became governor of the state in 2006. According to Adriano Oliveira, a professor of politics at the Federal University of Pernambuco, "Campos’s government had three characteristics: the use of modern tools of development, work ethic, and thirdly, Eduardismo, that is, the charisma with which he was capable — is capable — of influencing the voters."

Although popular among Pernambucanos — he was reelected in 2010 with nearly 83 percent of the vote ­– his term as governor was not without controversy. An ongoing project to develop twelve 40-floor skyscrapers along a stretch of coastal public space near the center of Recife, for example, has drawn criticism from locals who feel the plan is heavy-handed and would only benefit the rich.

But criticism softened when, ahead of the campaign season, Campos aligned himself with Silva, the country’s premier environmentalist. The two offered a mixed ticket of unlikely allies, and in this way presented perhaps the most moderate option to Brazilian voters, by blending federal social assistance programs with pro-business policies.

Silva was originally scheduled to take the same flight as Campos, but at the last minute changed her plans.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians attended Campos’s funeral in Recife on Sunday, Aug. 17. Silva was among them. She stood beside his family at his casket, paying her respects to the fallen leader. The day before, news broke that the PSB had signed an agreement with Silva to run in Campos’s place, but out of respect for Campos, the party will only make the official announcement on Aug. 20.

The PSB now will choose the vice-presidential candidate. Beto Albuquerque, a PSB Senate candidate from the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul is deemed the most probable choice. That decision is also expected to be announced Aug. 20. The decision to let Silva run was not necessarily obvious, as the PSB could have preferred a party faithful, though Silva appeared to offer the most natural path forward.

Neves, the former governor of Minas Gerais state and the candidate of the Social Democrat Party (PSDB), has focused his campaign on "small government," pro-business policies. Rousseff and her Workers’ Party (PT), on the other hand, promise to continue the path of her leftist predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pushing forward social welfare programs. Campos was originally a PT member before splitting to lead the PSB. Reports out on Friday show that the PT is now scrambling to firm up alliances with friendly PSB leaders.

* * *

If Campos’s death determines the outcome of the race, it will not be the first time a politician from the northeast has shaken Brazilian politics. In 1930, João Pessoa, then governor of the northeastern state of Paraíba, was assassinated shortly after he refused to support his party’s national candidate, Júlio Prestes, in the presidential election. Prestes won the election, but was never able to take office. The assassination turned Pessoa into a martyr, and helped spark the Revolution of 1930, a clash that ruptured the long-standing political alliance system in Brazil. In the wake of the uprising, Getúlio Vargas became president — and the country’s first dictator. He ruled for 15 uninterrupted years.

More recently, the region played a crucial role in electing Lula, the most influential president Brazil has had in half a century. A native of the northeast, he won the presidency in 2002 with ease, his Workers’ Party sweeping the country on a platform of poverty-reduction policies. In 2006, facing stiffer competition from the governor of São Paulo state, Lula won reelection only thanks to the northeastern region, where anti-poverty policies proved wildly popular. Many in the south, however, resented the Lula’s government’s wealth transfer policies. The divide between the PT and PSDB grew.

Prior to the 2006 election, the cover of the right-leaning news magazine Veja showed a young woman with a caption describing her as "northeastern, 27 years old, high school education, 450 reais per month." The headline read: "She Could Decide the Election." The magazine was criticized for its perceived prejudice and condescension toward northeasterners, but it was also right: The northeast proved critical in winning Lula re-election.

"It was really amazing when Lula won his second term," said Raissa Monteiro, a resident of João Pessoa, a coastal city in the northeastern state of Paraíba. "You could see exactly how divided the country was. The top half, the north and northeast, voted Lula. The rest was blue."

That map, red on top, blue on bottom, has not changed much over the last 10 years.

It was the northeast that likewise swept Rousseff into office in 2010. The map following that election showed the same diagonal line dividing the country. A clear rift was visible between the north and the south — as stark as the red-blue electoral map of present-day United States.

Campos presented an opportunity to break that polarization, to change that map, for some red states to turn a new color, releasing the pressure in the stalemate between the PT and PSDB parties.

Days before Campos’s death, polls showed that 12 percent of northeastern voters favored Campos, higher than his 9 percent support nationally. Now voters will reassess. Silva is viewed as the champion of the country’s discontent, as manifested in protests last summer. Those protests were just as widespread in the northeast as in the rest of the country. Her religious background may bolster her support, as well. In 2010, many perceived Silva as the "candidate of God." The evangelical church is rapidly growing in Pernambuco.

Most of Campos’s support came from Pernambuco and he presented himself as the modern nordestino, the man to get the northeast up to speed, not only with the continuation of PT federal assistance programs, such as the popular financial aid package known as Bolsa Familia — or family allowance, which benefits 36 million Brazilians — but also with a greater focus on business development. He seems to have succeeded in that mission: Pernambuco’s GDP growth rate is now among the fastest in Brazil.

"He represented a young energy not just for Pernambuco but for all of Brazil," said Oliveira. "Now, he will become a myth, a legend, as one of the greatest politicians in the history of Pernambuco and Brazil."

With Silva now carrying his torch, the power of the northeast may yet again determine it all.


Shannon Sims is a lawyer-turned-journalist and a former fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and the International Women’s Media Foundation. She has been based in Brazil for nearly a decade, and her reporting most often appears in the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek. Twitter: @shannongsims

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