Brazil’s Cautious Voters

By Jorge Castaneda

Brazil has been in the global spotlight this year, and not always for the right reasons. Following the 2013 riots over the amount of money being spent on the 2014 soccer World Cup, protests continued up to, and even during, the tournament in June. There were dire – though ultimately misplaced – predictions about chaotic conditions for participants, and then, of course, the catastrophic performance of the home team.

Now, the costs of the soccer jamboree, coming on top of the country’s ongoing economic slowdown, are coming home to roost. Several analysts have concluded that Brazil’s bubble has burst, and that the so-called “country of the future” will remain stuck in the present.

Economic uncertainty is also dramatically affecting Brazilian politics. And a once placid, even predictable, presidential election campaign has been thrown into disarray by the death of the Brazilian Socialist Party candidate, Eduardo Campos, in an airplane crash in August.

Campos’s running mate, Marina Silva, was then nominated to take his place. A presidential candidate four years ago who ran on a green, socially conservative, but strongly pro-democratic platform, Silva received nearly 20 million votes. Her ties to Brazil’s huge evangelical churches, and her unwillingness to break with them on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and drug policy, alienate many voters. Nonetheless, she has rapidly overtaken Aécio Neves, the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) candidate, as the main challenger to Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent President and Workers’ Party (PT) candidate. A run-off between the two women, following the October 5th first round, seems inevitable, as opinion polls give neither close to 50% of the vote.

Though competent and tough, Rousseff faces voter fatigue after 12 years of PT rule, which many will remember, perhaps unfairly, for corruption scandals and the national team’s 7-1 drubbing by Germany in this year’s World Cup. But it is the government’s dismal economic record over the past four years that is causing the biggest problems for Rousseff’s campaign.

At the same time, Silva will not be able to win the run-off without an enthusiastic and persuasive endorsement from Neves and the PSDB. Fortunately for Silva, the PSDB is highly critical of the PT administration, especially the foreign policy of Rousseff’s predecessor, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. PSDB-allied diplomats and former senior officials strongly have opposed the PT’s support for Latin America’s authoritarian regimes (particularly in Cuba and Venezuela), its futile insistence on a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and its excessive embrace of non-aligned, anti-imperialist positions.

A Silva victory would herald change in domestic and foreign policy alike. But perhaps its most remarkable impact would be cultural. Though she would not be the first woman president (Rousseff broke the gender barrier) or the first from humble origins (Lula broke that taboo), she would be the first mulatto – darker-skinned than traditional Brazilian political leaders – to hold the office.

Just as Lula’s 2002 election signified a sea of change in a highly class-conscious, socially stratified society, Silva’s election would shake up the racial order in a country – and indeed continent – where racism has not been eradicated. Indeed, in a country that has been proud of its supposedly non-racist nature, there has been no Afro-Brazilian politician of significant stature for a century.

Despite the excitement aroused by her candidacy, however, Silva is unlikely to win. Since Latin America’s democratization in the 1980s, only two incumbents have lost – Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (who was not really elected the first time) and Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic. More than a dozen incumbents have won re-election, more or less democratically.

The incumbent’s advantage in Latin America owes much to the feeble regulations restricting the government’s use of the state apparatus for campaign purposes. The scope for abuse of power, public money, the media, and most state institutions available to sitting presidents makes it almost impossible to defeat them.

Ultimately, Brazilians may just be too unsure about handing power to Silva, who has become a media phenomenon but remains an unknown quantity. Rousseff will probably be re-elected, not so much on the strength of her record as because voters fear the unfamiliar.

That would be a pity. After all, most new political challengers appear unprepared for the top job until they are in power. But Brazilians may feel that they have already broken enough political barriers and taboos in recent years, and that Silva would represent one too many.

Formerly published on project-syndicate.org