With less than a week to go before Sunday’s Brazilian presidential election, the only thing that seems certain is that it’s too close to call and is likely to be determined in a runoff.
Recent polls show President Dilma Rousseff in a virtual dead heat if the election goes to the second round with environmental activist Marina Silva. Silva wasn’t even in the running a few weeks ago, but she moved to the top of the Brazilian Socialist Party ticket after her running mate, Eduardo Campos, died in an Aug. 13 plane crash.
A third candidate, Social Democrat Aécio Neves — the former governor of Minas Gerais, could squeak into an Oct. 26 runoff but it will probably be a contest between the two women if neither gets more than 50 percent of Sunday’s vote.
While the Brazil race is the closest and, perhaps most heated, it’s just one of three opportunities Latin Americans will have to hit the polls in coming weeks.
Also in the mix are a competitive presidential race in Uruguay and an election in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales appears to be breezing into a third consecutive term.
For the moment, all eyes are on Brazil, which is in a technical recession and expected to grow by less than 1 percent this year. That means the election will largely turn on voters’ perceptions of who can best lift the world’s eighth-largest economy out of the doldrums.
In 2010, the year Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla and hand-picked choice of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected, the economy grew 7.5 percent. It slowed to 2.7 percent the following year as the shocks of the global financial crisis took their toll.
But as other Latin American economies improved, Rousseff, stubbornly sticking to centralized economic policy, hasn’t been able to rekindle growth.
“She has zero credibility in changing policy,” said Armando Castelar, an economist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. “She believes what she is doing is right and has no will to change.”
Throughout Rousseff’s term Brazil has been at near full-employment, but now the labor market is beginning to feel the effects of very slow growth, he said.
Consumer and business confidence also have ebbed, and Marina Silva, who has outlined more market-friendly, supply-side reforms, has been the beneficiary. Brazilian financial markets have rallied on the prospect she might unseat Rousseff — only to fall when Rousseff reclaimed ground in the polls.
“If we are to take President Rousseff’s campaign rhetoric at face value, then we should expect nothing but small adjustments to policy in her second term,” said Tony Volpon of Nomura Securities. “Even worse, she has taken a left-wing turn in her rhetoric as part of the negative campaign against Silva, who she portrays as a candidate of ‘banking interests.’’’
Whoever wins will need to deal with debt, attack high inflation, and correct problems in Brazil’s public sector accounts as well as jump-start the economy, said Castelar.
The challenge, he said, is that “most of the reforms that are needed will lower the standard of living — at a time when people are expecting more.”
If the sagging economy is hurting Rousseff‘s chances, in Bolivia it’s the surging growth that analysts say is tipping the balance in favor of a third term for Morales.
The latest poll by Equipos Mori shows Morales, a former coca-grower activist who has led the country since 2006, with 54 percent of the vote in the Oct. 12 election. His nearest rival, Samuel Doria Medina of the National Unity Front, has just 14 percent. And there’s nothing to suggest that a fractured opposition can gain any ground in the weeks before the race.
“The popularity of [Morales] is directly correlated to the overall satisfaction of the nation, the economy, and how the economy is having an impact on day-to-day life,” said Jose Luis Galvez, the president of Mori. “What people aren’t convinced of is the way it’s coming about.”
While people may not agree with Morales’ leftist politics or that of his Movement for Socialism (MAS), they do like the effects on their pocketbook, he said.
When people are asked if they would favor indefinite reelection for Morales (as his socialist allies in Venezuela and Nicaragua have and Ecuador is mulling) two-thirds are against it, Galvez said. But with the economy on track to grow 5.5 percent this year — among the region’s fastest — and swelling foreign reserves, people are willing to turn a blind eye to the politics of the man in the driver’s seat.
According to the opposition, Morales shouldn’t even be in this race. The presidency is limited to two terms, but Bolivia’s Supreme Court recently ruled that Morales, who won elections in 2005 and 2009, could run again because the nation received a new constitution after his first term.
Further south, in Uruguay, President José “Pepe” Mujica has discovered that his popularity and approval abroad can’t be transferred to Tabaré Vázquez, the candidate of his Frente Amplio party.
