Marina Silva (left) and Dilma Rouseff (right). Source: today.it
It is not an everyday occurrence in Latin America to talk about two female presidential candidates with real possibilities of winning, or at least of getting past the first round. But it has happened, first in Chile (Evelyn Mattei and Michelle Bachelet in last year’s presidential election) and now in the largest democracy in the region, Brazil. Incumbent Dilma Rousseff and challenger Marina Silva are the front-runners and, perhaps surprisingly, it is Rousseff who is playing catch-up. As a matter of fact, two different polls declare that Silva will win in a run-off, 46% to 39% according to one poll and 48% to 41% according to another. The analysts, which at a prior point were sure that Rousseff’s popularity would propel her to a second term, now declare that the country is witnessing “a public opinion phenomenon”, in the exact words of a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Of course, people can say things to pollsters without really meaning them or nothing at all, and polls themselves are simply snapshots of a very specific and not necessarily duplicatable point in time. These pre-election polls should be seen this way. Still, polls are heuristic tools (shortcuts) that offer reasonable cues to a prevailing mindset and serve as educated guesses for what could possibly happen at a later point in time. These pre-election polls should also be seen this way.
Silva is not new to the presidential race: In 2010, she received 20 million votes but did not advance to the run-off that Rousseff won. A devout evangelical of very humble origins, an adherent of liberation theology, and a former Environment Minister under the still popular Lula, she was the running mate of a former state governor who died in a plane crash last month, accepting the presidential nomination after painful soul searching. None of that satisfactorily explains this public opinion phenomenon. What does?
Reports from Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal suggest that part of the answer relates to governance issues. For Brazilian voters in this election, it is the economy, stupid (in contrast, The Economist believes it is not). Brazil continues to be the largest economy in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world, but GDP growth shrunk 0.2% in the first quarter and another 0.6% in the second. Making sense of that downward slide seems to be subject to interpretation: Rousseff argues it was because of a weak recovery from the 2009 global recession and a slew of public holidays during the World Cup in host cities, but critics blame the government itself because of problems such as overwhelming red tape, a convoluted tax system, and outright micromanaging from Rousseff herself – all amounting to mismanagement, in their view. To reverse it, Silva promises an independent central bank and investments in infrastructure through public-private partnerships, among other measures. The business community is looking forward for her to win, and they are so hopeful in fact that when it became known that Silva would become a presidential candidate the Brazilian stock market soared and the index of its 100 most liquid stocks set an all-time high. There is even speculation around which enterprises and economic sectors may be benefited under her government. The Brazilian Masters of the Universe are salivating.
Another part of the answer relates to a campaign promise and some of the company she keeps: She has already generated support among a middle class disgusted with corruption episodes like the mensalão scandal of 2005; and those who have taken the streets since last summer, including those who rejected the last World Cup. It is the courtship of this “protest vote” and her promise to renew politics what suggests that Silva is seen by some as a real alternative to the current political class – at least according to Fernando Meirelles, director of Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winner The Constant Gardner. Winning over the anti-World Cup demonstrators, confronted as they were by an extraordinary public safety response and blindsided as they also were by an increase in patriotic fervor once the Brazilian team took the field, is significant because the electoral route is the option they now have to get their point across and, at the same time, punish Rousseff and her clique for not listening.
The answer also relates to the reality of public attitudes toward Brazilian democracy, as tabulated by the last wave of the celebrated Latinobarómetro. Although an overwhelming number of Brazilians (81%) agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else that has been tried and support for democracy increased over the years as cash disbursements under the Bolsa Familia program brought more people into the middle class, overall support for democracy in Brazil reaches 49% (lower than the regional average of 56%), satisfaction with it is even lower (26%, lower than the regional average of 39%) and the percentage of ambivalence between democracy and authoritarianism is the second largest in the region (24%) after Chile and higher than the regional average of 18%. There is a correlation between those numbers and Brazil’s present governance issues, confirming the conclusion that Brazilians measure the quality of their democracy in the same way the rest of Latin America does: not by focusing on the existence of certain institutions and procedures, but by paying attention to its results in the form of policy outputs (at a time when pre-recession economic prosperity has raised expectations and has given rise to more pressing demands). Therefore, Rousseff is increasingly seen as the problem and not as the solution to it, while Silva is seen as a redeemer of sorts.
At the same time, this background raises the bar considerably for Silva and, in case that she does win the second round as polls suggest, she may be hard pressed to deliver not just on her lofty promise of a renewal of Brazilian politics, but on the less abstract and equally important issues of economic growth, infrastructure development, better citizen security, and economic equity. There are also some questions to pose. Will Bolsa Familia continue? How will her government confront the fact that anti-corruption agencies are as effective as the Brazilian legislature will allow them to be? Will she obtain a majority strong enough to let her navigate the usually disorderly Brazilian legislature? How will she deal with subnational political bosses? Will her government support existing municipal-level participatory budgeting mechanisms? The answer to these and other questions will determine not only how will she fare as chief executive, but also how Brazilians will qualify the quality of their democracy into the future. In the meantime, get ready for round 1.