Quo vadis, Brazil?
Dilma Rousseff’s narrow victory in the 2014 president elections – 51.64 percent against Aécio Neves’ 48.36 percent – offers more questions than answers.
Dept. of International Studies, Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR).
First, Dilma was reelected without offering any program manifesto to the electorate. Implicitly, her program is to continue the policies and programs she partly inherited from her predecessor, Inácio Lula da Silva. Her strongest card was the merits of ‘social inclusion’: since Lula became president in 2003, there has been a strong socio-economic uplift for the poorest 20 per cent of the population. The cash transfer programs such as Bolsa Familia, the consistent increase of the minimum salary decreed by the government, and the unprecedented low unemployment rate (currently at six per cent) have contributed to the uplift.
However, the economic growth model of Lula and Dilma is in big trouble. The model is based on increased domestic demand and consumption, and close cooperation between the government and the business sector. It helped Brazil to grow during and after the international financial crisis. Nevertheless, the exports have slowed down – mainly soya, other agribusiness products and minerals – due to the decreased demand particularly in China. The economic growth for 2014 is supposed to be less than 1 per cent. The large-scale exploitation of the enormous oil reserves discovered in deep water east south of the state of Rio de Janeiro have been delayed. They may contribute to national economy and state coffers from 2016, if the oil price avoids dropping. Amidst economic uncertainty, the business sector and the corporate media turned aggressively against Dilma. Her PhD in economics and technocratic style of governing has all but helped her to rebuild a broad coalition for future economic and social policies.
Second, without wanting it, the technocrat president has become part of a kind of polarized class war which Brazil has not seen since 1989, when Lula with a radical socialist program lost to the right wing populist Fernando Collor de Mello. Since 1994 the president elections have been a fight between the Workers’ Party (PT) and the more right-wing Social Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB). Although clear ideological differences between the two parties, they have in practice converged in economic and social policies. The two candidates this time, Dilma and Aécio, could not spell out large differences in their social and liberal platforms. However, the deep going distrust in the politicians and the uncertainty about what would be their real policy choices, split the electorate along ideological lines (left-right) and social lines (rich-poor). It is typical for this distrust that both Dilma and Aécio were accused by their opponents of being corrupt or covering-up corruption. Dilma obtained in average twice as many votes as Aécio among the groups with the lowest income and in the poorest regions of the country (Northeast and North). Inversely, Aécio gained almost twice as many votes as Dilma in the high-income groups and in the richer areas with the strongest agro-business and manufacturing industry in the South, West and state of São Paulo.
This class polarization was expressed more clearly in the simultaneous elections to the National Congress. The voters here choose between persons rather than parties, and the candidates with the biggest campaign budget tend to win. Henceforth, the National Congress has become more conservative, with the agro-business lobby in control of one third of the new House of Representatives (Cámara Federal). Also the ‘fundamentalist bench’, gathering pentecostal and other conservative evangelical politicians across parties, have gained strength. The Workers Party lost one third of its mandates, but remains the main fraction with less than 15 percent of the seats. The main allied part of PT is the business-oriented centre-right party PMDB, which has become the largest party in the Senate and turned out be no reliable partner for Dilma. The first thing PMDB and the conservative representatives did after the elections were to veto a decree issued by president Dilma about ‘social (people’s and civil society) participation’ in policy making councils.
In this situation, the main bargaining card of president Dilma is the support – ‘critical and conditional support’, for sure - mobilized for her among the social movements and progressive parts of the civil society. Before the elections, from 1st to 7th of September, 477 civil society organizations organized a ‘plebiscite’ regarding political reform. The campaign was headed by the Lawyers Association and the National Council of Catholic Bishops. 7.754.436 persons casted their ballot, and 97 percent voted yes to “an exclusive and sovereign constituent assembly on political reform”. The aim of the campaigners is to fight back the power of money in politics and to make the elections for municipal, state and national assemblies more truly representative. This campaign was launched after the massive June 2013 demonstrations against abuse of public money and corrupt politicians in connection with the FIFA 2014 World Cup. In Dilma’s first speech after the elections, the political reform - based on a plebiscite and the people’s participation - was her only concrete policy announcement. Not surprisingly, the conservative representatives in the National Congress do not want such a process to happen beyond their control. While the the president may have constitutional powers to start the process in the extra-parliamentary way, the National Congress can at the end of the day block the ultimate legal approvals and even impeach the president. Many observers question whether ‘Dilma the Technocrat’ is really capable of challenging the conservative forces this way.