About 18 months ago, Vázquez, 74, a popular former president who led the country from 2005-2010, seemed like a shoe-in, said Eduardo Bottinelli an analyst with the Factum political-analysis magazine.
“Things have gotten far more complicated than we could have imagined six months ago,” he said.
Rising through the polls is Luis Lacalle Pou, 41, the son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle, who is running under the center-right Partido Nacional banner. In a distant third is Pedro Bordaberry with the Partido Colorado.
According to a Factum poll from Sept. 2, Vázquez has 42 percent of the vote followed by Lacalle with 32 percent and Bordaberry with 15 percent.
If no party wins at least half the vote Oct. 26 the two leading candidates face a November runoff.
That’s where the scenario gets complicated for Vázquez analysts said, as the Partido Nacional and Partido Colorado are more likely to combine forces to faceoff against the leftist Frente Amplio.
Agustín Canzani, a political analyst who backs the Frente Amplio, admits that Lacalle has effectively pitched himself as the youthful candidate for change, but he seems to have reached a plateau in the polls at the same time that Vázquez has seen his decline stop.
And Canzani doesn’t buy the theory that the Partido Colorado will throw all its weight behind Lacalle in a second round. Momentum will be key in this race and if Vázquez has a strong showing in the first round he’ll likely clench it in the second.
With five weeks to go, he said few analysts are willing to go out on a limb.
“What I can tell you is that the Frente Amplio will have a lead in the first round and that the second round will be tight,” he said.
Back in Brazil, Rousseff and her allies are hammering Silva as someone who is unprepared to be president and unreliable. But she served as environmental minister in the Lula government, and was in Congress for 16 years. As the Green Party candidate in the 2010 presidential election, she finished third.
“Marina is not a neophyte. She is an able politician,’’ said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson International Center. “And she is a principled politician and I think that is an attraction.”
However, she has represented three different parties in the past five years.
Silva, 56, has an intriguing back story that could appeal to young, disaffected Brazilians who staged massive street demonstrations last year to protest everything from corruption and the political status quo to increased bus fares.
She grew up dirt-poor in a family of Amazon rubber tappers and didn’t begin her formal schooling until age 16 when a group of nuns took her in. After receiving a university degree in history, she helped create the first workers’ union in the state of Acre and became an outspoken critic of deforestation. The United Nations Environment Program named her one of the Champions of the Earth in 2007.
But Rousseff, the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, also has some formidable strengths — one of them being she gets 12 minutes of television time for every two minutes that Silva gets. In Brazil, television time in the first round is allotted based on the size of a candidates’ political coalition and Silva’s is small.
If the contest does go to a second round, the candidates will get equal television time.
Rousseff has unleashed a series of attack ads taking issue with Silva’s proposal for an independent central bank and implying she will get rid of popular social programs. One ad shows food disappearing from dinner plates.
Silva has hit back, saying she plans to keep the popular social-welfare programs launched by the Workers’ Party such as Bolsa Familia, a cash-transfer program designed to keep poor children in school, and the Minha Casa Minha Vida low-income housing program.
Silva has been getting in her own gibes. In a YouTube ad she said she would never abolish Bolsa Familia. “I know what it is to be hungry,” she said. Her parents often would go without eating when there was “one egg, some wheat flour and salt with some chopped up onion peel” to be split among eight children, Silva said.
Rousseff said her ads aren’t personal attacks. “But I find myself obligated as president to alert the population that if her government program is put into practice, Marina could dismantle the Brazil that cost us so much to improve,’’ Rousseff said in her Sept. 7 Independence Day message.
The president’s media blitz may be paying off. A Datafolha poll published Friday showed Rousseff had strengthened her first round support to 40 percent, up from 37 percent in a previous poll. Silva’s support in the first round dropped to 27 percent from 30 percent.
Rousseff also has the enviable resources of the PT behind her. “Incumbency matters,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves, Latin America director for the Eurasia Group. “The PT is a very strong party.”
Still, the PT may not command the same undying loyalty it did in the past because of the rapidly rising expectations of the new middle class, said Sotero.
But he added, “People will base their votes more on what they don’t want then what they want and that will favor Marina.”