Brazil Presidential Elections

Q+A with McGill Professor Philip Oxhorn
Published: 5 October 2014
On October 5th, Brazilians will be asked to vote in presidential elections. All predictions are pointing in direction of a tight race between Dilma Rousseff, current president and candidate for the Worker’s Party, and Marina Silva, candidate for the Socialist Party.

Q: What are the important challenges that will be at the heart of this election?

A: These are really big elections for Brazil. The reasons are multiple. First, the economy is slowing considerably - it is now in an official recession. Second, the Workers Party (PT) President may very well lose her second term. The PT has governed Brazil since Lula won in 2002. Dilma Rousseff was his heir designate, but she is not Lula in terms of charisma. Rousseff was seen as a policy person, but that image was tarnished by the lackluster economy and by corruption scandals linked with her positions before becoming president. She hasn't been accused of corruption, but corruption seems to have taken place under her watch. The latter also reinforced a growing public dissatisfaction with corruption and political "insiders", which brought hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets protesting a year before the World Cup. Then there was the World Cup, with Brazil's disappointing performance and the lack of any clear economic benefits, it only increased people's disillusionment. All of this will have an impact on the voters’ decision.

Q: How did the death of Eduardo Campos affect this campaign?

A: Marina Silva was going to be the vice-president in the campaign for an insider and he probably would have had a really difficult time winning. The reason is he doesn’t have the advantage of being an outsider, like Silva can claim. And don’t underestimate the organizational strength of the Worker’s Party. They will push full speed ahead to make sure they get up the vote. The biggest problem for Silva is that she lacks the organization that the current government has. It’s really a challenge for her, but her charisma plays in her favor.

Q: Is Brazil in a better state then it was few years ago?

A: Brazil is not a country facing food insecurity anymore, because food insecurity concerns less than 5% of its population. Job growth, and poverty reduction among other things are slowing down and no one knows how to reinvigorate those areas. In that context, people are in a better state, but they are still not happy, so they are focusing on what’s missing. Corruption is still an important topic, because there is so much waste, or the appearance of waste.

And at the same time, when small things like a bus fare increase sets up a huge protest, it says a lot about what it means to be middle class in Brazil. A lot of things that were tolerable before are simply no longer.

So the campaign is really more focusing on insiders vs outsiders. Then there are racial and social issues, because the woman challenging the Worker’s Party is an evangelist mixed race environmentalist, who comes from an even poorer background than Lula. She has her own type of charisma. You look at her and nothing really stands out, and then you hear her speak and the passion for what she has lived and what she believes in is just really compelling.

Q: Does each leader target a specific audience?

A: This is the irony. As much as Silva’s political formation is from her years in activism to support rain forest workers, but this is a small percentage of the population. They’re not likely to decide the vote. Yet the evangelicals easily could, and while she’s not identifying with any particular branch, everyone knows it’s in her background and the social stance of her party reflects it. She backtracked on same sex marriage and abortion. Yet when it comes to equity and environment, she is as progressive as anybody else. She is the kind of person that is calling for putting Brazil’s economy in order. So she’s calling for an end to corruption and a more sustainable fiscal policy. But part of the reason for the economic stagnation is bad economic policies. And what Silva is calling for is an independent central bank. This would be a big deal in South America since it means the government can’t set monetary policy, which is essential for maintaining stability.

Q: So with Silva, Brazil has a much better shot at getting better?

A: It’s hard to say. Symbolically though, Silva will leave a mark that Rousseff would never be able to. 

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