Better the Dilma You Know…

Brazil's incumbent is on track for re-election. But that's mostly because there's no one better.

Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images
Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — On a sunny election day in São Bernardo do Campo, the São Paulo suburb that is home to Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the most popular topic of discussion was not voting at all.

"I think it’s better to cast a null or blank ballot than it is to vote for just anyone," a middle-aged woman with short, curly hair said as she made her way, with her husband, teenage son, and elderly mother, to a polling station in a neighborhood school. "You have to vote for who really helps you."

At the polling station, where narrow hallways were lined with lists of candidates and their corresponding voting numbers, the chatter was about who would be the right choice to run South America’s largest country — or rather, if there was a right choice at all.

When an inquisitive boy of about 10 years old asked his grandfather, "Who was the best president Brazil ever had?" the elderly man waiting in line to cast his vote didn’t hesitate. "None of them," he said. When his wife asked whom he planned on voting for, he responded without skipping a beat: "No one."

More than 142 million people were supposed to vote in Brazil’s Oct. 5 election, but even with mandatory voting (there’s a fine for failing to show up at a polling place), nearly 20 percent of the electorate decided to stay home. Moreover, nearly 10 percent of voters, like the disaffected grandfather at the São Bernardo do Campo school, cast a blank ballot or voted null. In the end, Brazilians seemed to prefer to stick with what they know — despite the ruling party’s flaws — rather than risk running into a whole new set of problems.

Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff and her center-left Workers’ Party (PT) took the day, with 41.59 percent of the vote, while 33.55 percent of the electorate voted for center-right candidate Aécio Neves. The two candidates will face each other in a runoff vote on Oct. 26. Marina Silva, who briefly ignited hopes as a dark-horse candidate and a promising protest vote, came in third, with just over 21 percent.

Sunday’s results were just one more twist in an unpredictable race that included the death of candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash just two months before the vote; the rise of his successor, Silva, who quickly shot to the top spot in the polls and was considered a possible second-round winner; and her subsequent fall back to third place.

The PT’s popularity soared during and since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s overwhelmingly popular presidency from 2003 to 2011. But since then — and since Rousseff, his heir, took over — the party’s invincibility has been punctured by a series of scandals. In 2005, the scandal known as mensalão ("big monthly stipend") came to the open, laying bare how the PT’s cadres were buying votes and bribing congressional deputies. Earlier this year, a massive money laundering scandal involving the PT and Brazil’s state-controlled oil company Petrobras was unearthed. The scandal’s exposure undermined Rousseff’s professed zero-tolerance reputation for corruption just one month before the election. Neves dubbed the latest scandal "mensalão 2."

Silva, a former environment minister and member of the Green Party (PV) who recently joined the Socialist Party (PSB), was considered the face of change after 12 years of PT leadership. Campos had been polling at 9 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), before his sudden death in August. When Silva stepped up to take his place, a Datafolha poll suggested she would push Rousseff to a second round of voting that would lead to her beating the incumbent 50 percent to 40 percent, turning the presidential race on its head.

Silva and the PSB released an ambitious program for reforming Brazil’s tax system and paring back bureaucracy, leading with the promise to spend 10 percent of the country’s GDP on education, a crucial issue for the 1 million Brazilians who took to the streets in June 2013 to protest floundering public services, the government corruption they said led to their failure, and the billions of dollars being spent on the World Cup. At their peak, the protests were supported by 89 percent of the São Paulo population.

But the so-called protest vote wasn’t enough to sustain Silva’s candidacy. Rousseff went on the attack against Silva after her candidacy started to gain steam. Under election rules, the incumbent had five times the TV advertising of Silva and swung hard with one ad that implied that Silva’s plan to have an autonomous central bank would hand the country over to the bankers. Rousseff and the PT have suggested that giving the central bank more independence will lead to hunger and lower salaries because profit-seeking bankers will raise interest rates. Meanwhile, the business community has said that Rousseff’s government’s social welfare spending — a cornerstone of the PT’s success — is putting the currency under pressure.

"[Marina Silva] couldn’t win over the Workers’ Party voters," says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and an expert on Latin America and international economic policy. "She didn’t really present much of a program and many of her views were more right-wing than anything."

Both Rousseff and Silva were playing for Brazil’s left-leaning voters, trying to win them over with policies that would benefit the poor, but the new candidate was no match for the PT legacy and the preferential treatment that incumbents get under Brazilian election laws. Bolsa Família and Fome Zero, two social programs meant to combat extreme poverty and hunger, were started by Lula and carried on by Rousseff. Both have been successful — and remain popular. Silva, for her part, said she would "improve" the programs, while Neves promised pro-market reforms to the Bolsa Família.

Meanwhile, some of Silva’s views — including amendments to her party program, which initially supported gay marriage and anti-homophobia laws, as well as her opposition to abortion — turned off many progressive Brazilian voters who seem to have retreated to the comfortable arms of the PT. Even American actor Mark Ruffalo, who released a video in support of Silva that dumbfounded many, recanted when he better understood what stance she had taken.

As Silva’s fortunes fell ahead of voting day, Neves made a surprise comeback. On Sept. 1, while he was polling at just 15 percent, his campaign was forced to deny that he would drop out of the race all together. Neves’s emergence in second place on Oct. 5 was a triumph for the lifelong politician, who started his career at 23 as the personal secretary to his grandfather, Tancredo Neves, who was elected as Brazil’s first elected president in 1985, following decades of military dictatorship. The elder Neves never took office because he fell ill and died before inauguration day, but his grandson hopes to take his lead after his Sunday comeback.

"What I can say, what comes to mind, is what my grandfather Tancredo said 30 years ago when he won the elections for president of the republic: ‘We must not get dispersed. We are in the middle of our path.’ And I hope to be able to walk alongside every Brazilian who wants a dignified and efficient government to the end. I am going to fight for that," he said in a statement late Sunday.

Some still say he doesn’t stand a chance of running the country. "There are a lot of sympathetic media and he does have party power and influence, but I still don’t think he’ll win, for the same reasons Dilma won the first round," says Weisbrot, regarding the PT legacy and the loyalty that the party earned after years of social programs seen as successful and a growing economy.

But many others now say that Neves could make the comeback of a lifetime. "Momentum aside, Neves has so far run an effective campaign and has resources and a powerful party machine to support his final push," writes Tony Volpon, Brazil specialist and head of emerging-markets research for the Americas at Nomura, in a report released the day of the first-round vote.

When Silva found herself up against Rousseff, she turned her supporters against the incumbent too. Their disdain for the PT and its candidate is strong enough that, despite Neves’s liberal pro-business stance, they would rather see him in office than have Rousseff return.

Volpon also notes that Rousseff’s "main competitive edge" was the division of the opposition after Campos’s death, as Neves had to focus his efforts on fighting off Silva. Now that the opposition can unite, Volpon says, it will have "a slight edge over President Rousseff in the second round runoff on Oct. 26." And Silva has hinted that she will give her support to Neves, as long as he continues to support issues important to her campaign like political reform, environmental sustainability, and full-day classes for those in elementary and high school.

In their Oct. 5 victory speeches, both Rousseff and Neves referred to themselves as the candidate for change. What that really means, and what changes Brazil wants, are still to be decided.

Many are still skeptical. "What choice do we have?" said Maria Fernanda de Moraes, a 34-year-old teacher in São Paulo who cast a null ballot on Sunday. "Either we get what we’ve always had or it’s the unknown."

Jill Langlois is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil, for publications like The New York Times, Fortune, and USA Today.

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