Election preview: Brazil

In the last of the big elections of 2014, Brazil goes to the polls tomorrow to elect a president, congress and state governors.

To quote my own summary from four years ago, “As in most of Latin America, Brazil’s constitution is loosely based on that of the US: complete separation between the executive and legislative branches, fixed-term elections, a Senate with equal state representation and a president limited to two four-year terms. But Brazil’s actual history has mostly consisted of short periods of civilian rule, separated by military coups and dictatorship.”

There are eleven presidential candidates on the ballot paper, but only three with any serious support: incumbent Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, Marina Silva from the Brazilian Socialist Party and Aécio Neves from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

All three main parties sound left wing from their names, but in fact the Social Democrats are now more centrist or even centre-right, having formed the main opposition to the administrations of Rousseff and her predecessor, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva. The Workers’ Party, once seen as a radical force, is now a mainstream centre-left party. The Socialist Party was part of the coalition that elected both Lula and Rousseff, but has now staked out a position as a more populist opposition, supporting environmentalism and an end to official waste and corruption.

But the thing that has most shaken up this election was the death of the original Socialist Party candidate, Eduardo Campos, in a plane crash in August. He had been languishing a rather poor third in opinion polls, but Silva, who had been his running mate and replaced him on the ticket, has galvanised popular enthusiasm (or at least a sympathy vote) and a month ago looked poised to overtake Roussef.

That initial rush of support seems to have faded, and Roussef has resumed a lead of 10%-15% in the polls. But no-one expects her to win more than 50% tomorrow, and without it the contest will go to a second round in three weeks time, on 26 October.

At that point things may get very interesting. If Neves was in the runoff, it’s likely that the majority of Roussef’s or Silva’s supporters, both coming basically from the left, would rally to the other. Instead, however, Neves looks set to run third, and his voters are up for grabs.

Here’s how the BBC puts Neves’s options:

Favoured by big business and the financial sector, he has ruled out backing Ms Silva, despite the similarities in their economic programmes. But his scathing attacks on the [Workers’ Party] make his support for Ms Rousseff even less likely.

An opinion poll last week gave Roussef a lead of eight points in a hypothetical runoff with Silva, 49% to 41%.

In twelve years under the Workers’ Party, Brazil has done pretty well: economic growth has been impressive, and together with massive social welfare programs has helped to lift many people out of poverty. But there is a long way to go, corruption and empire-building are rife (the soccer World Cup consumed billions, and the Olympics will consume billions more), and even the most well-intentioned governments get stale after so long in power.

Roussef, who was Lula’s hand-picked successor, has never quite enjoyed his popularity. Big anti-government demonstrations last year were handled reasonably well, but voters still have a heavy sense – difficult to avoid in such a huge and poorly-developed country – that their government is remote and unresponsive.

In the three weeks between rounds, they may have the chance to consider whether to take a gamble to try to change that.

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