Brazil facing a right-left choice as Rousseff wins first-round vote

Anti-establishment Silva fails to live up to early promise

Brazilian Social Democracy Party presidential candidate Aecio Neves: spectacular political resurrection. Photograph: AP Photo/Eugenio Savio

Brazilian Social Democracy Party presidential candidate Aecio Neves: spectacular political resurrection. Photograph: AP Photo/Eugenio Savio

 

After a contest already full of twists and turns, Brazilian voters delivered a major surprise on Sunday when they dumped Marina Silva out of the country’s presidential election race.

For weeks polls showed the world-renowned environmentalist as the likeliest eventual winner of the campaign. But that support failed to materialise in the privacy of the polling booth and she was beaten into third place by Aécio Neves of the centre-right Social Democrats.

He now faces incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the ruling left-wing Workers Party in a run-off round in three weeks’ time. Relying heavily on her government’s social welfare programmes to secure a huge vote in the country’s poorest regions, Rousseff topped the poll with 42 per cent of the vote, well shy of the 50 per cent needed to win outright.

The result marks a spectacular political resurrection for Neves. He looked finished ever since August when the death in a plane crash of Eduardo Campos pushed his running mate, Silva, to the front of the race.

A strong performance in the last televised debate on Thursday night seemed to boost Neves’s support, with final polls showing him in a dead heat with Silva for second place. Instead he roared past her, beating her by 12 points to take more than 33 per cent of the vote. In a speech last night Silva blamed the triumph of Brazil’s “old politics” for her poor showing.

An outsider campaigning for more ethical standards in public life, she was the politician seen as best representing the anti-establishment sentiment expressed in massive street demonstrations last year against the country’s political class.

But Sunday once again emphasised that to win power in Brazil presidential candidates need a major political infrastructure to be competitive in a huge, diverse country. Silva’s lack of big party alliances restricted her free television time and denied her competitive allies in contests for governors and senators in key states that would have helped mobilise her vote at state level.

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She will stand as the defender of the Workers Party’s efforts at social redistribution, which have helped tens of millions escape extreme poverty, while seeking to portray her opponent as the bankers’ candidate itching to implement austerity.

With the economy in recession and her party once again involved in a major corruption scandal, Rousseff goes into the second round weakened. Her share of the vote was down on four years ago. Then she carved out a 14 per cent lead over her nearest rival. Now it is just eight per cent after what was the Workers Party’s worst first-round showing since it last lost a presidential contest in 1998.

But her rival faces serious obstacles if he is to overtake her on the final straight. Neves polled badly in the poor northeast, where the federal government’s social programmes have most impact. Rousseff dominated in what is the country’s second most populous region, winning eight of the nine states there and polling above 60 per cent in five of them.

On what was otherwise a hugely disappointing night Silva performed best in the region, winning Eduardo Campos’s home state of Pernambuco and coming second to the president in four more. Key to determining the second round will be where these votes now go.

In presenting herself as a representative of “new politics” Silva refused to endorse any candidate when she came third in 2010, but on Sunday her concession speech hinted at endorsing Neves. Whether her voters will follow her is another question, especially in the northeast, where a sizeable number should migrate to the president.

Divergences

Neves’s ambitions have also been dented by an embarrassing loss to the president in his home state of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous, where his party also surrendered the governorship to the Workers Party.

* The headline on this article was amended on October 7th to correct an error. Dilma Rousseff, not Aécio Neves, won the first-round vote.

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