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Brazil Must Choose Between Change and Continuity

By: Contributor - Oct 14, 2014, 3:32 pm

EspañolBy María Fernanda Castillo

Aécio Neves rose from third place in the polls and will now challenge Brazil's president in a runoff election.
Aécio Neves rose from third place in the polls and will now challenge Brazil’s president in a runoff election. (Marcos Fernandes)

So far, the Brazilian presidential elections have truly been a roller coaster ride. Over the past few months, three candidates appeared to have the distinct possibility of winning. Despite the momentum that carried Marina Silva through the initial stages of the election, a strong campaign from the Workers’ Party (PT) derailed her in the first round.

Silva’s defeat left current President Dilma Rousseff to face off against Aécio Neves for the presidency, despite the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate having spent the majority of the campaign in third place.

Although Rousseff has left Marina Silva behind, it would be a mistake to say that the president has secured reelection, and now a classic battle between the PT and the PSDB is shaping up to be one of the hardest fought runoffs in recent years.

Following 12 years of a Workers’ Party government, Rousseff is facing increased dissatisfaction among Brazilians, the result of various corruption scandals, inflation, and an economic downturn. The Lula effect that facilitated a PT victory during the 2010 elections seems to be fading, and today Brazil is far from the country it was in 2010, let alone a decade ago.

The close race between the two candidates is a product of both the Brazilian reality and the Brazilian contradiction. Brazil is home to the largest economy in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world, while at the same time remaining among the world’s most unequal countries.

Favelas and heliports coexist daily in this emerging giant. The disparity is also reflected in the distribution of votes in the presidential election: the poorest states in Brazil form Rousseff’s electoral base, while the most prosperous states have thrown their weight behind Neves.

In order to win the election, both candidates will need to persuade the middle class that their particular model is best for Brazil’s future.

The Family Bag Strategy

Rousseff has based her campaign on the importance of PT policy continuity, warning against the possible disappearance of social programs implemented by the Lula administration.

The Family Bag, a conditional recourse transfer program, has grown into a favorite electoral weapon among PT supporters. Not surprisingly, the states with the largest number of beneficiaries from the program — especially in the north and northeast, where up to 25 percent of the population depends on government aid — are the principal advocates for Rousseff’s reelection. At this point, the Family Bag seems to be employed more as an electoral strategy than economic policy.

Rousseff’s party proudly takes responsibility for paving the way for 30 million Brazilians to enter the middle class. Of course, the Brazilian middle class has grown more than that of any other country in Latin America, an accomplishment deserving of applause. However, this phenomenon is far more complicated, and cannot be explained by the Family Bag alone.

Lula knew that in order to jump-start the national economy, he would have to transform a large number of poor Brazilians to the level of consumers. To achieve this, he implemented social programs and subsidies that would facilitate the transition within these groups.

These social programs now serve as the PT marketing strategy. Paradoxically, Lula would never have achieved these changes if it hadn’t been for his predecessor. In 2002, Lula adopted rhetoric that spoke to marginalized populations searching for a change from the politics of Fernando Herique Cardoso. What many forget is that Lula was able to implement these reforms thanks to the economic stability and low inflation that he inherited from his predecessor.

Without having to worry about the country’s macroeconomic policy, Lula was able to dedicate his full attention to the Family Bag and other social-aid programs. In reality, Brazilian economic growth isn’t owed solely to the PT, but also to the economic policies left behind by the last PSDB president.

Ironically, the current electoral context parallels that of 2008, as the PT’s accomplishments are precipitating a call for change far beyond maintaining the Family Bag. The 30 million Brazilians who have recently entered the middle class are now calling for economic stability that will allow them to continue their improved lifestyle.

As sociologist Ruda Ricci accurately remarked, “The Brazilian voter is very pragmatic, concerned above all with defending his new financial capacity and his family.” The problem is that many people doubt Rousseff’s ability to take the next step.

Playing with the Family Bag as an electoral weapon hides the fact that, without stable economic growth, and combined with the steep fall in Petrobras production, this type of social program will not be sustainable even if the PT wins reelection.

While redistributive PT policies have achieved positive results, the current needs of the Brazilian electorate are not homogenous. If Brazilians hope to continue with the economic growth of the last decade, it is necessary to adopt economic policies that respond to the current context.

Neves proposes a less populist economic model than Rousseff, with greater focus on an economic system similar to that of South Korea: emphasis on education, infrastructure, and economy — all fundamental in a middle-income country. Although the candidate has made it clear that he will not abandon social programs that have already been implemented, the PSDB is searching for a new way to meet the demands of the Brazilian middle class for a revitalized economy.

Marina Silva’s premature call to action made it clear that a large part of the Brazilian population is leaning towards change. The PT was wrong in thinking that a runoff against Neves would be a mere formality, or result in an easy win.

Rousseff should avoid the typical Latin-American progressive demagoguery and fear-mongering suggesting all of her great achievements will be destroyed should the country elect Neves. Part of a democracy is the public’s ability to choose when to change course when the ship begins to sink.

Edited by Elisa Vásquez.

María Fernanda Castillo is a political scientist and postgraduate student in international politics at Oregon State University. She previously worked as a public policy researcher in Mexico. Follow her at @castmfer

Translated by Peter Sacco.