SÃO PAULO — Brazil’s leading presidential candidates went head-to-head late on Tuesday in the first televised debate ahead of October’s general election.
Seven of the 11 presidential candidate took part in the event, including incumbent president and Workers’ Party candidate, Dilma Rousseff, and her two main rivals, Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party, and Social Democracy Party candidate Aécio Neves.
The rivals were asked to define their positions on crime, education, the economy, and political reform, as well as taking one another to task on other prickly issues, such as the oil giant Petrobras, the legalisation of abortion, and crimes against the LGBT community.
The presidential hopefuls chose to aim many of their questions at Rousseff, who is vying for a second term in office and spent much of her allotted time defending her record on social programmes and job creation.
Neves condemned the president’s economic track record of high inflation and sluggish economic growth. Rousseff accused Neves’s party of “breaking Brazil three times” when they were in power, with the incumbent taking one of the more memorable swipes of the night: “My government generated more jobs in four years than yours in eight.”
Neves also attacked Rousseff’s handling of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, the recent subject of both political scandal and parliamentary inquiries, but the president rebuffed the accusation, highlighting the company’s growth since the Social Democracy Party last held the reins.
‘No silver bullet’
Rousseff and Neves briefly attacked new candidate Marina Silva, who stepped up as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate after the death of Eduardo Campos in a plane crash on 13 August.
However, the pair kept the majority of their questions for each other, in a bid to sideline Silva and maintain a traditional either-or, two-party race:
“Rousseff and Neves don’t want to give Silva credit as a contender. Silva spent three hours criticizing the party polarization, but did not go into specifics about what she would do,” Brazilian writer and journalist Mauricio Savarese told the Anadolu Agency (AA).
“The candidates simply tried to reinforce their positions.”
However, others said Silva at least partly managed to embody Brazil’s desire for change, which brought over a million Brazilians out onto the streets last year in mass anti-government protests demanding political reform and improved public services, among other grievances.
Silva strategically praised former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, from Rousseff and Neves’s parties respectively, in an attempt to bridge the two-party divide, and defended picking the best politics from both worlds.
In the predicted Silva-Rousseff election runoff, Silva would seek both Neves’s supporters and alienated Workers’ Party voters.
None of the candidates stood out as having won the debate, the majority of commentators and Brazilians on social media agreed, criticising the dearth of clear proposals from all candidates, but many singled out Silva as being particularly vague and lacking in detail.
“No one fired the silver bullet that would cause an opponent irreversible damage,” political commentator Marcelo de Moraes wrote in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, adding that Silva’s tendency to accept criticism and praise others was likely attributable to her rising support among the electorate.
Silva ‘would win runoff’
The latest Ibope election poll, released hours before the first televised debate, showed that support for Silva had skyrocketed and that, for the first time, she was predicted to beat Rousseff in an almost-certain second round of voting.
Published by the Estado de São Paulo, it is the first poll to be taken since the start of political advertising on national television and radio, and the first since Marina Silva was officially confirmed as the PSB’s new presidential candidate.
It showed support for Rousseff had dropped four points to 34 percent, with Silva placing a close second on 29 percent. Neves also fell four points to 19 percent.
In a runoff between Rousseff and Silva, the poll predicted Silva would win by 45 percent to 36 percent.
The result for Silva was even better than in the first poll released after Campos’s death, released by Datafolha on 18 August, showing Silva with 21 percent of voter support, overtaking Neves to take second place, and tying with Rousseff in a second-round scenario.
Campos had been polling third, with nine percent in the last Ibope poll.
Some have attributed Silva’s surge in popularity to emotions following Campos’s death and a “novelty factor,” but others argue her experience and low rejection rate mean she now stands a real chance of winning in what is now a much closer election.
Brazil’s financial markets have been buoyed by the news of a strong contender against Rousseff, whose tight hold on fiscal policy is strongly disliked.
All eyes are now on Marina Silva’s interview on Brazil’s primetime news show Jornal Nacional on Wednesday evening. The 15-minute grilling has proven a tough ride for other candidates, including Rousseff, whose complicated, numbers-heavy answers drew widespread criticism.
“Silva’s performance on Jornal Nacional will be key for her to be seen as a credible candidate,” Savarese told the AA.
Voters head to the polls for the first round of the compulsory general election vote on 5 October. Should no candidate reach 50 percent, which appears increasingly likely, a second round will be held on 26 October.