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Brazil’s Presidential Election: On to the Second Round

The campaign ahead of the second round election on October 31 will allow Dilma Rousseff to be better prepared for the realities of politics once she is likely confirmed as president.

Brazil’s presidential election shows once again that it’s a country of surprises. Based on numerous opinion polls, it seemed clear that Dilma Rousseff (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) would win easily in the first round. Instead, although winning 46.9 percent of the votes, she now faces the prospect of another tough month of campaigning against veteran politician José Serra prior to the second-round election on October 31.

Dilma is likely to prevail in the second round against Serra, although the difference in votes will not likely be overwhelming. José Serra, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) candidate who won 32.6 percent of the votes, is going to attract a substantial number of those who voted for Marina Silva in the first round. Many of her Partido Verde (Green Party) supporters are relatively better educated and with higher incomes than the average Brazilian. They also tend to be located in the South and Southeast of the country. These factors all work in Serrra’s favor. That means that the vote on October 31 will be a relatively close one. But Dilma should prevail in this second round and become President on January 1, 2011.

The question to consider is what such a tough win will mean for a potential President Rousseff and her mandate. Will it undermine her authority once in office, causing her to water down her program, to be more conciliatory toward a large and entrenched opposition? Will she be less free to pursue her major objectives that importantly revolve around the role of the state in the Brazilian economy?

The reality is that being forced into a second round may not be a huge setback and it may actually be an opportunity for Dilma in disguise. Brazilians like to vote and second round runoffs are common. Even after four years in office, Lula himself was forced into a second round in 2006 where he also faced an uncharismatic former (and future) governor of São Paulo in Geraldo Alckmin. Lula campaigned confidently for the second round then and won handily. Dilma can follow this same script, confident that she needs only to shore up her own base and attract a small percentage of Marina voters.

In fact, there may be some significant advantages for Dilma to remain in campaign mode for the next month. Recall that she has never been elected to any office and that her meteoric rise to prominence in Brazilian politics owes much to serendipity and Lula’s popularity. She has had an important role in running the machinery of the Brazilian government for several years, but she has not been in any sense a public figure until the last few months.

Dilma’s campaign in the first round was what the Americans would call a “Rose Garden” strategy—avoid engaging directly with Serra or taking controversial policy positions. She is going to have to move beyond that strategy over the next few weeks, taking on Serra directly, arguing more specifically about the merits of her proposals, and being more energetic in countering the multiple insinuations of corruption that have weakened her national support in recent months. All of this will be, in the long run, good for the candidate, and good for Brazilian democracy.

It will also be good preparation for the realities of politics once she is likely confirmed as President.

If Dilma limps to the finish line and barely scrapes by, it could be a broad signal to all, her allies as well as the opposition, that her political combat skills are suspect. One could imagine that the left wing of the PT, sensing weakness and chafing from being sidelined under Lula, could become more aggressive in the pursuit of its social and economic agenda. The largest party, the Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (PMDB), is actually running in a coalition with Dilma. Party leaders, including Michel Temer, a powerful and wily politician who would be Dilma’s vice-president, could demand a larger role in the division of government jobs and the allocation of the government budget.

The PSDB is also under pressure to do well in this second round. Serra owes the second round opportunity to Marina, not to his own disorganized campaign. The PSDB was badly weakened in these elections, especially with the loss of a number of its highest profile leaders in the congress. However, it did win governorships in four major states, including Minas Gerais and São Paulo. The PSDB is in a difficult spot if it cannot find effective ways to take advantage of Dilma politically over the next four years while grooming a new crop of leaders and competing strongly for the presidency in 2014.

But Dilma also has a big upside. Essentially, she has another month in which to define her programs more clearly to her base, to Brazil more broadly, and, for that matter, to the world as a whole. Dilma has to be more than Lula’s anointed one; now she realizes that she has to make that case. She can push the PSDB more firmly to the sidelines by a strong showing. She can demonstrate leadership to her coalition partner, the PMDB, as well, demonstrating that she has the dexterity needed to cope with Brazil’s messy and noisy democracy. More to the point, it is a chance for Dilma to take an aggressive stance on rooting out corruption at all levels of the government, distancing herself from the scandals that upset the campaign in the first round.

The first-round elections have shown clearly that while Brazilians feel the country is heading in the right direction, many Brazilians, perhaps a majority of the country, are remarkably distrustful of the government itself, a somewhat odd political juxtaposition. Dilma has a chance to address these voters and their concerns. She might not succeed, but for a relatively untested politician, this type of trial by fire could strengthen her ability to govern successfully over the next four years.

(Homepage Image Rotator Photo Courtesy of Blog do Planalto.)

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