The Brazilian Election Round Two – What Might Happen Next?

President Lula seemed to have everything under control in his succession plan: the economy is expected to grow 7.5 percent this year, consumer and business confidence is at an all-time high, and his administration enjoys an 80 percent approval rating. Electoral polls were forecasting the victory of Lula’s candidate, Dilma Rousseff from the Worker’s Party (PT), with a comfortable margin in the first round of the election. However, to the surprise of many, Dilma did not win in the first round, obtaining 46.91 percent of the vote, less than what many in her electoral coalition expected.

So what, then, from the PT’s view went wrong? The main factor is the emergence of the Green Party-PV as a new player in Brazilian politics. Its candidate, Marina Silva, was able to break the electoral plebiscite proposed by Lula, offering herself as an intermediate alternative between the two main candidates. She obtained 19.3 percent of votes. With roots in the PT, Marina is a well-known environmental protection activist, particularly in her own Amazon state, Acre. She was Lula’s Ministry of Environment but resigned two years ago amid internal confrontations within the government. Since the beginning, she was able to attract the support of intellectuals, academics, and artists. The interesting novelty is that she was also able to catch the attention of an expressive support of female voters and the new urban middle class (about 36 percent of the Brazilian electorate today). This segment of voters abandoned Rousseff’s campaign especially after scandals of corruption involving Lula’s chief of cabinet, Erenice Guerra and in illegal break ins of tax information of PSDB leaders.

The electoral performance of the main opposition candidate, Jose Serra (PSDB), also played an important role in the results.  Serra obtained 32.61 percent of votes, way ahead of the polls prediction (about 27 percent at the best). Serra built up his strength among voters of his main electoral base, Sao Paulo, obtaining almost 41 percent of votes in the largest Brazilian state (30.3 million of voters). He also did extremely well in the agribusiness belt, which includes the states of Parana, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, and Rondonia. 

What will happen in the second round between Dilma and Serra on October 31?  No doubt, Dilma Rouseff is still the favorite to win. According to the poll’s projections made before the first round, Dilma would have 53 percent of voters’ intention and Serra 39 percent in the second round. However, a closer result is likely. The opposition did very well at the sub-national elections, winning six Governor races in important states such as Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Parana, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Norte, and Tocantins. It still can win six further states in the second round. Those winners at the sub-national level will now be active players in the runoff supporting Serra.

However, it is still too soon to tell. It seems that there might be a ceiling in this process of transferring Lula’s votes to Dilma. She will have to expose herself and take more risks trying to demonstrate that she would be able to govern beyond Lula.

The pivot player in this runoff will definitively be Marina Silva. Whatever direction she takes will definitively have an impact on the outcome. To win her support and that of her supporters, environmental issues will be the key top priority in both campaigns from now on. Her own endorsement is unknown. On the one hand, important leaders of the Green Party like Fernando Gabeira in Rio and Fabio Feldman in Sao Paulo have already agreed to support Serra in the second round. On the other hand, even though her relationship with the Dilma and the PT has been strained, it will be very hard to Marina to say no from appeals coming from old PT friends demanding from her at most an impartial position. A noncommittal strategy is likely.

One important conclusion that it is possible to draw from this first round is that he Brazilian democracy is not only consolidated, but also it is more alive and competitive than ever. Even a strong and charismatic leader like Lula will need to take the backseat, and let his protégée compete for an election on her own.

In addition to forging an alliance with Marina, Serra has to change the campaign strategy and talk openly about the risks that Brazil has ahead. Brazil will need to make some tough policy choices between delivering more social transfers, building infrastructure, or subsidizing the private sector through cheap loans provided by the BNDES.  Debating the pro and cons of these expenditures, and the decisions that governments will need to make, has been notably absent in the campaigns. The leading candidates have promised to deliver more in all fronts, which people know is not possible. It is time for the campaign to focus on the real issues, and it seems that the runoff will be the opportunity to do so.