A Gringo’s Guide to the Brazilian Presidential Election

By João Schlüter, a Brazilian political analyst


A few months following the World Cup, it will be decision time again in Brazil: The Presidential election will give Brazilians a choice between the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, who is running for a second term and for a fourth term for the (moderately) leftist PT (Worker’s Party) and opposition candidates who are generally positioned in the political center.

This piece will serve as a primer providing the basics setup of the campaign with subsequent pieces to cover latest developments.

The outset: Dilma is up (for now)

There will be a detailed piece on polling soon. So right now only so much: So far, the incumbent is ahead and favored to win by most observers. Her ratings were very high until mid-2013 when they plummeted during the nationwide mass protests in June.

Afterwards, her numbers recovered somewhat but never reached earlier heights, peaking at about 40 percent. Most recently things seem to look slightly more competitive again, much to the delight of financial markets. So clearly, this is far from over!

Dilma sacking people like Reggie White

Not so fast…

Yet, there is great desire for change

Contrary to the carnival-samba-dancing stereotype, the mood in Brazil these days is not very good. The reason: It’s the economy stupid! Economic growth has been weak since 2011, while inflation is eating away people’s income.

At the same time, as SeMancha has noted, the middle-class that has risen over the past decade has increased its expectation of what they wont from their government in terms of ethical behavior and public services. Last year’s mass protests were a wake up call to the government and the political class more general and they are likely to return this year.

The opposition appears weak but it’s too early to tell

In spite of the government’s trouble, support for any of the opposition candidates is currently only about half that of the president. Much of this may have to do with a lack of name-recognition and most voters not being tuned in to the campaign before it starts officially (July).

Generally, the two major opposition candidates are both positioning themselves to the right of the incumbent, arguing that the government’s interventionist leanings are to blame for the poor economic record in the Dilma years (2011 to 2014).

The candidates

Here are the protagonists in this years game:

Dilma Rouseff (Worker’s party, PT, generally referred to as “Dilma”)

As she’s the best know of the bunch, not too much about her at this point. She’s the first woman president of Brazil, a divorced former guerilla who was arrested and tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Dilma rose to the top as President Lula’s favorite technocrat, never holding elected office before the presidency and benefitting from other PT bigwigs getting caught up in the Mensalão corruption scandal.

Her presidency started strong as she dismissed various ministers for corruption, earning her the reputation of a clean-out type iron lady, and raising her approval ratings to over 70 percent. Lately however her fortunes have turned somewhat. Given the disappointing economy of recent years and the generally poor state of public services, she’s seen as a poor manager of the economy as well as her political alliance in congress (especially with the important PMDB).

Aécio Neves (“Aécio”. PSDB, Brazilian Social Democratic Party)

The two main opposition candidates, Aécio and Campos, have much in common. They both hail from well-known political families (Aécio Neves’ grandfather was to be the first civilian president ending the military dictatorship in 1985, but died before taking office).



They are both popular in their home states, Aécio was the governor and now serves as senator from Minas Gerais, Campos is the governor of Pernambuco, but both are largely unknown beyond. Being big in Minas is surly a plus for Aécio as it is the second most populous state in Brazil, but clearly it’s not enough to win.

Aécio is running for the centrist PSDB which had it’s most glorious days when it held the Presidency under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) how is still admired by most of those to the right and center of the current government.

Yet the PSDB also has its troubles. The Tucanos as partisans are known (because the party colors are that of the tropical bird), are famous for not getting along among each other. The party is strong in the two largest states, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, but does not have a strong following in in other parts of the country.

It is often portrait as elitist and indifferent to the fate of the poor by those on the left. In addition, while the PSDB is accusing the PT of being soft on corruption in connection with the mensalão offenders and other more resent cases, the PSDB has had its on share of scandal, including a in Aécio’s home state.

Maybe most importantly, a lot of Brazilian’s are fed up with decades old bickering between the PT and PSDB, about who did more to improve the economy, who invented Bolsa Famíliaand who is more corrupt. This could just open an opportunity for a third-party candidate, and this is where the next man comes in.

