Earlier this year most of the world’s attention fell upon Brazil as it hosted the World Cup. There was plenty of drama and suspense at this year’s tournament, with some noteworthy upsets — the most prominent being Brazil’s destruction in the semifinals by the super-effective German team. Before the tournament began pundits wondered whether Brazil could get its act together in time for the games, and whether the protests that tarnished the country last year would make a reappearance.
These are worthy dramas, to be sure, but for anyone but diehard soccer aficionados, this year’s best Brazilian drama had to be the riveting election that finally came to a conclusion last week on October 26. In addition to the usual theatrics, TV debates and gossip, there was a sudden death, a new challenger, and a shakeup in the final stretches of the campaign that made it much more interesting and exciting than most elections.
Brazil’s incumbent president is Dilma Rousseff, a half-Bulgarian former energy minister and chief of staff. She succeeded Luiz Inácio da Silva, whom everyone calls “Lula,” who during his time as president was probably the world’s most popular politician. Mostly this was thanks to his charisma and common touch, but he also helped vault Brazil into the limelight, pushing its economic growth to about 4% a year on average and cutting its poverty and inequality rates. Brazil emerged from the shadows to become one of the world’s economic powerhouses and a leader of the non-Western countries. (These countries have been classified as the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa.) When he left office he had a roaring approval rating and Dilma easily won the election with his backing.
Unfortunately, Dilma turned out not to be Lula. First of all, she lacks his personal magnetism and failed to inspire the kind of loyalty and devotion he did. Secondly, Brazil’s economic growth slumped in the last few years — while she ruled. It is now at a tepid 0.3%, and it’s dangerously close to slipping into recession. It turns out Brazil’s boom was highly contingent on China’s, which fueled high demand for lumber, oil, soybeans, and other commodities. Now that China’s growth is slumping as well, Brazil has lost its main engine. Finally, she’s not as great a manager as was initially expected. A corruption scandal at Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned petroleum company, tarnishes her reputation. In general, Brazil hasn’t exactly dazzled under her watch; there weren’t any huge accomplishments to excite the voters.
So going into the election, pundits and politicos started murmuring about Dilma’s chances. She was forecast as having an edge, but her reelection was far from certain. As the campaign began, her two main opponents put up a good fight. On her right, there was Aécio Neves, who represents the Social Democrats (PSDB). He called for a more business-friendly approach to government (Dilma welcomes foreign investment and domestic private enterprise, but tends toward a more protectionist and interventionist stance) and closer linkages with the West and its financiers. He decried Brazil’s lack of progress and promised tough economic reforms. And then there was Eduardo Campos, who represented the Socialist Party; despite this he took a more centrist course, attempting to appeal to both business interests and the poor that predominate in his part of the country.
But Eduardo was clearly on a different level from Aécio and Dilma; he only polled about 10-12%. He lacked the name recognition, and the Socialist Party lacks the clout of the PSDB or the Workers’ Party (the Lula-Dilma outfit). Then, on August 13, he died in a plane crash under mysterious circumstances (though apparently it was bad weather). That threw the election in doubt (and suspended the campaign for a while). Who would replace him? Would his supporters migrate to Aécio or Dilma’s camp? Would it affect the final outcome?
Eduardo was eventually replaced as Socialist candidate by Marina Silva, who turned out to be a surprising change of pace. A mixed-race politician from Acre, deep in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s remote west, she has a history of championing environmental causes as she witnessed the destructive results of the unimpeded logging of Brazil’s greatest natural bounty. She also appealed to Brazil’s poor due to her own background — she struggled as a kid from tropical diseases and malnutrition. She’s a gifted speaker and had a much more populist touch than Eduardo. Yet she’s also made some compromises in her recent political career and no longer demonizes agrobusiness as much as she did before.
In September, the campaign really got suspenseful. Marina proved to be much more popular than Eduardo had been, and the Socialist ticket made surprising gains. Foreigners, who generally support the PSDB, were wooed by her compelling story and her economic agenda, and wrote gushing editorials like this. It was widely expected that she would clear the first election, and speculation murmured that she might even topple Dilma in the runoff.
Yet in the end, Marina didn’t make it. The Socialists are still the third party in Brazilian politics, and Marina had a big disadvantage in terms of funding and TV airtime. She didn’t seem to offer enough to distinguish her from her opponents. She ended up attracting mainly well-off young people, and even then her evangelical Christianity and opposition to gay marriage turned many of them off. (Brazil is both mostly Catholic and increasingly tolerant of gay rights.) Doubts persisted over her leadership ability, her political experience, and whether she would really be able to afford all the social benefits she promised. Aécio and Dilma both concentrated their fire on wiping her out. In the first round of voting on October 5, Marina only got 21% and dropped out of the race.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines, plenty of bizarre happenings made the campaign entertaining for casual spectators. Parliamentary candidates ran all kinds of goofy commercials portraying themselves as Jesus, or Satan, or Superman. Levy Fidelix, presidential candidate for the Labor Renewal Party, distracted everyone during a presidential debate by going on a homophobic rant, joking that homosexuality would reduce Brazil’s population.
The runoff turned out to be an Aécio-Dilma showdown, just as had been forecast earlier. Although probably not as quite as dramatic as the Marina wave, it proved to be suspenseful too. Aécio hammered Dilma for Brazil’s economic slump and for the delays in infrastructure programs that had embarrassed it during the World Cup and continue to make logistics in Brazil a pain. Dilma painted him as out-of-touch and aloof and claimed he would do away with the Bolsa Família — welfare payments introduced by Lula that rose the income of poor Brazilians by 25%.
So like many other countries in Latin America, Brazil’s politics fractured along class lines. Dilma still had plenty of Lula’s lustre left to lift her to ultimate victory. The impoverished masses were grateful for the Bolsa Família, for the fall in unemployment, and for their newfound access to consumer goods, food and electricity. The Social Democrats mostly appealed to the middle and upper classes and came off as arrogant. Dilma capitalized on her background as a rebel against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 to portray herself as a fighter for the poor and oppressed. It was enough to carry her to victory on the 26th — though she only got 51.6% of the runoff vote as opposed to Aecio’s 48.4%.