Five hours after the voting polls closed in Brazil, Brazil's Superior Electoral Court announced that 97 percent of the votes had been counted and the runoff between Dilma Rousseff (Workers' Party/PT) and José Serra (Social Democracy Party/PSDB) was set. Why was Rousseff unable to win the election in the first round? How did Marina Silva (Green Party/PV) garner the most votes a third-party candidate has ever done in Brazil? What do these results say about the current state of Brazil? A panel of four Brazilian and American experts answered these and other questions at a seminar held on Oct. 4 at the Wilson Center.
Brazil Institute Director Paulo Sotero explained that Rousseff's campaign was based on the premise that the election would be a plebiscite on the PT government, which should be an easy sell since President Lula has been Brazil's most popular president with an approval rate of about 80 percent. Lula would transfer most of his popularity to Rousseff, an experienced manager who, however, had never run for an elective office before. Lula managed to transfer only a little over half of his popularity to Rousseff and could not elect her in the first round. Although Rousseff is still favored to win the presidency, Sotero noted, the second round race is a new election and has its own dynamic. Each candidate has 20 minutes of free broadcast time twice a day, and both parties are in frantic negotiation with the PV to get the support of Marina Silva and her followers. "If we have a difference of less than 10 points between Rousseff and Serra, this may become a very interesting election," he said.
Clifford Young, Executive Director at IPSOS Public Affairs Brazil, stated that Serra's campaign has yet to find a compelling message and needs almost all of Silva's voters and some of Rousseff's to be able to change the odds against Rousseff. He argued that Rousseff did not win the first round due to two factors. One was the corruption scandal that had an effect on the urban elite who migrated to Silva, shaving off a few points from Rousseff's lead. Interestingly, Silva emerged as a strong third-place candidate, who appealed to multiple constituency groups. "She [Silva] represents this new Brazil, an ascending middle class that has demands above and beyond just employment and stability, like quality of life, environmental degradation and sustainability," Young declared. "Her performance was about relative optimism, an important theme moving forward." The other factor was possible problems with polling. Candidates who were strongest among the poor did not perform as well as the polls were suggesting because the poor are more likely to abstain from voting. Young speculated that this lost Rousseff two or three percentage points.
According to Christopher Garman, Director of the Eurasia Group, the election is Rousseff's to lose. Moreover, the Eurasia Group gives Rousseff an 80 percent probability to win the second round. "Even if 70 percent of Marina's voters go toward Serra, it still would give Dilma a little bit over a 7 percent lead," Garman observed, adding that we shouldn't overestimate the role of political endorsements by leaders. Moving on to the congressional results, he noted that the opposition, despite doing reasonably well in gubernatorial elections, took serious losses in Congress, especially in the senate. This is important because the opposition was a possible veto point in the Congress, but now it went from 30 senators to 18—meaning it will no longer be in the position to be able to block controversial reforms. Garman asserted that "Rousseff will have a wide room to maneuver in Congress; her main challenge will be how to manage her coalition," in order to pass fiscal and social reforms.
Professor Riordan Roett of SAIS at Johns Hopkins University agreed that a Rousseff win could mean the passage of a reform agenda and forward momentum domestically, but raised the question of whether or not the next president—probably Rousseff— will share President Lula's interest and competence in projecting the image of Brazil as an emerging power. He or she will also have to change course on Brazil's relations with the United States, as Brazil is currently not seen positively by the White House, due to divergences in the case of Iran. Iran is the kind of issue that the United States will have to become accustomed to over the next few years. "The United States will have to come to grips with the fact that this is a new Brazil that is playing a very important role regionally and internationally," Roett concluded.
By Renata Johnson
Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute