Op-ed: Brazilian presidential candidates close in polls – and positions

Al Jazeera America

SÃO PAULO — Brazilians will elect a president in a closely contested runoff election on Sunday. “There are two proposals on the table in this election,” said incumbent Dilma Rousseff in her final remarks during last week’s televised debate.

Her centre-right challenger, Aécio Neves, echoed the line, shoehorning as much space as possible between their two visions. In reality, Brazilians have one proposal before them, with two slightly different versions to choose from.

Rousseff and her centre-left Workers’ Party (PT) have focused on the record that enabled Brazil to emerge as economic powerhouse and said she wanted to finish the job in a second term. She warned Brazilians that electing Neves would mean higher unemployment, lower salaries and a possible cut to the government’s coveted social programs, which are credited with lifting millions out of poverty.

Neves, who’s running on the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) ticket, says Rousseff was content with past successes and choked off economic growth, which, if elected, he has vowed to restore. But Rousseff is not the only candidate looking back to the future. While she is betting on her party’s successes, including those under her popular predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Neves has tipped his hat to the PSDB’s last president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and his economy-stabilizing Plano Real of the 1990s.

The candidates say Sunday’s vote comes down to guaranteeing either economic growth or social inclusion. Despite the fearmongering and mudslinging, the two are far more complementary, and both candidates have offered only vague assurances on both issues.

Polarizing campaign

On the face of it, the contest has polarized Brazil neatly between Rousseff on the left, backed by the poor, and Neves on the right, backed by the banks. But there are few marked differences between the two candidates. Both are moderates and are considered centrists. The candidates’ backgrounds are about the only thing that offers some differences. Rousseff was an activist in a Marxist group who was imprisoned and tortured in the military dictatorship. Neves was born into a family of more conservative politics, growing up in the shadow of his grandfather Tancredo Neves, who won the first post-dictatorship presidential elections but died before he could take office.

But both candidates have called Minas Gerais — Brazil’s bellwether state — home, and neither was destitute, unlike their vanquished powerful rival Marina Silva, who was born into an impoverished, illiterate family of Amazonian rubber tappers far from the political and economic strongholds of the southeast.

Rousseff has vowed get the economy back on track, although not at the expense of social inclusion or jobs. She has promised to replace Finance Minister Guido Mantega — a small olive branch to the markets, which have long since sided with her rival and are dreading another four years of interventionist fiscal policy and lackluster economic growth.

Neves has tapped the respected former central bank governor Armínio Fraga as his would-be finance minister and pledged zero tolerance of inflation and a war on government spending. But Neves has promised to maintain social programs, despite the PT’s efforts to caricature him as a rich kid who would leave the poor penniless.

He faces a tough challenge to deconstruct Rousseff’s image of as a left-wing warrior fighting for the poor, particularly for those former have-nots whose lives have been dramatically transformed over the past decade — even if the seeds were sown by the last PSDB government before the PT took power in 2003.

With the candidates and the race so close, and with presidents ultimately limited in their influence in government, Brazilians face either continuity with change under Rousseff or change with continuity under Neves.
With market estimates of a paltry 0.3 percent growth this year and inflation above 6.5 percent, the PSDB has argued Rousseff can no longer be trusted with the economy. While many in Brazil’s economic heartland, in São Paulo state in particular, have bought this idea, many voters have not yet felt the squeeze.
There have been noisy distractions, which have blurred these neater economic dividing lines between the two candidates. Rousseff’s party and allies have been embroiled in a string of outrageous corruption scandals, including a kickback scheme involving the state-run oil giant, Petrobras, where Rousseff was on the board of directors. The PSDB is implicated in its own debacle, with Neves caught up in a scandal concerning an airstrip built with public money on a land owned by his family.
Rousseff has countered the allegations by emphasizing how her government had been the first to hand obtain jail sentences for corrupt politicians. Unfortunately, the revelations have simply engulfed much of the campaign, robbing voters of the chance to hear where the candidates stand on other issues.
Foreign policy, for instance, has not received much consideration, and hot-button topics from the first round — the legalization of abortion and cannabis and the criminalization of homophobia — have similarly fallen by the wayside. Pressed for answers on these issues during the recent debate, both Rousseff and Neves were cautious not to rock the boat given the considerable presence of conservative and evangelical lawmakers in attendance. Discrimination against gays and lesbians should be banned, they said, but only because all discrimination should be, and neither candidate pledged to legalize abortion or cannabis if elected.

A familiar tug-of-war

It has been a roller coaster election — with the death of candidate Eduardo Campos and the rise and fall of his replacement, former Environment Minister Marina Silva, who vowed an exciting “third way” — and it’s amazing to think that we have ended up with such a gray, same-old finale.

But such a result was predictable. The familiar, tried-and-tested PT-versus-PSDB tug-of-war has been the hallmark of Brazilian elections since 1994. Most second-round polls show the two candidates locked in a technical dead heat, although the latest polls have shown Rousseff pulling ahead slightly. Undecided voters are likely to decide the final outcome.

Voters have spoken of their disappointment with both candidates and the few proposals available to latch onto: Rousseff’s slogan vows “a new government and new ideas”. Neves promises “real change”. I’m certain both are in favour of hope, too.

Regardless of who wins on Sunday, one thing remains certain: Brazil’s complex domestic political system, an ungainly cobbling together of parties of all stripes that survives on favors and power sharing, will not change. Whoever emerges victorious will have to grease the palms of the PMDB — a giant, alliance-switching kingmaker party of incredibly broad ideology — with key ministries, government positions and roles in prized state-run companies to keep the government cogs turning.

History, however, could favour Rousseff, who won the first round but fell short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. “There has never been a comeback in which a second-place opponent won the second round,” political writer Mauricio Savarese noted recently.

With the candidates and the race so close, and with presidents ultimately limited in their influence in government, Savarese says Brazilians will face either “continuity with change” under Rousseff or “change with continuity” under Neves.

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