President Dilma Rousseff has remained popular throughout most of her first term. But with her approval ratings in decline, does she risk defeat in the upcoming presidential elections? This is the first part of two GRI insights on Brazil’s elections.
The year 2014 is a monumental one for Brazil. As the host of the World Cup, it is in the middle of worldwide attention and media coverage. The world’s biggest companies, from fast food mega-chains to telecommunication giants, have gone ‘Brazilian,’ brandishing the colours of yellow, green and blue around the globe. Yet, the celebrations and controversy of hosting the coveted tournament have cast somewhat of a shadow over the other major competition being held in Brazil in 2014: presidential elections.
The Workers’ Party (PT) has enjoyed a decade in power, and the incumbent President, Dilma Rousseff, has maintained an infallible base of popularity throughout her first term. Rousseff’s steadfast reputation is illustrated by consistently high rankings in various polls. However, as invincible as Rousseff has been in her first term, we are beginning to see signs of a change in the general consensus. Are we now looking at a surprise outcome of October’s election and a new political era in Brazil?
Rousseff made history as the first female President in Brazil, taking over from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as Lula, for whom she worked as Chief of Staff. Lula was the rags-to-riches politician who founded the PT and captured the heart of the nation with his charisma and populist policies aimed at improving the economy and social welfare and combating government corruption.
When Rousseff took over from the estimable Lula, she adopted a similar style of governance, continuing the social programmes he had implemented and maintaining promises to help the poor of Brazil. So untouchable has Rousseff’s reputation been that nationwide protests in June 2013 may have temporarily shaken her popularity, but they did not ultimately cause her to falter.
Nevertheless, recent economic challenges have begun chipping away at Rousseff’s reputation, as is clear from a 27% drop in approval ratings since last year. A hike in interest rates, which have reached 11%, angered the indebted middle class and businesses alike. Meanwhile, unemployment has reached an all time high, afflicting the most vulnerable of Brazil and the target group of Rousseff’s core campaign message. Controversial energy policies and a scandal with Petrobras have also brought the President’s judgement into question.
In addition to such man-made perils, this year Rousseff and the PT must also contend with a drought, which has severely hit major industries such as coffee, significantly raised the price of electricity and reduced the water supply for thousands of urban residents. With a growing number of offences gnawing away at the status of Rousseff and the PT, the likelihood of a serious contender in upcoming elections seems increasingly plausible.
The main opposition, the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), headed by Aécio Neves, has littered its campaign with criticisms of the incumbent and highlighted the economic downfalls of the past year, blaming Rousseff for undoing the economic prosperity achieved during the PSDB’s 20 years of governance.
Meanwhile, the resentment of the rising middle class continues to augment as they feel anger towards the costly handouts and social programmes bestowed upon the poor, viewing this as a transparent means for garnering votes for the PT as opposed to contributing to the general development of the country. With many citizens depending wholly on the support of the state, this corner that PT has backed itself into could cause it to lose further support as the PSDB picks on these controversial policies in coming months.
Adding to this threat is the unexpected competition which comes from the alternative choice, the Brazilian Sociality Party (PSB), led by Eduardo Campos. In a surprise move, former Minister of the Environment and founder of the Green Party, Marina Silva, has joined forces with PSB in the run-up to this year’s election. Silvia won an impressive 19 million votes during the last election, with her clean image and policies for sustainability scoring her huge points in terms of public appeal.
Strategically, this is a powerful alliance. With each receiving support from different geographic regions of Brazil, their combined popularity spreads imposingly on the map. With a focus on the environment and the much-talked-about energy sector, the PSB is a viable alternative to the two main parties.
So what does this mean for the status quo in Brazilian politics? Rousseff’s enduring popularity is beginning to slip and the presumption of her landslide victory in this year’s election is now questionable. With a damning focus on the electoral campaign and inordinate government expenditure on the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, resentment for the incumbent is likely to develop further.
In light of sluggish GDP growth, a dissatisfied middle class and an increasingly vulnerable population living in poverty, Rousseff, even with the backing of Lula, is no longer the best option for the Brazilian electorate; a coalition is beginning to seem more likely.
The partnership between Campos and Silvia must not be underestimated, whilst the legacy of the PSDB will grow more prominent as the Brazilian economy continues to falter. Rousseff’s familiar face and overwhelming airtime during the election campaign will certainly keep the incumbent in the limelight. And she has by no means lost yet. Nonetheless, the race for this year’s popularity contest is now on.
Elizabeth works as International Account Manager for an environmental technologies company and has previously worked for a political consultancy company in Westminster and for Intelligence Squared, a forum for live debates. She received a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Essex and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.