Opposition campaign fails to find political foothold in Brazil

Presidential candidate Aécio Neves in danger of finishing third

Towards the end of a recent profile in Piauí­ magazine, Brazilian presidential candidate Aécio Neves told the monthly's reporter: "If I win the elections it is going to be very good for Brazil. But if I don't win, and this could happen, it is going to be very good for me from a personal point of view."

Though true, the observation carried a whiff of the insouciance that has always hung over the social democrat’s presidential ambitions, feeding his image as something of a playboy caught in two minds about making the hard sacrifices needed to ascend to Brazil’s highest office.

Therefore perhaps Neves will be secretly relieved that since the environmental campaigner Marina Silva entered the race last month every opinion poll has him demoted from second to third place, a result that would see him eliminated at the first round of voting on October 5th.

Such an outcome would free him of "boring" politics leaving more time for catching waves on Rio's famous beaches as Silva faced President Dilma Rousseff in a run-off. But for his centre-right Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB after its initials in Portuguese), the country's main opposition force, it would be a calamity.


Run-off round

It would see it excluded from a run-off round for the two leading candidates for the first time since 1989, breaking up a two decade-old duopoly in presidential races formed by the PSDB and its fierce rivals, the ruling Workers Party. A return to the presidential palace from which it was ejected in 2002 would seem further away than ever.

A weak presidential showing could also damage the party’s chances in races for state governorships and in the senate and lower house in congress. A survey by the inter-union parliamentary advisory department, a labour organisation that lobbies congress, predicts the PSDB could be reduced to as few as 36 deputies in the 513-seat lower house next month, down from a high of 99 in 1998.

More embarrassingly it also risks losing control of Minas Gerais, Brazil's second most populous state and Neves's political fiefdom where he made his reputation as governor.

"The emergence of Marina as the main opposition candidate and with it the end of the polarisation between itself and the Workers Party means the PSDB now runs the risk of losing its status as a major national party," says David Fleischer, professor of politics at the University of Brasília.

Part of the blame for this state of affairs rests with Neves. In the four years since he left the governorship of Minas he has failed to consolidate his position as national leader of the opposition. He proved a lacklustre performer in the senate despite increasing discontent at Workers Party rule.

Meanwhile, his condemnations of government corruption carry the whiff of hypocrisy as his own party has its own share of scandals to answer for at state level. His campaign has been dogged by questions about why, when he was governor, his Minas administration built a small, little-used public airport near his family ranch.

But this election has exposed a deeper problem afflicting the PSDB. Its floundering campaign shows how it has failed to adjust to the new political dispensation forged by 12 years of Workers Party rule. It has allowed its main rival to portray it as the party of austerity and elite bankers, unable to find a political foothold among the millions of the recently empowered who have emerged from poverty since the Workers Party came to power.

Remarkably after 12 years in opposition it has failed to convincingly register the fact that part of the Workers Party success is built on macro-economic foundations laid by the last PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso which tamed hyperinflation.

Cardoso also started many of the social programmes that expanded hugely under his successor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and remain the bedrock of President Rousseff's support. But this history is overlooked by many of the tens of millions of people who benefit from them. Instead they worry Neves will cut back on such assistance, a fear in part stoked by the bankers on his economics team talking of the need for "adjustments".

It is telling that restless voters looking for a change from the Workers Party are not turning to its traditional rival but instead to Silva, a former Workers Party minister, running as the candidate of the Socialist Party that was part of the governing coalition until earlier this year.

Speaks the language

Silva speaks the language of the new Brazil that emerged under president Lula, whom she served. The fact she is a former housemaid of part-African descent who only learnt to read at 16 helps. Neves, a scion of one of Brazil’s elite political families, has so far failed to do so convincingly.

“The PSDB has lost the ability to engage with wider Brazilian society,” says André Pereira César, a political consultant in Brasília. “It needs to rejuvenate itself but when you look at its membership you do not see anyone emerging to take on this task.”

Failure to do so, and one of the main political forces responsible for Brazil’s emergence to global prominence since the return of democracy risks dwindling into irrelevance.