Theodore Kahn on why Dilma is in the driver’s seat for Brazil’s 2014 elections.
Remember the Brazilian protests this past June? The ones that hailed the historic political awakening of the country’s growing middle class? The ones that signaled the arrival of a new, diverse social movements and the end of politics as usual? The ones that brought on a Lehmanesque crash in President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings?
Of course you do. The protests were, after all, kinda a big deal.
At the time, there was no shortage of speculation about what the protests meant—for Brazil, for emerging markets, for the media, and certainly for the political prospects of the governing Worker’s Party (PT).
After all, Dilma was already facing a perilous run-up to her 2014 reelection bid, with pressure mounting to complete preparations for the World Cup, inflation pushing the upper limit of the Central Bank’s target, and growth crawling along at European rates. Still, the president remained very popular—a full 58 percent of Brazilians said they would vote for a second Rousseff administration in a March poll. Then a seemingly innocuous bus fare hike touched off an unprecedented two weeks of protests in over 80 Brazilian cities.
What had seemed like Dilma’s race to lose suddenly appeared wide open.
A mere four months later, however, it looks as if Brazil’s summer of unrest may not be the political game-changer many people thought.
The protests were widely seen as a rebuke of the political class writ large. That sentiment favors the rise of a political outsider—someone who can credibly present themselves as apart from the traditional political class. Marina Silva, an environmentalist and former minister in the Lula administration who later split with the PT over corruption allegations, seemed to fit the bill.
Although not a newcomer—Silva finished third in the 2010 presidential race, garnering nearly 20 million votes—her vote intention share jumped from 16 to 26 percent between early June and early August, making her seem like serious presidential contender. Notably, neither Eduardo Campos nor Aecio Neves, the two other major challengers, saw any protest bump at all.
But Brazil’s Supreme Court put a hitch in that plan when it ruled earlier this month that Silva’s Rede Sutenabilidad, a party she recently set up, had not gathered enough signatures to register for the 2014 election.
Instead, she announced an alliance with Campos, the Socialist party candidate and current governor of Pernambuco; it is still unclear exactly how this shotgun wedding will play out—the two are not natural political allies, and the logic of the popular Silva playing second fiddle to Campos, who polled a miserable 4 percent earlier this month, is a little mystifying.
What is clear is that Dilma is now back in the driver’s seat.
After bottoming out at 30 percent in late June, the President’s vote intention has slowly creeping back to respectable territory—reaching 38 percent this month. Nothing to write home about surely, but history suggests that for an incumbent, that number puts the President in a very comfortable position.
As Clifford Young, a pollster with Ipsos explains, there are several factors working in Dilma’s favor. First is incumbency. All else equal, incumbents are more than 2.5 times more likely to win elections—that’s a lot. Secondly, Dilma’s approval ratings—now in the mid-40’s—put her squarely in the “middling” range where incumbents, historically, have been reelected four out of five times.
When voters are lukewarm, incumbency and factors such as party organization and efficiency tend to carry the day. The PT, which honed its sleek, professional campaign apparatus over the Lula years, and is the only Brazilian party with truly national reach, benefits on both counts.
In addition to Dilma’s advantages of incumbency and the PT machine, the nature of the protests were not conducive to political organization—at least not yet. Being leaderless, ideologically indeterminate, programmatically vague, and geographically diverse, as the protests were, may help get people into the street. But it is not conducive to having an impact on politics in a country with a consolidated (if fragmented) party system.
The protests were never going to bring down the government. In order to gain real influence, they will have to coalescent into organized, ideologically coherent movements capable of engaging with established political actors.
The student movement in Chile provides a compelling model. The same students who led the first protests in Santiago in 2006 are now running for Congress and forming alliances with established political parties.
A major education reform will be at the top of the agenda for ex-President Michelle Bachelet, who by all accounts will be returned to office later this year. Bachelet, who was president from 2006-2010, has sounded a more leftist note during her second presidential campaign—her long-awaited policy proposals, unveiled on Sunday, included spending $8.2 billion to reform Chile’s education system, in addition to promising higher corporate taxes and more support for labor unions.
Brazilians, meanwhile, are likely in store for four more years of Dilma.
Theodore Kahn is a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has consulted for various international organizations and NGOs in Latin America and in Washington DC and previoulsy worked a reporter in Argentina and Chile. Follow him on twitter: @TheoAKahn
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