A groan rippled through a bus station in Rio de Janeiro. It was 11pm and the results of the day’s election were dribbling in. Tiririca, a blond clown and D-list television personality, had just been elected as the federal deputy for São Paulo. His campaign message? “What does a congressman do? I don’t know. But vote for me and I will find out.”
Tiririca’s victory raised a small laugh in an election season that has been dominated by economics and the rapid growth that Brazil has enjoyed in recent years. Each candidate focused on a message of continuity, and the face of the popular two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has featured on posters of candidates from across the political spectrum. Who would not want to bask in the glow of Lula’s popularity? After eight years in office, he enjoys an 80 per cent approval rating and was recently described by President Barack Obama as the world’s most popular politician.
Lula’s presence was felt most strongly in the campaign of the Workers’ Party (PT) nominee, Dilma Rousseff, a little-known member of the Lula administration until she became the centre of the presidential race. Once known as the president’s candidate, Rousseff saw her standing in the opinion polls skyrocket and her victory seemed certain.
But, in a surprising twist, the Amazon-born Marina Silva, leader of Brazil’s Green Party (PV), won 19 per cent of the vote in the first round
on 3 October. This has pushed Rousseff into a second-round run-off (to take place on 31 October) against José Serra of the conservative Brazil Social Democratic Party (PSDB). Silva’s credentials attracted an eclectic range of supporters: she was the country’s first African-Brazilian female presidential candidate, an evangelical Christian and the only environmentalist, creating a dissonance with Lula’s agro-industrial policies.
Silva’s strong performance in the first round was a surprise even to her, says Paulo Henrique Amorim, who runs the political blog Conversa Afiada (“sharp conversation”), Brazil’s answer to the Huffington Post. “It really has nothing to do with Marina,” Amorim says. “It’s about the local religious leadership.” A post on Conversa Afiada describes the typical PV supporter as “a species unique to the Brazilian Amazon, rarely encountered in western civilisation. It is an orchid – expensive, aristocratic and chic.”
Amorim says that roughly a quarter of Silva’s supporters are university-educated, middle-class high-earners. They enjoy a “European eco-sensibility” but are ideologically connected with the political right wing. Their vote will now go to Serra, he says. The rest are mostly evangelical Christians on low incomes. They are beholden to religious leaders, not party politics, and it is their vote that has been thrust centre stage.
The day after the first round of the election, the front page of the Folha newspaper featured the faces of Rousseff and Serra with Silva’s green handprint smeared on their cheeks. Neither can ignore the stain. Yet Silva’s popularity is merely a bump in the road on Rousseff’s journey to power. Allyne Andrade, a young, black, Rio-based lawyer, voted for Silva in the first round but always intended to throw her weight behind Rousseff in the second. “I wanted to vote for Marina to remind Brazil that there’s a third party – an alternative to the PT and PSDB,” says Andrade. “Rousseff will get my vote because we need a continuation of Lula’s policies.”
To be continued
Although Rousseff has sought to cast herself in the mould of her mentor, Lula, her past couldn’t be more different from his rags-to-riches tale of ascent from shoeshine boy to the presidency. The child of a Bulgarian immigrant entrepreneur and a Brazilian teacher, Rousseff had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. In her late teens, after the military seized power in 1964, she became involved in the political scene at university and joined the left-wing urban guerrilla movement. In 1970, she was arrested in São Paulo carrying a gun and false documents and was sent to a notorious secret police jail where she was tortured and sentenced to three years in prison.
Since Rousseff went on the campaign trail in April this year, she has allowed her image to soften. A facelift, contact lenses and make-up have made her resemble something closer to the “mother to the poor” character that Lula created for her. Yet it is not her guerrilla past that has resonated with the average Brazilian voter, but her economic policies.
Speaking to voters in Rocinha, a favela on the steep slopes above Rio, I find public opinion almost unanimous. “Dilma will get my vote,” says Patricia Corria Capistrano, 28, who works at a local hair salon, “because she will continue Lula’s policies.”
Antonio Favlão agrees. He has run a bar in Rocinha since the early 1980s and says it is only in recent years that the government’s influence has started to reach the favela. “If Lula is able to continue his work through Dilma, I think things will eventually improve.”
But Rousseff’s credentials are so wrapped up with Lula’s that she will have to tread carefully as she emerges from under his wing to govern for herself. Lula has been coy about whether he will seek a third term in 2014 but, for the next four years, he must retreat. The only thing that will taint his legacy is if he allows his popularity to undermine Brazil’s strong, though relatively young, democratic heritage.