Brazilian opposition alliance is an improvisation, not a symbol of power
Brazilian voters are so difficult to understand that not even their vote means they endorse their candidate. Not many politicians here are smart enough to notice that. They are so self-absorbed that they think giving a nice spin to an improvisation will actually win them votes. That goes for a part of the alliance between soft-opposition leaders Eduardo Campos and Marina Silva.
But let’s go back in time first.
São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin fought hard to run for president in 2006. No one really believed he could do well as the leader of the opposition. He is such a boring character that many called him “light chayote popsicle.” His own party was sabotaging him to punish the man for taking São Paulo mayor José Serra off the race. President Lula was the clear favorite.
In the first vote Alckmin surprised everyone, stopped the incumbent from winning at large and got about 40 million votes. Large chunks of the media started predictions for a comeback. A month later Alckmin had lost 2,4 million supporters, the election and could only return to his job in 2010.
There were three main reasons for these results. They are important to understand what will happen when president Dilma Rousseff also tries to get her reelection next year.
1 – Brazilians wanted more time to take their decision. That has been the standard since 2002. It is likely to be the standard for every election under the current system. The votes in the first round aren’t the best reference for who is going to win. In Sao Paulo City Hall elections, the winner spent most of his time as the third in the race. Rejection plays a big role here.
2 – A high number of candidates getting media attention: four. The more candidates in the race, the higher the chances are for a second vote.
3 – Lula refused to take part of a presidential debate at popular Globo TV just days before the vote. Lula’s spin doctor João Santana said he would lose a few points if he didn’t show up. And that he could lose up to 15 points if he was present to be targeted by all three opposition candidates.
Some of those voters went for Alckmin in the first round. And then came back to Lula. They wanted more time to decide.
In 2010, when Marina Silva became a national star, the issue wasn’t exactly Lula. And her vote could be just as deceiving as it was in the election before.
Lula’s legacy was the key then. Even opposition candidates tried to relate to the former union leader. Rousseff, who was taking part of an election for the first time, won rather comfortably if you consider she was basically an unknown aide to the president. She started with 3%. But she had the icon.
Rousseff’s votes weren’t hers. They were Lula’s. She knows it. That is how she managed to be popular since her election.
Third place in 2010, Marina Silva doesn’t seem to understand the 20 million votes she got aren’t exactly hers. Just like Alckmin’s votes in 2006, a good chunk of what she got came from people that didn’t want the election to be decided at first. It isn’t all voters tired of the traditional parties.
Three years ago, many voters refused to vote for the opposition candidate, José Serra. There were no other competitive candidates, but Rousseff and Serra. They only had Silva to channel their frustrations or their lack of enthusiasm for traditional politics.
Electing a president is different from reelecting one. Brazil isn’t doing as badly as the financial markets like to show (also true Brazil wasn’t doing that great either in the years before). Rousseff will have a full year to announce investments, show what she has done. Not to mention the World Cup. Why exactly should voters be tired? That is the case to be made by the opposition.
Of course Silva’s 20 million are different from the 2,4 million votes Alckmin lost within a month. But it is important to put those under perspective: in 2006 almost 7 million went for extreme-leftist Heloisa Helena and 2,5 million chose center-leftist Cristovam Buarque. Helena is now a councillor in a tiny city in the Northeast. Cristovam is a very quiet senator.
Twenty million are many votes, but they are a lot closer to the 9 million given to Helena and Cristovam in 2006 than to the 55 million Rousseff got in 2010. Or even to the 45 million who vouched for Serra. It is very difficult to say she will carry her 20 million to little known Campos.
Mathematics not always tell the real story in Brazil. And understanding what the votes actually mean isn’t the only difficulty in our politics.
Now flashback is over.
The Campos-Silva alliance would never happen if Silva could start her own party. She failed to do so. In the nick of time she joined Campos in a political group that gathers fans of the military dictatorship and leftists. In one of her first addresses as a member of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB in Portuguese), she said she is not going to be their militant.
She is basically out of the presidential race because she wasn’t competent enough to organize her political party. Now she depends on the national infrastructure of a man who is called by his allies as “Lula’s son.” A man who sided with Rousseff until very recently, unlike her.
In the agreement, the party she wanted to create will exist within PSB just for the next elections. Silva seems to be the main leader of the opposition in the polls. But president Rousseff already leads by large — in a second ballot the incumbent would beat her by more than 20 points.
Campos barely scores in the polls and will be the PSB candidate. The improvisation works for him because he controls that party entirely.
Rousseff’s record is on the line for 2014. But their is no doubt popular Lula will be on her side. The June protests shook her gigantic popularity. But it is just naive to believe her chances for reelection are slimmer because of the Campos-Silva opposition alliance.
One year before the vote Rousseff is the favorite: the president had a 54% support as of the beginning of October, according to the Ibope institute. She has a good margin to grow. Her alliance is very well organized throughout Brazil and will have competitive candidates for governor, which might not happen for PSB. Campos will have to deal with another opposition rival, Aécio Neves, before taking a shot at her.
So why is the Campos-Silva move important?
In my view, the effects of this improvisation are for the 2018 elections. By then, the ruling Worker’s Party (PT in Portuguese) could have no natural candidate for the presidency. The main opposition group, the Brazilian Social-Democracy Party (PSDB), hasn’t found any good platform to run on since 1998. They are also running out of leaders, which also helps the newcomers.
By helping Silva, Campos gets the national attention he needed. He is going be backed by a heavyweight politician in 2014 and is likely to get around to those 20 million votes Silva once got. Five years from now, 2010 will be long gone. His name will be fresher on people’s minds.
Will that work? If Campos believes in no more than first vote figures, it won’t. But he already seems more clever than Silva. Her improvisation gave him a good opportunity. Although Rousseff is still the favorite, Campos might have kicked off the 2018 election by setting a stronger foot in the next one.