In Brazil, old parties and debates dominate presidential runoff vote

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff touted her Workers' Party's flagship Bolsa Familia social program, which aids the poor.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

With Brazil’s presidential runoff election less than two weeks away, a volatile race that recently promised to deliver “new politics” has fallen back upon the parties and debates that have dominated Latin America’s largest country for 20 years.

Social Democrat Aecio Neves and President Dilma Rousseff of the governing Workers’ Party focused as often on the legacies of their predecessors — Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who won elections in 1994 and 1998, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who triumphed in 2002, respectively — as they did on their plans for the country during their first head-to-head debate Tuesday night.

“You had 11,400,000 people unemployed” in 2002, Rousseff said, referring to the last year of Cardoso’s presidency, before the expansion of the Workers’ Party’s flagship Bolsa Familia social program for the poor.


“The largest wealth transfer program in our history was not Bolsa Familia. It was the Real Plan, which stabilized our currency, which you opposed,” Neves said, referring to the 1994 monetary policy that created Brazil’s currency, the real, and is credited with ending the nation’s hyperinflation.

Brazil’s current political configuration necessitates the forming of large, heterogeneous coalitions, and by international standards, both the Social Democrats and the Workers’ Party could be considered to have moderate social democratic platforms. Both parties also have deep ties to the status quo and have credibly been accused of participating in corruption.

Under Cardoso, the Social Democrats took a center-right position, stabilized the economy and privatized some major industries. Lula’s Workers’ Party, which was born on the more radical left, largely built on Cardoso’s policies and expanded social programs, enabling tens of millions of Brazilians to rise out of poverty. Both leaders are widely considered to have presided over dramatic improvements for the country’s 200 million people.

But under Rousseff, the economic boom slowed, and many Brazilians began to express widespread discontent that none of the recent administrations had ended graft or provided the kind of public services, such as healthcare and education, that the growing middle class demanded.

After the death in August of Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos, Amazonian environmentalist candidate Marina Silva surged to take the lead in the polls, promising “new politics,” avoiding alliances of convenience — especially with corrupt politicians — and a focus on education.

But Silva finished third in the first round of voting Oct. 5 and decided to support Neves, who will face Rousseff in the Oct. 26 election. Silva received promises from Neves about improving indigenous and land rights and the environment.


Silva’s support is likely to boost Neves’ chances of becoming president, analysts say. He won 34% of the vote in the first round, behind Rousseff’s 42%. They are now tied in voter polls.

Neves made it through as a dark horse because the Workers’ Party concentrated its formidable negative campaign machinery on Silva, said Jason Marczak, deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington.

“We now have the same parties and debates we’ve had for 20 years, but we have a different Brazil. It’s now a middle-class country, and the citizenship will place different demands on whoever wins,” said Marczak, referring to a desire for improved infrastructure and social services.

“Silva’s support is important for Neves, but not decisive, because he needs to win over more than 70% of Silva’s voters, and some are more sympathetic to the leftist Rousseff,” he said.

“No matter what promises he’s made, to carry them out he’ll need to rely on Congress … the idea of a new politics worked better in theory than in practice.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.