Originally published in economist.com, 2010/10/07
Three more weeks of campaigning lie ahead but, despite a surprising last-minute stumble, Dilma Rousseff (pictured) is still likely to become the next president
WITH 46.9% of the vote, Dilma Rousseff fell short of the absolute majority she needed to be elected president on October 3rd. So on October 31st she will go head-to-head with José Serra, the runner-up, who got 32.6%. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the hugely popular outgoing president and Ms Rousseff’s mentor, publicly reminded her during the campaign that he had won neither of his own victories in the first round. She did well for a woman who had never before run for office. But her vote was some three to four percentage points less than polls had predicted, and during her unsmiling statement on election night Ms Rousseff was visibly deflated by her failure to win outright.
It was not Mr Serra but Marina Silva of the Green Party who denied Ms Rousseff a first-round victory. In the opinion polls, Ms Silva had been stuck at around 10% for months. But on the night she got a startling 19.3%. That makes her the most successful third candidate in any of Brazil’s six post-dictatorship presidential contests.
Abroad, particularly in Europe, a green candidate gaining a fifth of the presidential vote caught many eyes. But although some of those who voted for Ms Silva are indeed environmentalists, others have different reasons for supporting her. Some like her evangelical Protestantism. Her steely serenity appealed to those seeking an alternative to the uncharismatic front-runners.
And Ms Silva’s life story matches Lula’s own rise from poverty to power. One of 11 children of Amazonian rubber-tappers, she grew up hungry and learnt to read only in her teens. She put herself through school and university by working as a maid. Although she is now out of the race, she has carved out a new standing as a national political figure. Like Lula’s, her personal appeal transcends party.
The late switch from Ms Rousseff to Ms Silva may have been caused partly by a row about Brazil’s abortion laws. Ms Rousseff tried to finesse earlier pro-choice remarks by saying she was “personally” against abortion, but some Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors advised their flocks to cast their votes elsewhere.
Other voters were repelled by scandals swirling around Erenice Guerra, a close associate of Ms Rousseff who resigned last month as Lula’s chief of staff. Women in politics are generally regarded as more ethical than men, points out Fátima Jordão, a sociologist at the Patrícia Galvão Institute, a non-profit organisation in São Paulo, and are therefore punished more severely by voters for perceived lapses.
Both Mr Serra and Ms Rousseff are now courting Ms Silva, hoping to inherit her vote. The Green Party’s president has said he leans towards Mr Serra, but Ms Silva herself was once a member of Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT). She is fond of Lula, though not of Ms Rousseff, whom she regards as one of the proponents of industrial development who continually overruled her when she was Lula’s environment minister. Her party is to meet soon to decide whom, if anyone, to support; she may yet remain above the fray.
An endorsement from Ms Silva might not in fact make much difference. Supporters of a third candidate tend to be quite independent. Those who switched late from Ms Rousseff might find a speedy move to Mr Serra too dizzying to contemplate. Alberto Almeida of the Instituto Análise, a consultancy in São Paulo, notes that in 70% of elections at national and local level that have gone to a run-off, the leader in the first round won in the end. He predicts a victory for Ms Rousseff on October 31st, with a ten-point lead.
That voters who turned away from Ms Rousseff chose Ms Silva is bad news for Mr Serra’s centrist Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). He failed to attract either young voters with no memories of the hyperinflation his party conquered in the 1990s, or the poor northern ones in whose hearts Lula reigns. It did badly in Congress, too: a few races are stuck in legal limbo, but both the party and its coalition partners lost seats in both houses.
Unless Mr Serra pulls off an extraordinary coup on October 31st, his party will have to regroup around the states in which it is still strong, and find a new flag-bearer. It retained the governorships of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, which between them give it control of more than 40% of all state tax receipts. The party’s likeliest next presidential candidate is Aécio Neves, a former governor of Minas Gerais who is now a senator. A younger, more charismatic man than Mr Serra, he is not only popular in his home state but also well-known nationally (he is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who was elected president in 1985).
If, as still seems probable, Ms Rousseff wins on October 31st, she will lead a coalition that will probably have more than three-fifths of both houses, enough to change the constitution. In neither of Lula’s governments did he command such support in the Senate. That stopped him from doing much that he wanted.
It has been chastening for Ms Rousseff and her party to have been checked in their triumphal progress towards an inherited presidency. Her opponents worry that Ms Rousseff would continue a trend in Lula’s second term to expand the state, and that she might prove to be a less pragmatic leftist than he was. They will be heartened that she has been denied the kind of blank cheque that a first-round victory might have implied. The next month may even inject livelier policy debate into what has been a dull campaign.
Lula, who turned Ms Rousseff from a back-room technocrat into an election winner by campaigning at her side, has found his queen-making power has limits. But in the end he is likely to prevail.