Brazil: a nation at a crossroads


On 5 October, more than 142 million Brazilians went to the polls to elect the president, 27 state and Federal District governors, a third of the senate, and numerous deputies.

With none of the 11 presidential candidates managing to secure an absolute majority, the two leading candidates are now facing a second round run-off on 26 October.

The incumbent, President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) – who has the support of a centre-left coalition – is running against Senator Aécio Neves, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate, supported by a centre-right alliance.

President Rousseff, won 41.59 per cent in the first round, with over 43 million votes, mostly from Brazil’s poorest regions in the north and north-east of the country.

Her rival, Neves, nicknamed ‘The Toucan’, in reference to the PSDB’s symbol, won 33.55 per cent, securing almost 35 million votes and dominating the most developed parts of the country.

In an interview with Equal Times, economist José Dari Krein, who is a professor at the State University of Campinas and a researcher at the Trade Union Studies and Labour Economics Centre (Centro de Estudos Sindicais e de Economía do Trabalho - CESIT), explained the geographical and social distribution of the vote.

“In a country with wide inequalities like Brazil, the middle and upper-class electorate is opposed to the government policies fighting poverty,” he says.

“Added to this is the currently low level of economic growth, combined with inflation pushing up food and fuel prices, mainly affecting the lower classes, not to mention the failure of the Rousseff government to respond rapidly to the new social demands expressed during the protests in June 2013.”

Initially, Rousseff and Neves were clear front-runners in the campaign. But the situation took a dramatic turn on 13 August when the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash.

The death of Campos – former governor of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco and the Minister for Science and Technology under the presidency of Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva – opened the way for his vice presidential candidate, evangelist and environmentalist, Marina Silva.

A former senator, Silva, who was Lula’s environment minister, turned what appeared to be a clear-cut battle between two contenders into a three-way race. It even looked, at one stage, as if she might stand against President Rousseff in the second round.

But although she did not get that far, the more than 22 million votes placing her in third position (21.32 per cent) are set to play a decisive role in the second round, with Silva having already announced that she is backing Neves.

According to Kjeld Jakobsen, a Brazilian trade union advisor on development cooperation: “The result came as no surprise because, despite it being an unusual campaign with three main contenders, it is the fourth presidential election that has had to go to a second round.”

This is because, since 2002, PT has moderated its programme and profile, and broadened its electoral alliances. But there have still be problems.

“The thing that has been most lacking during Rousseff’s presidency was communication between the government and society,” Jakobsen told Equal Times.

“She failed to answer to the criticism, unlike Lula, who has a special kind of charisma that allows him to talk about anything and with anyone, anywhere.”

Under the presidencies of Lula and Rousseff there was a change in economic policy, according to Jakobsen, aimed at “halting privatisation processes, controlling inflation through interest rates, focusing on the domestic market and raising the value of the minimum wage, thanks to negotiations with the trade unions.”

Indeed, although the trade union centres have existed in Brazil for several decades, they only obtained legal recognition in 2008.

Since that time, the law has recognised them as an entity for the general representation of workers, has assigned them a percentage of the distribution of union contributions, and allowed them to participate in different negotiations, including that for the minimum wage which today stands at 724 reais (US$300) a month.


Shift to the left

The year 2002 marked a radical turning point in the history of Brazil. The election of Lula – a humble metalworker without a university degree – saw the start of economic policies that have succeeded in reducing poverty and inequality levels.

Lula abandoned the neoliberal agenda typical of the 1990s, with its neutral state and market-regulated economy, and embarked on a range of public programmes geared towards social inclusion and employment creation, giving those at the bottom of Brazil’s class pyramid the opportunity to improve their living standards.

In an interview with Equal Times, João Felício, international secretary for the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) and president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), explained that the sensitivity of the Lula and Rousseff governments to the demands of the trade union movement has led to the most significant advances made by the working classes in Brazil’s history.

Felício underlines that by prioritising inclusive development and growth, they have managed to “create jobs, formal jobs in the main, with the whole range of labour rights, and have brought down unemployment to five per cent on average in the last few years, in spite of the pressures of the economic and financial crisis.”

The governments led by Lula and Rousseff have not, however, been without fault. They have had to contend with a number of political corruption crises, such as the Mensalão (the big monthly payout) scandal or the Petrobras affair, which saw Brazil’s largest state oil company involved in the diversion of funds to finance political parties and their campaigns.

The government’s actions have also received relentless opposition and resistance from conservative forces and the media.

In spite of this, in today’s Brazil – as former President Lula often used to say – children from poor families are now able to go to university and study abroad, and a domestic worker can buy the same perfume, in instalments, as the lady of the house.

Rousseff and Neves are of course, very different candidates.

Aside from their contrasting personal histories – she is a woman who was imprisoned for three years and tortured for fighting against Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85) whilst Neves had a privileged upbringing as a member of the Brazilian elite – they also have opposing views of the country and the world.

Rousseff’s project includes those that have been left on the margins of society as a result of centuries of colonisation, slavery and exclusion. It is a model that combines growth with the redistribution needed to eradicate poverty and fight inequality.

Neves’ vision is conservative and classist, and favours orthodox measures such as fiscal adjustment and the drastic reduction of inflation, which would lead the country into a recession and in turn create massive unemployment. In short, he is a free market advocate, championing the typical neoliberal model.

The candidates also have very different international perspectives. Rousseff’s vision is clearly represented by the BRICS model, which constitutes a multipolar challenge by the some of the world’s biggest economies to the hegemony of the United States.

By contrast, it is with the United States that Neves would seek a privileged political and economic relationship.

In the latest polls conducted by Datafolha and IBOPE Inteligência, President Rousseff is ahead by between six and eight percentage points over Neves, but undecided voters are set to play a key role in choosing the future path of the world’s seventh largest economy.