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CREDIT: Shutterstock

Brazil at a Crossroads: The 2013 Protests and the Upcoming Presidential Elections

Oct 23, 2014

This Sunday, October 26, Brazilian voters will decide who will rule the country for the next four years. On one side there is presidential candidate Aécio Neves, grandson of Tancredo Neves, the first president nominated by means of direct elections after the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil in 1985. Tancredo Neves died from health complications before being sworn in as president, leaving a void filled by his vice-president. Aécio Neves governed the state of Minas Gerais for two consecutive mandates, starting in 2003. He left the government after restructuring public accounts, increasing productivity, and enhancing investment capacity by the state, with an approval rate in the range of 92 percent.

On the other side is Dilma Rousseff, who comes from the upper middle class and who joined guerrilla groups against the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985. After being imprisoned in 1970, tortured, and then released, she went into politics, later serving as minister of energy during Lula's presidency before being elected president in 2010. She has focused on the social and economic inclusion of Brazil's poorest classes, as well as on strong state participation in driving economic development focused on the agribusiness and energy sectors. During her administration, social goals have achieved more success than economic ones. Among other initiatives, her government expanded access to public services and provided employment and income to Brazil's most disadvantaged.

Whoever wins the elections will inherit a country with a host of problems: low private investments in the economy; pressing inflation; rising unemployment; decreasing GDP; domestic bottlenecks such as limited infrastructure; onerous taxes and regulations; low productivity rates; an inflated and inefficient governmental structure with a total of 39 ministries; an increasing fiscal deficit since 2011; and widespread corruption. These issues, combined with projections of a still risky and fragile international scenario by the IMF Global Economic Outlook for 2014, pose challenges for strengthening economic growth and steadily reversing the current trade deficit and approaching recession. In September 2014, the credit rating agency Moody's revised the outlook on Brazil's Baa2 government bond rating from stable to negative in view of low economic growth, fiscal challenges, and decreasing confidence in the economy by consumers and investors.

Who will decide the elections? According to a national survey, Dilma holds the majority of votes among the poor and the lower-middle classes, which corresponds to 37 percent of the total electorate. Aécio has 33 percent of votes in the upper and upper-middle classes. The remaining 30 percent of votes are split evenly between both candidates and derive from the "intermediate middle class"—those in the middle between upper and lower middle class—a group that has considerably expanded in the past 12 years. The socioeconomic divide that characterizes this election means that the decision lies in the hands of this latter class.

The sharp split in voting intentions in the intermediate middle class reflects in part the representation crisis that both political parties face in the eyes of the entire middle class. In June 2013, when protests swept the streets of several cities in Brazil, the majority of protesters were members of the middle class, who objected to the lack of representation of their values and interests by the existing politicians and parties. Demands for social and economic changes on the streets were accompanied by appeals for political reform.

In this regard, civil society groups involved in the protests acknowledged the deepening of a crisis of governability. This has long been recognized as problematic for full political representation and as a hindrance to implementing policies that would advance common interests. Under the current system, every elected president needs to build alliances with members of Congress to obtain the majority of votes for the approval of projects. Political ideology is not a relevant factor in a system of coalitions where party loyalty is not required from politicians. The president obtains Congressmen's support through negotiations over the distribution of the federal budget among Brazil's states and the nominations of representatives of allied parties to key ministries and agencies. The expectation (and reality) therefore, is to get more of the same with slight variations, no matter who wins the elections.

Protests have not led to the emergence of new political actors or parties that represent a disruption from the long-established system. Civil society has also failed to promote such a transition by taking the initiative into its own hands, choosing instead to bring its claims to the existing political leadership. Failure to be heard by the latter has deepened the discredit of the political class. As a result, the predicted tie of the current election reflects the lack of preference for one candidate, party, or program over the other.

In face of the protesters' rejection of the representation of their interests by the political elite, the presidential candidates have not directly associated themselves with, or incorporated in their programs, the claims raised on the streets. Nor have they introduced themselves as an alternative to the political status quo in response to the protestors' demands, as they fear losing votes. The divide between the political class and civil society has become so large that the former doesn't dare to speak on behalf of the latter.

Reflecting the above scenario, just a few days before the elections, projected voting intentions remain strictly even between the two parties (taking into account an expected margin of error of up to 2 percent): in the latest estimates from October 20, 48 percent of voters declared their support for Aécio Neves, and 52 percent for Dilma Rousseff. Among the remaining constituencies not included in the estimate, 6 percent declared they will cast a blank vote in protest and so the other (still) undecided 4 percent will determine the results of elections.

Considering that proposals on social policy from both candidates do not differ significantly (on the contrary), the choice of voters will depend on the economic model proposed by each candidate: on the one hand, strict control of the economy by the federal government (Dilma); on the other, a more liberal approach (Aécio). Ideologically, these positions reflect an emphasis on geo-political alliances: South-South (Dilma), vs. North-South ultimately motivated by economic interests (Aécio). The challenge for each candidate is to convince the undecided portion of the population, which does not have a strong ideological opinion about means but focuses on ends, that their proposals will lead to the accomplishment of the varied array of demands raised on the streets.

However the problems such voters perceive, as previously mentioned, is that the current political structure presents significant governing challenges for whoever gets elected; they also lack confidence in the representation of their interests by candidates that have long been integrated into the existing political establishment. The irony is that although these voters lack the power to drive real change in the course of the first round of elections, the decision of who will be the future president of Brazil lies in their hands.

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