Eduardo Campos (“Campos”, PSB Brazilian Socialist Party)

Campos is even less known than Aécio, outside of his home state and the fact that he’s from the poor Northeast of the country might be a liability with voters in the populous and wealthier Southern and South-Eastern States.

His trajectory is interesting in that he served as a minister under PT president Lula and his smallish Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) was part of Dilma’s governing coalition until 2013. Understandably, the PT sees Campos as a traitor and opportunist, trying to take advantage of government’s vulnerabilities.




His argument is that he presents a third way: He supported (popular and successful) President Lula, but broke with Dilma because of her leaving Lula’s path. Hence, he provides an opportunity for those who have voted for the PT in the past and agree with many of its principles but are disappointed in Dilma’s leadership and results.

Sometimes, who’s not running is just as important as who is running:

Several of Brazil’s most famous and popular politicians are not expected to run this time which matters greatly for the prospects of those who are.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (but really just Lula is fine)

The charismatic former president (2003-2010) is constitutionally allowed to run again in 2014 but probably won’t. Speculation about whether Lula is coming back in 2014 (or maybe 2018) is a staple of Brazilian politics these days.

Especially lately as the economy has taken a turn for the worse many within the PT and allied parties are calling openly for him the return.

Yet the conventional wisdom remains that Lula will sit this one out, unless Dilma is in such a bad shape that she’s likely to lose but he’s still likely to win. It is therefore no surprise that every time Dilma’s polls drop there is some kind of “Volta Lula” (Lula comeback ) call in the media.

A “Volta Lula” scenario remains fairly unlikely as it would mean to concede failure of the current government. So what will probably happen is that Lula uses his immense personal popularity to drum up support for Dilma as best as he can.

The two have been careful to present a uniform front, accusing the media to talk up non-existing conflicts between the two. All of this aside, this observer doubts that Lula is all that interested in becoming President again. He appears quite happy with his place in history. Also, he’s almost 70, has endured major health issues and he seems to be enjoying life as an elder statesman.

"But I'm watching football!"

“But I’m watching football!”

Marina Silva (“Marina”)

She was the secret star of the 2010 election: raised dirt-poor in the Amazonian backwaters of Acre, self-educated (only became literate as an adult), environmentalist and minister for the environment under Lula, she had a fall out with the PT government in 2008, over the developmentalist policies pursued by Lula and his then chief of staff Dilma Rouseff with little regard for the environment.

In 2010 she ran on the Green Party (PV) ticket and took 20 percent of the vote, mostly from the left-leaning bourgeoisie. Since then however she has fallen out with the Green party as well, leaving her without a political home after her new party, Rede Sustentabilidade (Sustainability Network) wasn’t able to register for the 2014 election.

To everyone’s surprise, she joined the party and campaign of Eduardo Campos in October 2013 and is expected to run for vice-president on his ticket, even though she regularly outpolls the Pernambuco governor.

How the alliance of the evangelical environmentalist and the business friendly socialist works out remains to be seen, yet the idea that she might still run for president instead of him seems far-fetched.

Joaquim Barbosa (“Barbosa”)

Joaquim Barbosa might well be the most popular politician in Brazil right now. The only problem: he’s not actually a politician. He’s the Chief Justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court and has gained popularity for speaking out and taking a tough line against politicians convicted, sentenced and actually imprisoned recently for their deeds in the Mensalão scandal of 2005.

His popularity as a corruption fighter has led to calls for him to enter the race, but since he doesn’t have a party and most major parties already have candidates, a Barbosa run was always highly unlikely. In March he finally ended all speculations by declaring that he’s not running.

José Serra (“Serra”)

The PSDB candidate of 2002 and 2010 wanted to run again, but won’t, as Aécio Neves is given a shot as the PSDB candidate this time. And really that’s for the better, as Serra already lost two presidential races, has the charisma of a three-days-old pão de queijo and only the man himself thought that running again was a good idea.

Possible game changers

Since the popular book and movie on the 2008 U.S. election, we know at that elections are really about “game changers”: events that have to power to change the narrative of an election campaign and impact its outcome.

World Cup and associated protests

Brazil saw the largest protests in decades last year. They were triggered by a fair-price increase for public buses but quickly turned to other issues, among them government spending on the World Cup (the confederations cup, a rehearsal for the big cup was happening at the time).

