Brazilian Specialist Robert Corrigan on how protests in Brazil have shaken the 2014 presidential elections
Imagine for a moment that current US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was the leading candidate in a voter preference poll a little over a year before the next US presidential election. Imagine that he was leading despite publicly declaring no party affiliation or any intention to run for president.
In June that was the reality here in Brazil. President of the Supreme Federal Court and anti-corruption champion Joaquim Barbosa lead all potential candidates for Brazil’s 2014 presidential election in a Datafolha poll.
Even though it was a single poll involving an unrealistic candidate, the result demonstrates Brazil’s suddenly uncertain presidential race in the wake of last June’s mass protests. This blog has featured several posts covering the seemingly spontaneous anti-government demonstrations that erupted in Brazil and roiled the country (here, here, and here). The momentum of these protests has since diminished but sporadic rallies of a smaller scale have endured in major cities.
Your contributor is currently based in Rio de Janeiro and frequently passes the small but persistent Ocupa Cabral encampment situated in front of Rio de Janeiro State Governor Sérgio Cabral’s posh residence in Leblon.
Demonstrators are demanding his resignation for—what else?—corruption. Passing cars periodically honk in support despite the trash piles and traffic jams caused by the encampment’s obstruction of Avenida Delfim Moreira. Yesterday’s holiday, Dia da Independência (Brazilian Independence Day), was marred by demonstrations in 11 Brazilian state capitals, though nothing near the scale observed in June.
As President Dilma Rouseff remarked, the protests are “evidence of a strong democracy.” But couple these with the current political landscape in Brazil and one can whiff a noxious stew simmering. A carioca friend opined last week that the “older generation” in Brazil is apathetic and accustomed to the status quo – entrenched interests and corruption, first world tax rates for third world services, and an incestuous, rent-seeking political establishment.
“Rouba, mas faz,” goes the clichéd, pithy, and dispirited summarization of Brazil’s perceived traditional attitude toward politics (“He robs, but he gets the job done”). These days, especially among the young, however, stealing while getting (some) stuff done is no longer acceptable.
“What we have here isn’t democracy,” he lamented.
Mass unrest in a democracy needs to be vented through the political process or bad things happen. The fact that (according to one poll at least) Brazilians preferred Joaquim Barbosa to any other viable option and that the next most popular response, at 27 percent, was “Nobody” is an ominous portent.
Against this backdrop, consider how Brazil’s 2014 presidential election next October is shaping up. It is by all accounts a murky picture whose outcome and ensuing social response is anything but a sure bet.
As recently as March 21 of this year, incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the PT (Worker’s Party) was sitting pretty and leading her projected 2014 opponents by a wide margin. Then the protests happened. Rousseff’s support plummeted from consistently above 50 percent to 30 percent in a matter of weeks.
One would be hard pressed to think of another example of such a precipitous crash in the polls for a democratically elected incumbent that was not directly implicated in any major scandal. The protests marked a tipping point for pent up voter discontent in the land of “order and progress”, despite measurable economic growth and improved order over the past decade.
Dilma’s polling numbers have since improved modestly from a low of 30 percent at the end of June, rebounding to 35 percent according to the most recent Datafolha poll. So, things are wide open for the opposition to swoop in and wrest the presidency away from the PT for the first time in twelve years, right?
Not so fast. The scenerio surrounding Dilma’s fall from grace is crowded and uncertain.
The most intriguing candidate among the hopefuls is Marina Silva
The former PT minister and environmentalist broke with party ranks in 2010 to unsuccessfully run for president on the Green Party (PV) ticket, doing surprisingly well. She has since formed her own party, o Rede Sustentabilidade or the Sustainability Network. The party recently submitted the 492,000 signatures necessary to register a new party in the country and those signatures are in the process of being validated.
Ms. Silva fashions herself as an outsider and this message has resonated with voters: her favorability ratings have benefited most since the protests. According to a recent Datafolha poll, Ms. Silva would garner 26 percent of the vote among four candidates if the election had been held in early August. The data suggests she would only narrowly lose to Dilma in a runoff, and she is justifiably considered Ms. Rousseff’s most worthy adversary.
Unfortunately, forming a new party puts Ms. Silva at a disadvantage. Television and radio time allotments are largely based on past election results. Thus, a new party is entitled to a comparative paucity of allotted TV and radio time during the official three month campaign leading up to voting day on October 5. However, in this social-media crazed country, a dearth of traditional media time may not be so detrimental.
Next up in the candidate carousel is Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democrat Party (PSDB), the PTs traditional foil.
Neves served as Governor of the state of Minas Gerais from 2003 to 2010 with the distinction of being the youngest governor in state history. He is also a descendent of prominent political stock as the grandson of Tancredo Neves, the first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship who, unfortunately, died before assuming office.
His national support, however, remains tepid at best. Between December 2012 and early August of this year, Neves’ polls have fluctuated between ten and seventeen percent. Meanwhile, the PSDB has been consumed by internal wrangling, with old-guard party member and two-time presidential election loser José Serra attempting to rally party support for his own nomination. Even without the damaging intra-party spat, few give the PSDB a good chance of winning the presidency.
The final contender thought to be mulling a bid is Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).
He currently serves as governor of Pernambuco state. Campos, a former Rousseff ally, has toiled away at the bottom of polls, never exceeding eight percent support.
At this point, most commentators agree that Rouseff remains the favorite. That said, the campaign has not yet begun in earnest and a lot is sure to change between now and October 5, 2014. Domestic and international press have long rumored that popular former president, Lula (PT), is considering running, though this appears unlikely.
In the end, it is still the PT’s election to lose—but it could well lose it
Targeted social programs and benefits introduced by the PT may give them just enough votes to win. To that end, Rousseff has attempted to keep her loose 17-party coalition together in order to respond to voter demands. However, small tokens, like importing Cuban doctors to work in places Brazilian doctors won’t, may not be enough to effectively dissipate voter dissatisfaction.
Ultimately, the people may buck traditional political parties in favor of Ms. Silva and her Sustainability Network party. It is by all accounts shaping up to be one of the most intriguing elections in Brazil’s inchoate democratic history and will surely test the strength of its democratic institutions.
Robert Corrigan is a dual Brazilian-American citizen and recent graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS where he focused on Latin American studies and International Finance. Based in Rio de Janeiro, he is currently seeking professional opportunities in Brazil.
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