Dan Hamilton revisits Brazil one week before the election
This time next week Brazilâ€™s 190 million citizens will choose their fourth directly-elected leader since the end of military rule in 1985 and a successor to the centre-left President Luiz InÃ¡cio â€œLulaâ€ da Silva. Given Brazil’s incredibly efficient system of electronic voting, results can be expected within an hour or so of the close of polls at around 23:00GMT.
Voters in Brazilâ€™s twenty six states will choose between centrist former SÃ£o Paulo Mayor, Senator and Governor Jose Serra, former Lula Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva, a Green Senator from the northern state of Acre. With Lula out of the electoral picture, the 2010 race had at times shown the potential to be the most open Presidential contest since the 1989 election which saw the election of Fernando Collor, then a young Governor of the obscure northern state of Alagoas. It was, however, not to be.
Of the major rumoured candidates, the first to leave the field was Ciro Gomes, a left-wing former Finance Minister who previously ran for President as a candidate of the centrist Socialist Peopleâ€™s Party in 1998 and 2002. He has since endorsed Rousseff and will remain as a Congressman for SÃ£o Paulo. Similarly, the telegenic former Governor of Minas Gerais AÃ©cio Neves decided to forgo the contest in order to run for a safe seat in the Federal Senate. Clearly eyeing the Presidential 2014 Presidential nomination, he has thrown his support to Serra.
That left Rousseff and Serra as the fieldâ€™s clear front-runners. I can only but return to my description of two candidates on this website just over a year ago:
Both are very similar personal and political quantities. Both are trained economists in their mid-to-late 60s who grew up in Brazilâ€™s prosperous South Eastern states. Both candidates were exiled in Argentina and the United States for their opposition to military rule. Both espouse relatively flexible political ideologies which offend neither bankers nor slum-dwellers. Both are technocrats who owe their rapid political rise largely to party-political patronage and appointments to unelected yet highly influential cabinet positions. Crucially, neither possesses the star-power of the outgoing President.
First elected in 2002 after three previous unsuccessful runs for President, Lula, a former shoe-shine boy who overcame poverty and years of intimidation from the countryâ€™s military junta, leaves office with approval ratings edging the 80% mark. A forceful campaigner and inspiring public speaker, Lula is a profoundly respected figure among the Brazilian public who few expect to disappear entirely from public life. (Indeed, there are rumblings about his interest in running in 2014).
Aside from Tancredo Neves (who arguably did his long-term reputation a favour by dying a few hours before his inauguration), Brazil has not had a single President who has gone out on a high since the countryâ€™s return of democracy in January 1985. JosÃ© Sarney’s final days were dogged by hyper-inflation, impeachment saw off Fernando Collor, Itamar Franco was seen as an aloof oddball and the professorial Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s popularity tanked as he failed to tackle unemployment.
Looking back over the past few decades, itâ€™s clear that Brazilian elections are won and lost on the basis of a candidateâ€™s long-term momentum as opposed to the ability to fire up a core constituency of voters on either the left or the right of the political spectrum. This is why, in the race between Serra and Rousseff, the popular Lula is proving such a decisive factor in driving support to his anointed successor.
The President has made no secret of his support for his former Chief of Staff and has referenced her warmly in each public appearance he has made for the past three years, often earning hefty fines from the Superior Electoral Tribunal for misusing his office for electoral purposes. With every passing mention of Rousseff by Lula, the Brazilians became increasingly curious about the lady the President clearly thought so much of, anxiously awaiting some form of introduction.
When I last wrote just over a year ago, stated support for Rousseff had already increased from 3% in April 2008 to 16% in August 2009. Fast forward to February 2010 and this figure stood at 28%, climbing to 37% in May and 49% today. In contrast, while support for Serra stood at 38% in April 2008, it has slumped to 28% today. In this respect, it’s not so much that support for Serra has collapsed, but rather it has stagnated. Comparatively speaking, he hasnâ€™t lost many voters (three quarters of those who expressed support for him in April 2008 have stuck with him to this day) â€“ but he hasnâ€™t gained any either.
There is a solid anti-PT vote in Brazil, but it’s debatable as to whether this vote amounts to any more than two in five voters â€“ some way short of the 50%+1 required to pull off a Presidential election victory. In his 2002 race for the Presidency Serra received 39% of the second round vote, exactly the same as the figure secured by Geraldo Alckmin four years later. Fast forward to the 2010 contest and the combined support for Serra and Marina Silva evens out at 41%.
In short, while Serra was already known to his possible supporters and felt he could afford to wait until April to launch his campaign, Rousseff had to aggressively reach out to both her base and the wider electorate from day one. TV advertising has been a crucial factor in doing just that. Television advertising is a key factor in Brazilian elections, with the candidates of the main political parties each being legally entitled to free prime-time coverage on major networks in order to communicate their messages. As the leader of the largest electoral coalition, Rousseff had received around ten minutes each evening since mid-August as compared to seven minutes for Serra and three for Silva.
