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Opposition’s Aécio Neves is a moderate. His fans are a bit crazy, though

Many opposition voters had given up on senator Aécio Neves before he rose in the final week of the campaign trail and took Marina Silva’s place in the run-off against President Dilma Rousseff. “Not tough enough,” “too friendly with Lula” and “a success only at the local level” were comments that people in the PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) had for him until a few days ago. But a big chunk of social conservatives changed their minds as they went to the polls and decided to go with the safe traditional antagonist instead of keeping the bet on a confused former Worker’s Party (PT) minister. The rest is history.

Now Neves is neck to neck with Rousseff in a race that is likely to be too close to call until the very end, on October 26. He has picked the endorsements of losing candidates, including Silva. He is also level with the president on free air time: now they have the same, which means, when compared to the setting of the first round, a minute less for the PT hopeful in each TV and radio program and the double for the PSDB senator. He has also made cracks on the ruling coalition, by drawing the support of politicians in the centrist and famously corrupt PMDB — no matter who wins, PMDB always wins. Neves has the momentum.

Although he has put forward some conservative agenda to oppose Rousseff, Neves is far less ideological than his PSDB rival and São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin. When governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most powerful state, he became PT’s key channel with the opposition. He never opposed any social programs; quite on the contrary. He even partnered with a Worker’s Party adversary to elect the mayor of Belo Horizonte — a move that many in both parties rejected. In 2006, he tried to found a new political party with Lula and Eduardo Campos, whose death in in a jet crash put Silva in the race. It didn’t work, but the sign was there.

To make Silva drop points in the polls and become the darling of financial markets again, Neves gave two other important signs. The first was to appoint his Finance Minister from the start: Arminio Fraga, one of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Central Bank governors. Fraga is a total fan of fiscal tightening. He recently said Brazil’s minimum wages are “very high.” The other was to find a conservative issue that put him opposite to both Silva and Rousseff. That one was reducing minor age from 18 to 16 in cases of heinous crimes. Most Brazilians, who sponsor some of the worst prisons in the world, believe that could make a difference in their safety.

Out of those two, Neves’s agenda for Brazil isn’t that different from Rousseff’s. There would surely be relentless combat to inflation, no matter if some jobs were lost on the way. No doubt state banks wouldn’t spend much on housing, which they do now. But the senator knows that if he gets rid of the social programs there would be a massive turmoil in the country. He is also aware that he would need political support from a conservative Congress to make any meaningful reforms. If you add those elements and his moderate temper, it is reasonable to believe his presidency would be some change with a lot of continuity.

That is not what a big chunk of Neves’ base expects, though. Since former Marxist guerrilla Rousseff took office, in 2011, many fans of the PSDB have ranted about Brazil becoming subject to Cuba, establishing a dictatorship of endemic corruption and — last but not least — using cheap social programs to buy votes. No doubt all those assumptions are just pathetic (if you believe in any of them, please, try reading another blogger). But Brazilian tea party wannabes have lost grip with reality. Instead of bringing their ideas forward, they raise the volume against a center of left administration that isn’t nearly as progressive as Brazil needs.

That makes Neves’ role even more important now. If he wins, he will have to deal with the expectations of elitists who want some revenge for all the criticism they endured in the last 12 years. As a moderate, he will be either forced into respecting social improvements or into a more liberal agenda that makes Brazil more appealing to foreign capital. With a conservative Congress a few meters away, his moderation would be often challenged and concessions would have to emerge — don’t forget that if PSDB wins the Presidency, PT will still be strong in opposition thanks to the expectation of Lula 2018.

If Neves loses, he will have to fight to remain as the leader of the opposition until 2018 — when he could face conservative Alckmin for another go at the presidential elections. If Neves neglects the lunatics, Alckmin will be a clear favorite to run against Lula. If the senator just tries to calm the radicals down, he might lose them. To have the crazy anti-PT and still appeal to moderates, the former Minas Gerais governor will have to sweat. As a conciliator, he might be up for the task. As Brazilians found out, he can quietly deliver surprises.

Also in this blog: President Dilma Rousseff is a moderate. Her fans are a bit crazy, though

Brazil Podcast 11: Marina’s demise, run-off and strange outcomes

Our producer and host in this edition is Sam Cowie, a freelance journalist based in Recife.

Our guests are….

Ben Tavener, a freelance multimedia journalist based in Sao Paulo – he’s Brazil correspondent for the Anadolu news agency, and also contributes for the BBC, Al Jazeera, Mashable and others. He’s also a podcast regular.

Leo Macario, a film scholar who holds an MA in Communication and Culture and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His main areas of research include Brazilian Cinema, Carnival music in films and Film and Literature. Léo is Brazil podcast regular, based in Rio de Janeiro.

And Lucy Jordan, a freelance journalist who lives in Brasilia with her dog. She is Brazil correspondent for VICE News and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Independent, GlobalPost and others.

We hope to be on iTunes pretty soon. If you are an independent journalist in Brazil and wish to participate in the following editions, please, write to podcastbrazil@gmail.com.