IF YOU had asked a pundit three months ago to predict the first round of Brazil’s presidential election on October 5th, the response would more or less have resembled what has turned into the polling-day reality. With all 115m ballots counted (after just a few hours, thanks to a remarkably efficient electronic-voting system) Dilma Rousseff emerged on top with 42% of the vote. Trailing eight points behind the incumbent was Aécio Neves of the main centre-right opposition Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). The candidate of the centrist Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) finished a respectable third, with 21%. As expected back then, Ms Rousseff and Mr Neves will now battle it out in a competitive run-off on October 26th.
But a rollercoaster, too, begins and ends in the same place. And from the start of campaigning on July 6th till today, Brazilians were taken for a wild ride.
As recently as two days ago Mr Neves was polling third. His status as the president’s putative challenger had been usurped by Marina Silva (pictured above), a popular former environment minister vaulted atop the PSB ticket—and then to stratospheric heights in the polls—after the party’s original candidate, Eduardo Campos, perished in an aeroplane crash in mid-August. But then relentless campaigning, especially in Brazil’s populous south-east, and an assured performance in a crucial televised debate on October 2nd gave Mr Neves a last-minute boost so unprecedented that psephologists will be poring over it for years to come. Ms Silva, meanwhile, succumbed to a barrage of attack ads from the Rousseff camp, which accused her unfairly of wanting to end handouts for the poor and of being in cahoots with shady bankers. (The latter hurt, because Ms Silva advocates central-bank independence and one of her close advisers, a sociologist, hails from a family behind one of Brazil’s biggest lenders.)
Mr Neves had always been the darling of those who cast their ballots in places like St Paul’s, São Paulo’s poshest private school. “Everyone here votes Aécio,” one sharply dressed voter explained to his son as they exited a polling booth. Brazil’s rich have long had it in for Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), which they blame for creating an overweening state and mismanaging the economy.
But PSDB fliers carpeted the streets in places far removed from leafy Jardins district, where St Paul’s is located. In a breeze-block called Capão Redondo, in the city’s poorer southern periphery, some locals deplore the PT for fostering a culture of handouts, which discourages hard work. Mr Neves’s business-friendly demeanour and a reputation for getting things done, which he gained as a successful governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most-populous state, appeal there, too.
Mr Neves duly carried São Paulo state, Brazil’s biggest, by a handsome 20 points. In Brazil as a whole, Ms Rousseff’s first-round tally is the lowest any sitting president has won since direct elections were re-introduced in 1989. But now, if he is to threaten her directly, Mr Neves will need to convince more of the new middle class of his case, especially in PT strongholds across Brazil’s poor north-east.
A clear endorsement from Ms Silva could tip the balance in Mr Neves’s favour. Hailing from an indigent background, she enjoys a credibility among Brazil’s poor that the PSDB, regarded as the party of the rich, has lacked. She won in Pernambuco, Mr Campos’s home state, by 48% to Ms Rousseff’s 44%; Mr Neves languished at a lowly 6%.
In 2010, when she also came third after winning roughly 20% of the vote, Ms Silva declined to support either candidate in the second round; the PT won. For the moment she sounds cryptic. “The vote shows a desire for qualified change,” she remarked, commenting on Sunday’s result. She added that her support will be conditional on policy convergence.
This should not be impossible. Many of Ms Silva’s sensible, middle-of-the-road proposals match Mr Neves’s, especially on the economy: both promote orthodox fiscal and monetary policy, greater openness to trade and less government meddling in business. In the last week of the campaign Mr Neves studiously eased his attacks on Ms Silva, whom he had derided earlier as being unprepared to govern and, having been a PT member for 25 years before quitting, too much like Ms Rousseff to ensure meaningful change.
Even with Ms Silva’s backing, however, Mr Neves has his work cut out. It is unclear how many of her supporters, many of whom lean left and find the PSDB unpalatably elitist, can migrate to his camp. According to Polling Data, a website which crunches polling numbers to come up with a separate probability of victory for each of the candidates, Ms Rousseff remains the favourite. Sunday’s result vindicates Mr Neves’s description of Ms Silva’s early surge as a “passing wave”. He will be hoping that his current momentum turns into something more lasting.
Source: The Economist