What really matters in Brazil’s presidential elections
Jobs and income.
I could stop in those two as the key drivers of Brazil’s presidential elections and never be wrong (by the way, sorry if you thought the 7-1 defeat against Germany would actually have a role in politics here.) All the other settings that make a competitive candidate derive from the perception of how these two figures are coming along. When both are fine, people want to carry on. When they are not, they crave for change. Yes, we Brazilians are that boring.
In 1994, Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected because his policies tamed inflation and stabilized income. He was reelected four years later because prices were still at check and there was some job creation. In 2002, his right of center administration was so unpopular because of the low levels of employment and income that opposition’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won by a landslide. Lula was reelected after a short recovery in 2006 and made a little known minister his successor in 2010.
Rousseff’s party tries to stop votes from leaving her
This time neither job creation nor income are in great shape. Still, the levels of employment and the power of purchase haven’t been dramatically reduced. It is not clear whether most Brazilians want continuity with change or change with continuity. What is clear at this point is that higher inflation hit income enough to end Rousseff’s super popularity, an asset she had inherited from Lula and the Worker’s Party (PT). She is the favorite, but the advantage is slimmer.
Although growth has been sluggish since Rousseff took office, right of center Aécio Neves (PSDB) and centrist Eduardo Campos (PSB) are focusing their message on the rise of inflation because GDP figures haven’t been low enough to cut down too many jobs. Differently from 2006 and 2010, corruption scandals have taken the back seat so far because the opposition feels they have a proper standing now. Now they can talk about jobs and income.
Not many people are paying attention, truth be said. Brazilians were focused on the World Cup, as in every general election. Going back to normal life takes a while. But now the unofficial kick off to the presidential elections has been made: Brazil’s main TV news, Globo’s Jornal Nacional, is broadcasting live interviews with the candidates. Tough questions, some even aggressive, available to almost 100% of Brazilians, show whether they have what it takes to be president or not. It is the first big moment of the campaign trail.
Neves’ interview on Jornal Nacional was the first of the presidential hopefuls
TV is key to move the candidates’ message on jobs and income forward. Brazil is a country where scandals printed in newspapers and magazines don’t matter as much if they don’t reach the telly. Since they have more TV attention and spin doctors to score their points, they feel more and more comfortable.
The opposition has spent the last 12 years wasting that time in the run up to the vote by talking too much about corruption. They were just following the media. Many Brazilians still fear that this will be a dirty campaign because a big chunk of the media are critical of PT politicians but have done very little to run their checks and balances on Neves in the last decade. It could be different this time: polls show there is a fatigue of the ruling coalition, which still doesn’t seem to translate into votes against the incumbent. There is a chance for a proper national debate instead of the dirty wars of the past decade.
The Jornal Nacional interviews don’t treat candidates any differently. Still, Rousseff will still hold a major advantage on television that will end only if she gets less than 50% in the first vote and has to go to a second one.
Brazil’s bizarre electoral law states that coalitions get days and days of free time on TV and radio to prop up propaganda before the elections. For many Brazilians, that is the only way they get informed, excited and disappointed during the campaign trail. That characteristic will give candidates some free TV time twice a day three times a week from August 19 till the first vote on October 5th. The more Congressmen a coalition has, the more time their candidate will be on.
Cardoso ad from 1998: free TV time is key to build momentum
Since many parties don’t think job creation and income are that bad now (let’s pretend it is not also because of love for the current perks in government), Rousseff has a gigantic advantage: she will be on focus for 11min48 in each program — they are all shown in sequence.
Neves will be visible for 4min31. Campos will drop by for 1min49. Less powerful candidates will literally speak a few sentences and disappear. That will only change in case of a runoff; time will be evenly split among the two contenders if Rousseff doesn’t get more than 50% of the votes on October 5th.
Using TV well for two weeks into the runoff is Neves’ best bet for the election, although far from a certain one.
Besides the time the presidential hopefuls themselves will have, they can be helped by strong candidates for governorship, specially in highly populated states. Those endorsements come through two different means: the general elections coalition itself, since all national agreements have to be respected in the states, or by candidates of parties that chose not to be in national coalitions so their members are free to support whoever they want. Of course some governorship candidates can get lazy so they help someone they can’t help in official ways. That has often been the case of PMDB, Rousseff’s key corruption prone ally.
These local candidates will have free time on TV too, and that will be on days the national dispute is not on. Some of them have the power of carrying their state to Rousseff, Neves or Campos. Others will be important fundraisers. A few, even if they don’t have any chance of winning, make it more likely a national candidate at least loses by an acceptable margin. Overall, Rousseff will have more candidates talking about her, since her coalition is bigger than anyone else’s.
That doesn’t mean the opposition will be weak in this part of the game. São Paulo state, for instance, has become a stronghold of the opposition, although Lula’s and Dilma’s allies have at least been competitive enough to help prevent heavy defeat. If margins don’t hold in the paulista election this time, Neves might be more competitive, since incumbent Geraldo Alckmin is well ahead in the polls for reelection.
The picture is not very clear in many states, since many governors can’t run for reelection and people only pay attention to the state election when it is a month to the vote. In the four cornerstone states, there are different trends. São Paulo seems to carry on as a safe haven for the opposition, but Neves’ Minas Gerais can end up with Rousseff’s closest friend in government. The race in Rio de Janeiro state is chaotic and not particularly helpful to any of the presidential hopefuls so far. The opposition poses a serious challenge in Bahia, a territory held by PT for eight years.
In those disputes, jobs and income aren’t as key as in the presidential elections.
The final act before October 5th is likely to have jobs and income as the key elements too. TV Globo promotes the last presidential debate just three days before the election. Those leading usually drop a few points in the poll if they don’t show up. They run the risk of losing even more if they do go, according to many strategists.
Whether Rousseff will accept that invitation or not is not clear. Cardoso didn’t go to any debate in 1998 and still won in the first ballot. Lula decided not to show up hours before the 2006 debate and had to go to a runoff. Rousseff wants to avoid the runoff at all costs, but if that happens there is no evidence she will lose. Unless jobs and income deteriorate, Brazil can lose another ten matches by 7-1 that the votes won’t be much different in the end. And that is what matters.