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Tension mounts in Brazilian election as first round looms

As candidatas: president Dilma Rousseff (l) and Marina Silva. EPA/Antonio Lacerda

After a long and spectacular campaign, the world’s fourth-largest democracy will take one of two very different paths – but even in the very last stages of the campaign, it’s impossible to confidently predict which.

The first round of Brazil’s presidential election is scheduled for October 5; but because no candidate looks guaranteed to get over 50% in that vote, there will probably be a second round between the top two candidates three weeks later, on October 26.

The two principal candidates are Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), whose coalition has been in power at the Federal level for 12 years, and Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Brasileiro, or PSB).

Marina in fact helped found the PT, in her home state of Acre, but left the party in 2009 after serving as the Minister of Environment in the Federal government. She became the candidate of the PSB when her running-mate Eduardo Silva was killed in a plane crash on August 13.

Dilma and Marina are technically tied in second-round simulations; the difference between the numbers each receives is less than the polls’ margin of error. The choice between them throws up a complex array of issues, trade-offs, and uncertainties – and the outlook for both their post-election plans is hard to gauge.

Going south

Brazil’s economy is now in recession, and GDP growth this year is projected to be close to zero.

Like other emerging economies, Brazil has benefited from the commodities boom of the last decade, selling vast quantities of iron ore and soybeans to vast new import customers such as China. But the boom also strengthened the currency, which in turn made industrial exports less competitive.

Domestic policies aggravated this structural problem: automatic increases in the minimum wage drove up the cost of services and fuelled inflation, while spending in areas such as pensions expanded the size of the fiscal deficit.

In the wake of the 2008-9 financial crisis, the Brazilian government also sought to protect selected industries through tax breaks, subsidised credit, and other measures that were costly, poorly planned, and not entirely transparent. The government also held down prices for electricity and petrol in order to combat inflation.

Critics argue that the Brazilian growth model has to be modified, and that major reforms, including a simplification of the tax system, have to be enacted in 2015.

Staying the course

Four more years? EPA/Bosco Martin

President Dilma’s team has argued that if she is re-elected, she can and will overcome the present difficulties. They point to a global slowdown, and argue that the economy is not in fact in crisis. With a gradual devaluation of the Brazilian currency, a reigning in of government spending, and the arrival of a new Minister of Finance in January, they argue, jobs, salaries, and growth (predicted to be around 1% in 2015) will be protected.

Meanwhile, for all those who don’t want another term for Dilma, either because they are unsatisfied with her personal leadership or are opposed to four more years of a PT Federal government, Marina represents change. She claims to represent a “new politics”; the signs are that she is garnering support from the undecided, as well as people dissatisfied with conventional politics.

Brazil has already had a worrying glimpse into how deep that dissatisfaction runs: in June-July 2013, the country was rocked with large-scale protests that were hostile to established political parties and the perceived corruption of the political establishment and demanded better quality public services.

Cleaning up

Marina is seen as personally honest; she might benefit from the recent disclosure of a major case of corruption involving the oil company Petrobrás, partially owned by the state.

She has promised to marry the economic orthodoxy of the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) of the PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira or Brazilian Social Democratic Party) with the redistributive zeal of the PT and its former President Lula (2002-2010) as well as Dilma.

Marina claims to want to break out of the party polarisation of the last 20 years and form a cabinet that draws from both the PSDB and PT. An environmentalist, she wants more investment in new forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, and wants to do more to reduce deforestation. For this reason, she is viewed with suspicion by Brazil’s hugely powerful agribusiness interests.

Fired up, ready to go. EPA/Sebastiao Moreira

Intensely religious and socially conservative, Marina provokes some mistrust among some people in the educated middle class who think that she is not progressive enough on civil unions for gays (legal in Brazil) and abortion (largely illegal).

Some others might be prejudiced against her because of her social origins: her hardscrabble upbringing in the remote forests of Acre could be seen as insufficiently “presidential” by voters with more traditional and elitist ideas about who is entitled to lead the country.

Covering all bases

If, as is currently predicted, Dilma and Marina have to fight a second round, the test will be whether the Brazilian electorate’s desire for change outweighs its comfort with the status quo.

Dilma’s supporters claim that a Marina government would represent a return to the Cardoso era, and that while economic orthodoxy will be good for the financial sector and investors, it could also drive up unemployment.

To the so-called Class C, the middle-income voters living on family incomes of R$1,000 (£258) to R$4,000 (£1,034), they say that recent gains in standard of living are more secure under PT than they would be with the opposition.

Conversely, Marina’s advisers clearly believe that the public’s appetite for change, as expressed in last year’s massive protests, is ravenous enough that most voters will ultimately reject the current government. To signal a break from politics as usual, she has pledged that if elected, she would not seek re-election in 2018.

But her campaign is also making a play for entrenched interests: to reassure business about her economic liberalism, Marina is pledging to reinforce the independence of the Central Bank (albeit without much explanation of how she’ll do it).

As pollsters are discovering, it’s next to impossible to predict how the vote will go. Many Brazilians would prefer a different set of leading candidates; it may be that Dilma still has a slight natural edge, an incumbent in a region where incumbents almost always win re-election.

Whatever transpires, the home stretch of the campaign is sure to be as fascinating as all that’s gone before. And on October 26, we will finally find out what kind of change Brazilian voters really want.

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