After a tough campaign, the incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party scored a first-round victory with 42% of the vote. In second place was the centre-right Minas Gerais Senator and former Governor Aecio Neves with 34%, followed by the ecologist Marina Silva. Rousseff and Neves will now advance to a second-round run-off on Sunday October 26th.
The campaign was one of the most exciting in Brazilian political history, with Neves surging in the last few days to overtake Silva for the run-off spot against Dilma. With his campaign having been written off as doomed several weeks ago, his recovery is testament to his political skills and the discipline of his campaign operation.
This will be a close-fought race. At this stage – the morning after the night before – here are some key observations…
Aecio’s second place finish wasn’t actually a big surprise – I have seen many tweets and media comments this morning describing Aecio’s second place finish as a “big surprise” or a “slap in the face for opinion pollsters”. This isn’t actually true. It is fair to say that the emphatic margin over third-place finisher and one-time favourite Marina Silva was surprising (he beat her 34% to 21%) but, as I noted on Saturday, Aecio’s surge at Marina’s expense had been clear for the past two weeks. In a poll published early last week, Datafolha showed Marina Silva’s support down from its high of 34% on August 29th to 24%, with Dilma and Neves increasing their support from 34% to 40% and 15% to 21% respectively – both at her direct expense. By the eve of poll, both Ibope and Datafolha were recording narrow leads for Neves over Marina.
A “traditional” run-off – A run-off between Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva would have been terrific political theatre. The contempt the two women have for one another was palpable throughout the campaign, with wicked scowls and finger-pointing abounding in their final debate performance. It would also have been fascinating from a political perspective, with the middle-class (and now painfully bourgeois) former Marxist guerrilla Dilma being forced to defend her “socialist” record to a doughty mix-raced lady who didn’t learn to read until she was sixteen. It was not to be.
Dilma and Aecio are both solidly establishment choices representing solidly establishment parties. Both are wealthy, both are well educated and neither is particular exciting. Dilma gives lip-service to the trade union movement but has never really been part of it. Instead, she made her name as a left-aligned civil servant. Aecio talks about business and enterprise but was elected to Congress when he was 25 after his grandfather, a former President, stitched him up with a seat.
After an era when Lula, a former shoe shine boy, could be elected President, the country has return to an era of elitism in its politics. Is this contest one between “left” and “right”? Not really. It’s a debate over slushy centrism. Personalities, rather than ideas, will be at the heart of the campaign over the next three weeks.
Don’t apply “European” norms to Marina’s voters – It would be easy to look at Marina Silva’s personal background story and at times bellicose rhetoric anti-business rhetoric and conclude that her votes were almost certain to transfer en masse to Dilma in the second round. Marina’s political appeal has long been built around an ecologist image (she served as a Green Party Senator) and this community has long shown itself to be more favourable to candidates of the Brazilian social democratic to centre-right than the Workers’ Party. Green-inclined voters in Brazil are largely highly-educated people of a moderate to high income, living in affluent urban areas whose main preoccupation is with transparency, education standards and better governance rather than what we in Europe would think of as “green” issues. They do not make natural bedfellows with the trade union movement-aligned Workers’ Party.
A poll conducted two weeks ago showed that 70% of Aecio Neves’ supporters would have voted for Marina in a second-round run-off. Frustratingly, the expectation at that time of a Marina/Dilma run-off meant that comparative figures for what Marina’s backers would do in the case of a Dilma/Aecio contest are not available. However, polling does show that self-described “right-wing” voters stated they would have backed Marina over Dilma by a 49% to 35% margin, “centre-right” voters would have broken 50% to 38% for Marina and “centrists” 48% to 43%.
Dilma has the clear advantage – The basic fact is that, with 42% of the national vote, Dilma has a much easier path to 50%+1 than Aecio Neves does. In order to win, he would now need to secure roughly three-quarters of Silva’s votes, as well as those of the left-leaning Luciana Genro and Pastor Everaldo who got 3% between them. It’s not impossible – but it is unlikely.
As usual, the centre-right was under polled – This was the third consecutive cycle in which the strength of the pro-business, centre-right candidate was underestimated in the first round. In 2010, the final pre-election polls showed José Serra on 26% when he actually received 32% while in 2006 Geraldo Alckmin’s support was underestimated by 13% – 29% to 42%. Last night, Neves received 34% of the first-round vote, when final polls from the country’s two leading pollsters Datafolha and Ibope showed him on 24% and 27%. One can debate the reasons for this under-sampling until the cows come home but I put part of this down to the disproportionately strong showing the centre-right nominee always scores on the largest state Sao Paulo (Neves received 44% of the vote– and roughly a third of his entire votes nationally there), whose 44 million population is larger than the smallest sixteen of the country’s twenty-seven states combined. The weighting simply doesn’t take into account the “Sao Paulo factor”.
Who would you like to have a cerveja with? – Dilma is a “known quantity”. Very few people in Brazil like her; even fewer love her. Her supporters do, however, respect her competence and sincerity while admitting she is unable to put on the same oratorical fireworks or issue the same raw emotional appeals as her predecessor Lula. People’s views about Dilma are not going to change in the next few weeks and nor will her political presentation – she’ll be solid, combative and sharp. She won’t be likeable, though. Aecio Neves remains a political unknown in many parts of the country, yet has shown a likability and fluidity on the campaign trail that marked him out from the other candidates. If voters were asked who they wanted to have a “cerveja” with, he’d win. That likeability could well translate into votes.
For 2018 candidates, look to Sao Paulo – Just as Sao Paulo played a decisive role in propelling Aecio Neves to a strong second-place finish, the state also produced a couple of notable results which those taking a longer look at the 2018 Presidential contest should not ignore. The state’s popular Governor Geraldo Alckmin scored a landslide re-election victory, with 57% and more than 12 million votes. Simultaneously, voters sent former Health Secretary, Mayor and Governor Jose Serra to the Federal Senate with 58% of the vote, defeating a veteran Senator and popular former Mayor in the process. Sao Paulo is where the political power and money is in Brazil. If Neves doesn’t manage to pull off a victory on October 26th, expect the two men to reach an accommodation as to which of them becomes the Sao Paulo centre-right’s standard bearer in 2018.