Brazil—Back to Normality

Brazil’s presidential election has confirmed that, after a few weeks in which environmentalist candidate Marina Silva and her “new kind of politics” turned things upside down, everything is back to normal: the governing Workers Party (PT) is a hegemonic force, the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) is a convenient opposition and, despite the increasing impatience with the current state of the country, the emerging middle class is still more afraid of the past than the future. The current President, Dilma Rousseff, and opposition Senator Aécio Neves will face off in the second round on October 26.

With slightly more than 41 percent of the vote, Rousseff has proved that her administration’s dismal record (an average 1.5 percent economic growth, the loss of one-third of the value of the real, and fifty thousand homicides per year) has not diminished her party’s electoral power. Her support dropped in ten states but rose in sixteen others. Thanks to the fact that under three successive PT administrations per capita income has risen by one-quarter on the back of an initially healthy rate of economic growth, populist redistribution, and an artificial credit expansion, the governing party has managed to retain the loyalty of a large chunk of the emerging middle class and the less fortunate.

Using various tools, the PT has created a power structure that makes it very difficult to dislodge it from the presidential palace of Planalto. They include a vast grassroots machinery based on patronage; the control of Congress by co-opting other parties, especially the parasitical Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB); the magic of former President Lula da Silva, the man who handpicked Rousseff as his heir; and, last but not least, corruption, in which the PT is careful to involve many other political actors.

Rouseff is happy to face Neves in the runoff even though the latter obtained a surprisingly high 34 percent. That is why Lula, a major factor in every election, had kind words for him in recent days to the detriment of Marina Silva, the environmentalist of African descent with Amazonian roots who emerged as the candidate of the Socialist Party after an accident took the life of her predecessor. The fact that Silva belonged to the PT until 2010, her discourse based on a “new kind of politics”, her attack on excessive government interventionism, and her unexpected ties to part of the business community made her a powerful social and ideological mix that threatened the governing party’s hegemony. The character assassination aimed at her by the government, facilitated by a proportional distribution of TV airtime that gave the president twelve minutes per day and Silva barely two, had a very clear objective—to boost Neves, a more convenient runoff adversary, at her expense. It worked: Silva came in third with 21 percent of the vote. The government knows that Neves’s elitist image and ties to the business community are an easy target for the PT, which thrives on polarization.

Curiously, the business community shares this perception with Rousseff. Once enthralled with the PT’s moderate left-wing politics, they have become Rousseff’s main critics, fearing that the tax-and-spend policies, subsidies, and controls will keep the economy stagnant for years to come. Understanding that Neves would be an easy target for Rousseff, they had bet on a Silva victory, calculating that she would rest on the support of Neves’s party in the second round and later on as President. The erosion of Silva’s numbers in the polls was therefore met with alarm in business circles recently. The signs—the real‘s loss of value, the stock market decline—were unmistakable.

Is Rousseff’s victory in the second round a foregone conclusion? One never knows, especially taking into account the fact that little less than half of the emerging middle class voted for the opposition and that Neves’s and Silva’s votes add up to more than 55 percent. Silva will probably support Neves, but her powers of endorsement are an open question—she lacks a party and an electoral machine. It is by no means clear that those who voted for Silva in support of a new kind of politics will be more attracted by Neves, whom Rousseff will paint with a polarizing brush as she attempts to frame the election as a choice between going back to the past and preserving the PT’s redistributive programs.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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