…but what if Brazil is the home of football?

…but what if Brazil is the home of football?

Protests have continued at lower frequency and intensity since, but are sure to resurface in June when the ball is rolling. No one can say how large they will be and how the government or public opinion will react. Surely, disproportionate police violence, major disruptions and general chaos would not bode well for the government.

Energy crisis

Brazil is currently undergoing a latent energy crisis which is driven by weather (low rain reducing hydropower generation), long standing lack of investment and problems of public management and regulation. While consumers have not been significantly affected so far, there is a chance of power cuts or blackouts later in the year. Surely this could hurt Dilma and there is even precedence as power outages in 2002 hurt the governing PSDB and helped Lula beat Serra.

PMDB switching alliances

One of the largest parties in Brazil – the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) – is not fielding a candidate this year (it hasn’t since 1994). This party is really a conjunction of local politicians without much of an ideological core.

Bottom line is, that the PMDB is always keen on being in government as this allows its leaders to secure ministries with plenty of political appointments and perks for the states they control. Hence if Dilma were to be seen as likely to lose, the PMDB may switch sides.

Already there has been major conflict between the President and the PMDB caucus in the lower house. A PMDB switch could move votes as many of its leaders are well known in their home states. Further, as TV time in Brazilian presidential campaigns is provided to candidates according to the seats of their supporting coalition, a PMDB switch would also bring valuable time on campaign TV for the opposition.

That’s all for now but stay tuned!

So this is the layout of the field as the campaign is starting the heat up. As the events in Brazil unfold NoSeMancha will keep you covered. We are planning regular (shorter!) pieces on latest developments and important themes of the election.



João Schlüter is a Brazilian political analyst, specializing on electoral politics in the U.S., Brazil and other Latin American countries This is the first in a series of contributions covering the 2014 presidential election in Brazil. João studied political science and international relations at Univesidade Federal Fluminense in Niterói, Brazil. 

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4 Responses to A Gringo’s Guide to the Brazilian Presidential Election

  1. Ay ay ay I can tell this was written by a gringo, well intentioned and well informed, but a few points slightly off the mark, if I may add.
    The polls have, by and large, remained stable, giving Rousseff an average of 40% lead, but the 2 runner’s up have remained at the bottom, with no sign of shifting – and it seems unlikely we will see any substantial change in this picture.
    If anything, my hunch is, once Lula starts touring round the campaign trail with Dilma, we will see an improvement in her ratings.
    Must bear in mind that most of the companies providing the Polls, like Datafolha and Sensus, have strong affiliations with the right-wing opposition parties, so, must always be taken with a good pinch of salt. Whatever they say, you should always confidently add a few extra points to the Worker’s Party. Without fail.
    You are right about people wanting change, but it’s more subtle than a mere change of Government. That is just not the message we’re getting.
    Improvement, yes – change of direction? I really don’t think so.
    Lula and Dilma’s social policies, implemented in the past 12 years, have had too much of an impact on too many people in Brazil: 40 million lifted out of poverty – these people are not about to turn their backs on them, I don’t think.
    Obviously, the elite (PSDB/PSB) although a minority, still have a strong influence in Brazilian politics, given that they control all mainstream media outlets, including most popular TV, the dreaded Globo empire.
    So, always worth keeping eye out for what they get up to, particularly given that they, the right-wing opposition. now realise they simply can’t win the Election in the voting polls: they just don’t have enough numbers, so expect to see a few dirty tricks played out.
    My bet, for what it’s worth, is that Dilma will get re-elected, easily.
    I do hope so, for although Brazil still has a lot of work ahead, they are doing a good deal of tangible social improvements.
    All eyes on October.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A small correction:

    Tancredo Neves (Aécio’s grandfather) wasn’t democratically elected as president. He was the first civilian to be elected after 20 years of military rule, but still under the same system – Electoral College.

  3. João says:

    Thanks. We should change it to “civilian”.The election wasn’t direct. Let’s not get into whether or not Electoral College is a democratic way to elect a president….

  4. Samuel George says:

    For the record, this was not written by a gringo….

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