Brazil’s October Surprise?

The outcome of Brazil’s first round election on October 5, in which President Dilma Rousseff (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) and Senator Aécio Neves (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, or PSDB) move to a run-off, was a surprise for many, both for those inside the country and those observing from afar. Until the week immediately prior to the election, most media outlets focused on the possibility of a run-off between Rousseff and Marina Silva, candidate for the Partido Socialista Brasileiro. Silva’s explosive rise in public opinion polls followed the death of her running mate, Governor Eduardo Campos, in a plane crash on August 13. She captured the mood of many in the middle class who were looking for clean government and improved public services. During my visit to Brazil in August, even supporters of Aécio Neves were speculating about such an outcome and considering what role the PSDB might play in a future Marina Silva administration if they were to negotiate a coalition government. Though the prospects for a Silva-Rousseff second round dominated the electoral narrative in September, a Rousseff-Neves run-off was the expected outcome for Brazil’s presidential elections through most of 2013 and 2014.

President Rousseff’s run-off challenge

President Rousseff’s biggest advantage is incumbency, which is very powerful in the Latin American context. Since 1990, only two presidents in Latin America that chose to run for a consecutive term of office lost re-election. President Rousseff is able to run on 12 years of PT government that has greatly reduced poverty and expanded the middle class. The PT also has a powerful party electoral machine, and at least in the first round, Rousseff benefited from more airtime for television campaign advertising than any other candidate. In Brazil, candidates’ free airtime is allocated based on a formula that is heavily weighted according to their party’s congressional representation, and no further airtime can be purchased privately. The PT controlled the largest number of seats in the legislature going into these elections, and so it was able to use this advertising dominance to attack Marina Silva as being too conservative and framing her policies as a threat to recent socioeconomic gains. Rousseff has been able to convince many voters to take counsel of their fears for their economic future under a non-PT government.  

Yet President Rousseff faces some significant disadvantages. Brazil’s economy has entered a recession, and by her own admission, Rousseff does not have much room to maneuver on the economy. The PT’s state-led growth strategy designed to expand domestic consumption has reached its limits, the commodity export sector is unlikely to expand in a time of global macroeconomic weakness and she does not have a convincing strategy for promoting Brazil’s industrial exports or connecting Brazil to global value added chains. Tactically, her attacks on the opposition during the campaign that preceded the first round of voting mostly had the effect of shuffling voters between Marina and Aécio, not attracting them to her own ticket. In the second round run-off, Rousseff loses her advantage in television airtime over her opponent, so her ability to attack Neves will be more limited.  

Senator Neves’s second wind?

Aécio Neves’s surprisingly strong showing in the first round of elections is likely to encourage his supporters, particularly since he captured nearly 10 percentage points greater support among voters than most polls had predicted in September. However, Neves is vulnerable to attacks by the PT on his advocacy of liberal economic policies. This strategy was effective against Marina, and it may work well against the more liberal Neves. Moreover, Neves needs to capture two-thirds of Marina’s first round voters to carry off the presidential election. Marina Silva will have to work hard to convince a large proportion of her voters to throw their weight behind Neves. At least a third of her supporters are on the left, and they may find it hard to vote for the liberal PSDB ticket. In the first round, 11 million people submitted blank or null ballots and 27.6 million did not vote. The total, 38.6 million, is well above the 34 million votes that Neves received. Between the need to capture Silva’s voters and the large number of non-voters from the first round still up for grabs, Neves faces a difficult path to victory in the second round.

Prospects for inter-American relations

This election may yet be significant for inter-American relations. The perennial friction between the United States and Brazil has become more acute since the Snowden surveillance revelations of summer 2013. Although commercial relations between the two countries are quite good, the U.S. and Brazil have been much less successful at finding common ground on other foreign policy fronts, including democracy and human rights, trade and security cooperation. Bilateral relations therefore remain distant. Brazil continues to work to limit U.S. influence in the Americas whenever possible and oppose the unilateral tendencies of the United States on global policy issues. Whether Rousseff or Neves win on October 26, there will be a great deal of continuity in Brazilian foreign policy. Brazil’s opposition to unilateralism and support for sovereignty and international law are common values held across the political spectrum. Nevetheless, Neves has made a point of emphasizing the importance of Brazil’s international trade, and under such an administration, there may be room for progress on bilateral trade, investment and taxation agreements. In addition, Neves’s party, the PSDB, has historically favored a more liberal approach to supporting democracy and human rights abroad, something that might prove significant in the Latin American context where there has been backsliding on both accounts.

However, win or lose, both Rousseff and Neves have reasons to pursue a reset in Brazil-U.S. relations, although the scope of such an opening would vary depending on who might be elected. This is good news for the United States and Brazil, neither of which benefit from the ongoing distance and friction between them given the many commonalities they share as large multi-ethnic, democratic and market oriented countries. There is a common agenda on education, science and technology, energy, democracy and global order that both countries can work together on. These elections provide an opportunity to draw a line under recent disagreements and start afresh.