Photo Jonathan Blair

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The very strange turn of Brazil's electoral contest

On October 5, Brazilians will head to the polls after one of the most unexpected and tightly contested electoral process their country has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.

The official campaign had barely begun when, on August 13, it was turned upside down by the tragic death of presidential candidate Eduardo Campos. Young but already experienced and a very clever, capable and ambitious politician, he was bound to become a fixture of the Brazilian political scene and, possibly, at some point, President of the country. To all observers, however, it was clear that, this time at least, he had no chance of winning: running third with about 10% of voting intentions, he could at best ensure that no candidate would gain an absolute majority, forcing a second round in which he could play the kingmaker.

His death, however, opened the way for his running mate, Marina Silva, to make the run that she had planned but could not pull off when the party she tried to set up was unable to get on time the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to register. Silva was already very well known in Brazil, as a moralist firebrand and fierce environmentalist who had resigned from Lula's cabinet and left his Workers Party (PT) in protest against the government's decision to allow transgenic soya to be cultivated in the country. In 2010, she was presidential candidate for the Brazilian Green Party and received 20% of the votes in the first round, a spectacular performance given the limited resources she had at the time and the tiny following of her party. Born in an extremely poor family of Brazil's Northeast and working her way up the Workers' Party and Chico Mendes' environmentalist movement in the Amazon, her trajectory is every bit as bracing as Lula's rise from a similarly poor upbringing to the presidency of the country.

Her sudden rise in the polls following Campos death may have been driven in part by a wave of sympathy for the man and by the huge media exposure that followed his death. Very quickly, however, what appeared to crystallize around her was a strong sentiment of rejection towards what is broadly perceived as a stale and rotten political status quo of which incumbent Dilma Rousseff's Workers' Party, shaken by a series of corruption scandal, is very much a part. The wave on which she surfs echoes the deep discontent that fed the massive street demonstrations of the Summer of 2013, during which hundreds of thousands of people denounced the billions spent on holding history's most expensive FIFA World Cup while Brazil's public services were still clearly those of a third world country.

Silva has kept the second place in opinion polls, and the last few ones put her head-to-head with Rousseff in what is now a guaranteed second round run-off. Nothing is set in stone yet however. Indeed, support for Silva has been wavering and some polls even put her in a technical tie with Aecio Neves, the candidate for the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Were Neves able to overtake Marina Silva, her sudden rise to political stardom would essentially be frozen in time, for at least four years. Such a result, however, would suit Rousseff and the PT as all polls give her a second round win in a head to head confrontation with Neves. Were Marina Silva to be the runner-up, the whole game would be thrown open, with the PT's grip on power very much under threat. In a strange twist of political fate, in other words, the outcome of the final round of this election could well hinge on who finishes second in the first one...

Now, what exactly could determine Marina Silva's final vote tally? Interestingly, not her program or that of her adversaries, for she doesn't really stand for any clear policy measure and is not particularly critical of that of her adversaries. Her politics is a peculiar mix of progressive ideas, particularly around environmental issues, and social conservatism, which has a strong appeal among evangelical Christians but also among a neglected but still sizable conservative Catholic bloc. The rest is unclear. The Workers Party has awkwardly tried to paint her as an enemy of social redistribution, accusing her of opposing the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program that has become a political sacred cow because of its massive popularity among the country's still huge number of poor. In a poignant TV message that has been widely distributed, she has eviscerated the argument, using her personal experience of extreme poverty to powerful effect. She has had a harder time dismissing suggestions from the PT that her environmentalist convictions would lead her to oppose the exploitation of Brazil's massive deep water hydrocarbon reserves, another sacred cow as they are widely seen as a guarantee of an energy independence that Brazilians have long sought.

Neves' PSDB and its intellectual supporters have taken another tack, focusing on her ideological rigidity, on the limited openness to compromise she has demonstrated over her political carreer, on the lack of clarity of her proposals and on the limited administrative and technical expertise of her team and core followers, an issue the PT has also heavily insisted on. More generally, her ability to harness the discontent with "the system" that brought her the support of many young people is hampered by the sometimes messianic tone of her pronouncements and especially by the dogmatic opposition to abortion, drugs and gay marriage that makes her so appealing to her socially conservative base. She wouldn't need to lose much support in the richer and more liberal South Eastern part of the country to lose her second place.

In the face of Marina Silva's unexpected challenge, Dilma Rousseff and her party seem unable to exploit the massive advantages of incumbency and to lay out a clear program for her next mandate beyond the defence of a progress made essentially under Lula and largely inexistant since. The PT campaign has now become a huge attack machine, intent on eliminating what it clearly sees as a strong and credible challenge to the party's hold on power. Aecio Neves and the PSDB, very much in line with Fernando Henrique Cardoso's two mandates and with their continuing success at the state level, in Sao Paulo, have tried to present themselves as the pragmatic, serious and professional alternative to what they denounce as the ideological and amateurish management of the PT. That attempt was derailed by Marina Silva's rise and they also now focus essentially on her person and on the many damaging uncertainties that her election would entail. Although the electoral contest reflects quite a broad discontent with the very nature of the political system, we thus have an election that is dominated by the personal qualities, stands and attitudes of a candidate that was not even in the picture five weeks ago.

To some extent, this is understandable as Silva offers little else but herself and her abstract challenge to the way politics is done in the country. How different she would--or more importantly could--do politics once elected, however, remains unclear. For she would have to govern in a very peculiar political environment where the PT enjoys solid support for a largely political project centred on consolidating the party's hold on the state in the face of significant resistance from well-entrenched economic elites, where quite a large clientelistic right sells its vote to the highest bidder, and where more programmatic but small liberal and conservative factions try to usher in what they see as a modern capitalist democracy. Both the PSDB and the PT have proven adept at playing that complicated game, winning some battles and losing others. The nature of the game, however, clearly dismayed the many Brazilians that took to the streets last year, and for them Marina Silva looks like a way out. And yet, there may be little choice but for her to muddle though just like her predecessors.

Perhaps sadly for Brazilians, the very real short and medium-term challenges of the country take the back seat to this somewhat disembodied debate about "the system." Indeed, the columns of the country's newspapers are replete with discussions of the sorry state of an economy that is slated to grow at less than 1% this year and barely more than that next year, an inflation rate that is reaching 7%, a decline in inequality that is now stuck at what remains one of the highest levels in the world, the country's ever-shrinking industrial base, its sudden invisibility on the regional and international scene, and the criminal violence that year-in year-out produces more than 50,000 homicides. And yet, none of this seems to matter much, for now at least.

The three weeks separating the two Presidential rounds (the second will take place on October 26) may ground the debate somewhat. Many of the cards will already have been dealt, however, as the shape of the Congress will have become clear. On election night, in other words, keep an eye on who finishes second and on which parties get the largest shares of seats in the Chamber and the Senate.