Rollercoaster Elections in Brazil

by Eloy Oliveira

In the most curious Brazilian election of the last two decades, President Dilma Rousseff will faceoff with the Social Democrat candidate, Senator Aécio Neves, and not Marina Silva, as predicted by many political commentators.

To understand the current situation, we must look back four years when Rousseff was first elected president.

At that time, former President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva completed his second term with an 87 percent approval rating, according to CNT /Census. Much of this support was transferred to his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who won the election against José Serra with over 56 percent of the votes.

Today, former President Lula is unable to share those same votes with his protégée. Rousseff’s approval rating is only 35 percent, according to Data Folha. Weak economic growth, corruption scandals surrounding notorious oil company Petrobras, among other may explain this popularity fall.

Three months ago, there were three leading candidates for president: Dilma Rousseff from the Workers Party (with 38 percent of voter intention), Aécio Neves (23 percent), and Eduardo Campos from the Socialist Party (9 percent). Unexpectedly, on August 13, Campos tragically died in a plane crash, and Marina Silva, Campos’s second in command and a former minister under Lula, assumed the presidential candidacy in his place. Marina, as people refer to her, tried to register her own party prior to joining the Campos campaign, but couldn’t do it in time, and decided to join Campos as his vice-presidential candidate instead. Marina is a strong candidate since she had already run for presidency in 2010, receiving 19% of votes.

After Campos’s death, Marina became the lead candidate for the Socialist Party, leading to a 22 point rise in the polls, while Neves fell to 15 percent, and Rousseff stood her ground with 39 percent. As part of the same poll, voters were asked to choose between the two most popular candidates. Marina and Rousseff split the vote, 41 percent and 42 percent respectively.

However, as shown by later polls, the sudden rise of votes for Marina was a response to Campos’s death. As the commotion dissipated, Marina started falling in the polls, and her votes were apparently redistributed among the other candidates. By October 4, one day before the elections, Datafolha published a poll indicating that Rousseff would get 44 percent of votes, followed by Neves with 26 percent, and Marina with 24 percent. During the first round of election, numbers slightly differed: Rousseff received 41 percent of votes, followed by Neves with 33 percent, and Marina dropping to 21 percent.

According to Brazilian law, since no candidate received a majority of the votes, a run-off is necessary. Consequently, Brazilians will have to decide between Rousseff and Neves, and since Marina has already decided to support Neves for the second round, the run-off is going to be more competitive than expected.

Additionally, there is one important facts that can define this election. Although voting is compulsory in Brazil, 20 percent of people did not vote. Moreover, 10 percent of the actual voters have either nullified their vote or voted “in blank,” which means they were indecisive about the candidate and did not select any. In short, a considerable number of voters not included in the first round may play a critical role in the second.

As expected, Rousseff won the first round of the elections 8 percentage points ahead of Neves. However, her overall rejection rating is around 31 percent, the greatest among all the candidates, which means that these people are voting against Rousseff, no matter who the other candidate is. On the other hand, the alliance between Neves and Marina will give Neves an advantage in the run-off. Marina received a strong number of votes in 2010 but had stronger support this year, so if she manages to transfers her votes to Neves, he stands a very real shot at winning the presidency.

The first polls seemed to be favoring Neves. The very first one by Instituto Paraná found that 54 percent of voters prefer Neves, while Rousseff holds 46 percent of votes. The second poll, by IBOPE, shows 46 percent of voters intend to support Neves and 44 percent lean toward Rousseff.

Two later polls had disparate results: The first, on October 11, showed Neves with a 17 percent lead, while the later, from Datafolha, gave Rousseff the advantage, carrying 52 percent of the votes.

Polls play a curious roll in Brazilian elections. Politicians believe that many votes are influenced by poll results, and that they swing their support toward the candidate in the poll lead. Of course, polls can be misleading. All polls in Brazil are conducted by private companies, which register their information at an official governmental office. The companies employ different methodologies, which may explain the great variation in results during the last three months. Alternatively, the variation may reflect Brazilian ambivalence on the candidates; they still have not settled on a presidential option.

The international community must pay close attention to this electrifying dispute. Brazil plays an important role in the global economy, and the two candidates hold disparate views on how the country’s economy should be managed. Interestingly, the Brazilian stock market rose 8 percent the day after the first round of the elections, while the stocks of many critical Brazilian companies, such as Petrobras, soared as well.

Though no one can say for certain the outcome of the elections, one thing is clear: the run-off results will determine the direction of Brazilian economic policy for years to come.

A version of this article was originally published on World Policy Blog

Eloy Oliveira is a Brazilian lawyer and MPA candidate at Columbia University.