Can Aecio Neves Win Brazil’s Presidential Race?

Aecio Neves

Aecio Neves surpasses Marina Silva and will face Dilma Rousseff in a runoff on October 26th, but can he win?

Brazil completed the first round of presidential elections this past Sunday, and contrary to poll predictions only one month ago, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate Aécio Neves made it to the second round with 33.55% of total vote, versus 21.32% of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) candidate Marina Silva. As expected, current President Dilma Rousseff came out on top with 41.59% of total vote.

Will Aécio Neves be able to close the gap with Dilma Rousseff?

The rule for the second round is quite simple: the candidate with the most votes wins. In the first round Rousseff obtained 43.3 million votes, against 34.9 million for Neves, and 22.1 million for Silva. Votes for other political parties amounted to 3.7 million. If we were to assume that abstention rates and the number of null and blank votes stayed the same, and also that votes for minor parties split 50-50 between Rousseff and Neves, Neves would need to capture at least 70% of the votes that went to Silva in the first round. This sounds like a quite challenging scenario for Neves, although not an impossible one.

What factors could swing in Aecio Neves’s favor?

  • Formal endorsement from the PSB coalition led by Silva: The PSB coalition, which is comprised of six different political parties will meet this week to decide whether or not they will formally endorse the candidacy of either Rousseff or Neves. In 2010, when Silva was the third-place finisher with the PV (Green Party) in that year’s first round of election, she decided not to endorse Rousseff or José Serra (PSDB), and the PSDB could only capture around 55% of her votes. However, things could be different this time as the PSB’s economic program is quite similar to that of the PSDB, which would make it easier to find a common ground in potential negotiations between both coalitions. Additionally, some voices within the PSB coalition, namely its vice president Beto Alburquerque, have publicly expressed their disappointment with the content and tone of the accusations deployed by the PT against Silva in TV ads and presidential debates, signaling that it is unlikely that the PSB will endorse Rousseff.
  • Support from undecided voters and absentees: The percentage of blank and null votes went from 8.7% in 2010’s first round to 9.7% in 2014’s, and the abstention rate increased from 18.12% to 19.39%, indicating rising skepticism and fatigue on the part of the average Brazilian voter. If we combine this figures with the fact that 80% of Brazilians have expressed desire for change, it seems that a key factor in this year’s runoff will be each candidate’s ability to convince those undecided and disenchanted voters that they can lead the change that the country needs. Although it is true that both the PT and the PSDB represent longstanding polarization in Brazilian politics, there is a harder case to be made by Rousseff that she can lead that change running as the incumbent candidate.
  • Equal airtime in TV and radio: In contrast to what happened between August 19 and October 2, when Rousseff enjoyed more than 47% of total airtime, versus 18.1%% for Neves and only 7.3% for Silva, the second round time will be distributed evenly between the two candidates. Each presidential candidate will have 10 minutes in a 20-minute program aired daily, twice a day. This time distribution should allow for a fairer electoral contest, as both candidates will have equal time to explain their political program and rebut their opponent’s assertions. This stands in sharp contrast with what we saw in the first round, when both the PT and PSDB used their airtime advantage to deconstruct the “Marina phenomenon”.

What can we expect during the next two weeks in terms of political strategies?

Rousseff will most likely deploy a communication campaign that combines a fierce defense of her party’s achievements since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took power in 2002, with an attack on Neves and his party’s ability to sustain social gains with an economic program that calls for government spending cuts and a diminished role for public banks in the provision of credit.  Achievements, such as  the reduction of an already-low unemployment rate of 6.7% in 2010 to an estimated of 5.4% in 2014, the increase of the minimum wage from 510 to 724 reais per month in real terms, and sustained poverty reduction will all play in Dilma’s favor.

Neves, on the other hand, will focus on the deterioration of economic fundamentals since Rousseff took power, namely high inflation and stagnant growth, while warning Brazilians of the risks of returning to the bad economic management of 80s and early 90s. Most importantly, Neves will try to convince Brazil’s new middle class of the need to take social progress to the next level, where individuals no longer depend on social subsidies, and rather rely on better job opportunities and social services. Neves will benefit from his strong performance in the first-round of elections, and his successful track record as governor of Minas Gerais; a state that was in the brink of bankruptcy when he took power in 2002, but later emerged as the state in which poverty declined at the fastest rate in Brazil, with the best-performing schools, and with the fourth better healthcare system in the country.

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