In the battle of the adverts, thereâ€™s only one winner â€“ and thatâ€™s Rousseff. Her talented media team have been able to mix wistful stories of her activism against Brazilâ€™s military dictatorship with direct-to-camera endorsements from Lula and warm images of families who have benefited from the welfare reforms she led (examples here, here and here). While her message has been very much one of continuity, it has also been one focussed on the future. In contrast, Serraâ€™s adverts have been characteristically stilted and wooden; his first advert juxtaposing images of the Princeton-educated professor awkwardly shaking hands with elderly slum-dwellers alongside footage of his speeches to the UN General Assembly. While Rousseff has been able to effectively point to â€œourâ€ (as in she and Lulaâ€™s) infrastructure improvements, the accomplished and popular former Governor of Brazilâ€™s largest state has instead opted to focus upon his now decades-old successes as Health Minister.
The perceived weakness of Serra’s performance is only extenuated by the new found passion â€“ and at times, warmth – Rousseff has been able to summon up on the stump in recent weeks. Her fluency on the stump has been impressive, her message coherent – and, of crucial importance to people in the world’s friendliest country, the previously granite-faced technocrat has learned how to crack the occasional smile. While many Brazilians struggle to like Rousseff, most now respect her ability to hold the top job and execute it competently. Nobody dislikes Serra but everyoneâ€™s bored by him. Another key factor in this election, as with all others, is that of the spending power of individual candidates.
As a former Mayor, Senator and Governor of SÃ£o Paulo which is home to far and away the biggest financial and industrial centres in South America, Serra will have hoped his donor base would show the same enthusiasm it has for his past runs for office. That support has simply not been forthcoming. According to the Superior Electoral Tribunal, the financial reporting period up to July 31st saw the Workers’ Party candidate had banked close to $US25 million, while Serra has less than half of Rousseffâ€™s cash on hand and was even slightly outraised by Marina Silva in the period leading up to the middle of August.
Ignoring Rousseffâ€™s consistent lead in all national opinion polls, Jose Serra’s standing in individual demographics paints an even grimmer picture for a campaign that appeared almost unbeatable at the start of the year. Back in 2006, when Serra was outmanoeuvred for the Presidential nomination by Geraldo Alckmin, Brazilâ€™s centrist and centre-right parties could point to few areas of regional strength other than the wealthy southern region and state of SÃ£o Paulo. That year, Alckmin won a clear 54% in the southern states of ParanÃ¡, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Polling now suggests that Rousseff, who kicked-off her campaign in Brazilâ€™s most southerly town of ChuÃ, has nudged ahead of Serra 42% to 35%.
In SÃ£o Paulo, which Alckmin carried 52-48, polls show Rousseff leading 42% to 35%. For Serra to be failing so badly in a state which is so familiar with him and has consistently elected him to high office, the lack of enthusiasm for his Presidential bid is devastating. In a cruel irony, the right-leaning Alckmin leads the candidate from Lulaâ€™s Workersâ€™ Party 51% to 23% in the stateâ€™s gubernatorial election. As such, itâ€™s clear the rejection of Serra has little to do with any leftward shift in the views of the stateâ€™s electors and far more to do with dissatisfaction with his mediocre campaign and uninspiring rhetoric.
Looking to the impoverished north east region, the leftist Rousseff leads 66% to 16%. For Rousseff to hold a wide lead in this region is no surprise, yet it is a mark of the success of her candidacy that a middle-class technocrat from the south appears on course to outpace Lulaâ€™s 48% first round margin of victory in the region four years ago.
Hovering around 50% in the polls, itâ€™s not so much if Rousseff will win the election but if she will manage to pull off a first-round victory next Sunday â€“ possibly even securing a clean sweep of Brazilâ€™s twenty six states – or be forced to contest a second round on 31st October, and in a close race, itâ€™s possible that third-party Green candidate Marina Silva could play the role of spoiler.
Despite polling comfortably above 50% for the weeks leading up to the 2006 poll, Lula was denied an outright majority in the first round due to support for third-party candidate HeloÃsa Helena, who ran to his left and picked up strong support in populous inner-city areas. Silva shares more with Helena than just a close physical resemblance, having also been prompted to launch her Presidential bid following her resignation from Lulaâ€™s cabinet over concerns about the pro-business nature of the administration. Often drawing on her own personal story as a self-described â€œblack woman of poor, Amazonian originsâ€, Silva has targeted her message to Rousseffâ€™s left and will hope to eat into her support in inner-city areas and poor northern states.
In this last week, Rousseff faces two choices. The first is to hold steady to her current strategy and hope that a last minute personal appeal from Lula will pull her over the finishing line; probably in the first round, yet certainly in the second. The second is to pursue a risky path to a first round victory by tacking to the left in order to attract Silva supporters while risking driving centrists into Serraâ€™s hands – but neither option will alter the ultimate outcome of the election.
As ever in Brazilian elections, be they contests for the statehouse or battles for the Presidency, momentum will be the final arbiter of victory. Rousseff has it, Serra doesnâ€™t.
Barring an electoral miracle, Lula will hand the keys of the PalÃ¡cio da Alvorada to Dilma Rousseff on 1st January next year.
Dan Hamilton is a contributor to international politics on PB and was involved in the Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election.