The three key candidates in the Brazilian elections all have a great narrative behind them. The incumbent, President Dilma Rousseff, is a former guerrilla leader against the military dictatorship, and a longstanding bastion of the left. As the Chief of Staff of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, she held the second most important public post in the country, and has a direct link to Brazil’s most popular president, a man who oversaw Brazil’s rise on the global stage and the inauguration of lauded welfare programs such as Bolsa Família.
Aécio Neves meanwhile, has his own carefully-crafted political narrative. He began his public life working for his grandfather, Tancredo Neves, the first democratically-elected president of the new republic after the military regime of 1964-84. Tancredo did not take office however, dying of ill-health. Aécio has sought to highlight his democratic lineage, but this has not yielded significant gains in voter intention. More important is his governorship of Minas Gerais state (2003-10), where he made significant progress reforming industry, tackling crime and improving education.
The third candidate is the wildcard, not least because she would not have run for the presidential office were it not for the death of Eduardo Campos in August. The former Environment Minister (2003-08), who could also become the world’s first green president is an ideological midpoint between Rousseff and Neves. Her narrative as a mixed-race woman who was illiterate until the age of 16, when she taught herself to read, is a strong one. Politically, environment concerns are central to her mantra, but she is also pledging to clean up Brazilian politics, whilst integrating the country more into the global economy through liberalisation of key markets.
She may have come into the race late on, but Silva is an experienced and savvy campaigner. Even in March, Silva was reaching nearly a tenth of the electorate online. This consolidates and maximises her appeal amongst the disaffected Brazilian youth, and mitigates the discrepancy in resources and advertising time between her and President Rousseff. But Silva is not a newcomer. She polled 20% in the presidential race four years ago, coming third.
To hurt President Rousseff and her Workers Party (PT), Marina Silva needs to capture the lowest-income voters. Although Silva herself came through a difficult upbringing as the daughter of a rubber-worker in the Amazon, she has yet to convince the urban poor of her credentials. As an evangelical, Silva is part of a fast-growing demographic in Brazil. She is to the core a representation of a new Brazil.
In an election very likely to go to the second round, who will run-off against Rousseff is crucial. Should Neves come second, then Rousseff would become the overwhelming favourite as Silva’s voters are far more likely to side with Rousseff and the PT than the pro-business Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).
However, should Silva take second place, Silva’s free-market approach would woo voters who backed Neves in the first round. The second round would then be difficult to call, but the polling results from the first round could make the picture a lot clearer. If Rousseff can draw 45% of the turnout in round one, the incumbent should be safe. If she can only convince 40%, then a challenge from Marina Silva would be strong, especially given that in the second round, candidates receive equal free television advertising time.
At the heart of the electoral battleground are the new lower middle class voters. Many of them protested on the streets for change in June 2013 during the Confederations Cup, demanding greater investment in public services. Their emancipation has provided them with the social and political capital to call for the government to match their ambitions for the country. But whilst Marina Silva is the candidate most espousing change, they recognise the track record of the PT on social issues, and wonder if a Silva government could match it. This also gets close to the rub of the matter of Silva’s candidacy. Unlike Rousseff and the PT, Silva will not have the congressional backing to pass many of the reforms she proposes, especially when they go against PT policy.
As a result, thinking from the perspective of international business, reforms that open up the economy will be hard to push through. Foreign investors are likely to have to continue waiting before Brazil’s potential for them is maximised. An economist by background, Rousseff has imposed price controls on the energy sector to guard against inflation. Her protectionism and meddling with the prices has affected the investment climate, but on the flip side, were Rousseff to win, she may need to liberalise certain markets in order to continue to provide the financing for PT’s hallmark social welfare benefits.
Whether Rousseff retains power, or whether Silva breaks the PT’s 12-year dominance, Brazil is certain to change over the next presidential term. The concerns of the aspirant middle classes will need to be met, and Brazil will have to consider whether the country can grow without major Mexican-style reforms to key industries.