Presidente Marina?

As the resident Brazil “expert” (i.e., I’ve been there and wed a national) I feel I should bring you at least a straightforward update.

Brazil votes tomorrow in the first round of a general election. Where no candidate reaches an absolute majority, the races go to a runoff in 3 weeks’ time. The political landscape is fragmented, so there is never a clear majority party in the Parliament. Unlike France, Brazil has no Prime Minister. The President appoints ministers (not subject to confirmation), but must negotiate to pass every budget and law. Brazil is federal, and state governors have substantial power. I don’t pretend to grasp the whole picture. Like most outsiders, I’m mainly interested in who occupies the powerful presidency.

The latest poll is consistent with earlier ones. WSJ:

Ms. Rousseff got the most support in the survey by the Sensus polling company for ISTO É magazine, at 37.3% in the first round. Ms. Silva got 22.5% and Mr. Neves got 20.6%, a technical tie given the poll’s 2.2 percentage-point margin of error.

None of the many other candidates are significant. Dilma Rousseff has a comfortable lead but not an an absolute majority, so there will be a runoff. Marina Silva’s non-significant lead over Aecio Neves in this one poll follows a long series of polls giving her a statistically significant one, so I expect Nate Silver or Sam Wang would make her clear favourite for second place. I’ll update on Monday with the results. [Update: full names added]

All recent hypothetical polls for the runoff give Dilma a comfortable win over either rival, by 6 points over Marina and 9 over Aecio (footnote). (Let’s switch to first names as Brazilians do.) Still, three weeks is a long time in politics. Marina may not endorse Aecio – conservatives are even worse that socialists on the environment. But Aecio would have strong reasons to endorse Marina, who has promised an orthodox economic policy, including independence of the central bank. This has laid her open to demagogic attacks from Dilma that Marina would be abandoning Brazil’s poor, from which she, unlike Dilma, actually sprang. Cutting the incessant meddling by incompetent and/or corrupt bureaucrats in the economy – think of Olivares or the Permit Raj more than Colbert – would probably help the poor, though it would hit the unionized workers in protected industries that form the core base of Lula’s and Dilma’s PT party.


Marina Silva

Whom should we root for? The main interest the rest of the world has in Brazil is the conservation of the Amazon forest as the world’s green lung, and therefore an end to deforestation, preferably its reversal. Silva would quite plainly be far better on this, the issue on which she quit Lula’s government. For Brazilians, her platform is somewhat better than Dilma’s, against which you have to set her managerial inexperience and a lone-wolf style that has led her regularly to quarrel with allies. Her success in governing would depend on a wise choice of aides, as she lacks the personal skills in backroom dealings that more conventional politicians acquire early. On corruption, she is also far superior. Brazilians may have doubts on her competence, but respect her integrity.

Brazilian politics is pretty sleazy. A spoils system in the civil service, lacking a Sir Humphrey / énarque tradition of professional independence; ineffective regulation of political finance; rules on public contracts that are so complex that they are routinely bypassed; and great inequality that makes all politicians unavowably dependent on the rich few, keep it so. On top of this, Lula’s and Dilma’s PT has been in power too long and developed Chavezian tendencies of embedding itself so deeply in public institutions that the distinction between state and party is blurring. It is definitely time for a change.

The corruption issue may still be a live one. A major scandal has just emerged over the diversion of funds into political payoffs from the giant state oil company Petrobras. Its mismanagement was already a matter of record. The scale is alleged to be greater than the mensalão scandal of Lula’s first term, in which MPs were bribed to allow his legislation through. (Well, Lincoln did it too, in a greater cause.)

If the Petrobras scandal develops, and if Aecio endorses her, Marina Silva just may have a chance of becoming the first leader of a major country elected primarily to defend the environment.

Brazilian parents show an exuberant freedom in the naming of their children, as you can see from any football team. Aecio commemorates the late Roman general and statesman Flavius Aetius, who (as I’m sure you remember) defeated Attila the Hun near Châlons in 451 AD, by one account without any regular Roman legionaries at all. I haven’t come across Brazilians called Stilicho, Narses or Belisarius, other warlords from the same era. Striker, defender and midfield playmaker, perhaps.

* * * * *

Update 1 Sunday
Three polls published on Saturday show Aecio with a lead over Marina, at least one statistically significant. So it sadly looks as if it’s back to business-in-politics as usual. Aecio has no chance against Dilma in the runoff. The count results may be delayed.

Update 2 Monday 6 October

Well, well. Results (99% in): Dilma 41.6%, Aecio 33.5%, Marina 21.3%, 8 others 3.5%. So much for “experts” like me in distant armchairs.

Marina’s support really did crash in the last week; she went back to near her score in 2010, 19.3%. Why? Much of her polled support must have been very shallow, and tipped back to Aecio once she showed some weaknesses and he some strength. The swings still show remarkable volatility, which I (nursing burnt fingers) will not try to explain. It’s not necessarily a sign of immaturity in the electorate; the behaviour also makes sense as sophisticated tactical voting.

Dilma’s support also fell substantially, though by less. She got 5.3% less than in the first round in 2010, half her margin on victory in the second. There may be a turnout effect – her poll lead was so comfortable that supporters could have felt safe not to show up. However, voting is in principle compulsory and many other offices were at stake. Aecio’s team will reasonably see the swing as a sign that his and Marina’s attacks on corruption and mismanagement are drawing blood. He has moved from no-hoper to underdog in the runoff.

One of Marina’s mistakes was a flip-flop on gay marriage. Dearie me. Since Julius Caesar ran for consul and John Wilkes for MP for Middlesex, it’s been the rule that you must stick by your platform, even if it claims that 2 + 2 = 5. Obama must have realized early on that his no-mandate position in health care was a crock, but he kept it until elected.


  1. NoGatorFan says


    I am not a Brazil expert so I read this piece.
    After reading I am confused.

    Who is this Dilma person? And who is pictured?
    Perhaps referring to candidates by first and last names would make things clearer.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Right you are. I’ve added the full names of the three candidates in the second paragraph to make the transition. The photo is of Marina Silva, the subject of the piece.

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