FeaturesPolitics

Tight race for Brazil's next president

Incumbent Dilma Rousseff leading with a narrow 39 percent, just ahead of the Socialist Party, latest poll shows.

| Politics, Latin America, Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Marina Silva

Residents of the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela pass candidate Marina Silva's campaign poster [Flora Charner/Al Jazeera]

By

Flora Charner

Flora Charner is a multimedia journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is the author of the ebook "Shot in The Favela - How Television and Film Influence the Image of Poverty in Rio de Janeiro".

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Four years ago, Marcio Carvalho, 44, walked into his assigned voting centre near his home in Rio de Janeiro's Cantagalo favela and cast his ballot for President Dilma Rousseff.

He was a strong supporter of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and believed the Workers Party's socio-economic programmes would help many residents in his impoverished hillside community. With the presidential election on Sunday, the subway worker said he is completely undecided.

"I don't know who I'm going to choose come Sunday. I am torn between Dilma [Rousseff], Marina [Silva] and Aecio [Neves]," Carvalho said, referring to each candidate by his or her first name. 

Like Carvalho, many who supported the Workers Party (PT) throughout its 12 years in power have recently become disillusioned with Rousseff. A corruption scandal involving oil giant Petrobras, the country's largest company, and last year's massive street protests against overspending for the 2014 FIFA World Cup hurt the once popular incumbent.

I know I have to vote. It is my civic duty. The problem is, I am not really fond of any of them.

- Marcio Carvalho, subway worker

"I know I have to vote," Carvalho said. "It is my civic duty. The problem is, I am not really fond of any of them."

In Brazil, voting is mandatory. Those who abstain from showing up at the polls are hit with fines that are relatively inexpensive, but could prevent citizens from getting passports or other important documents. However, voters are allowed to submit a blank vote.

In order for a candidate to win, he or she must obtain more than 50.1 percent of the votes. Otherwise, the election goes to a runoff between the top two contenders. 

Up for grabs?

The latest survey from the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE) shows Rousseff leading with a narrow 39 percent. Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva comes in second with 25 percent, and Social Democrat Aecio Neves in third with 19 percent.

"Before last year's protests, Rousseff's approval ratings were very high," said political science professor Cesar Zucco, from Rio de Janeiro's Getulio Vargas Foundation, in an interview with Al Jazeera. "If she were entering the race with at least 47 percent of the votes, she would most likely win in the first round."

Rousseff's popularity dropped by nearly 30 percent last June, after protests and strikes took over the country's main urban centres. For months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose transportation fare hikes, low teacher wages, and precarious public healthcare conditions.

Surveys indicate education, public security and the economy are among voters' top concerns.

"If I go to the supermarket with BRL $50 [US $20] in my pocket, I can't get anything," Carvalho said. "Inflation has gone through the roof."

The country officially entered a recession in August, with Brazil's GDP dropping by 0.2 percent in the first quarter and 0.6 percent in the second quarter of the year. National inflation is also at a high, at 6.5 percent. It was the largest dip suffered by the economy since the 2008 global financial crisis.

However, the figures for unemployment are at an all time low at 4.9 percent.

Initiatives such as the federal social welfare programme bolsa familia, which provides a small stipend to poor families, has reached nearly a quarter of the country's 200 million residents. An increase in the minimum wage, which is currently $300, during the Workers Party 12 years in power has also played favourably among Rousseff's base.

"Unemployment in Brazil is very low. There are more people working here than in most countries around the world," political scientist Pedro Fassoni from Sao Paulo's Catholic University told Al Jazeera. "I think this will play favourably for the federal government, even with the economic slowdown."

"Although Dilma's popularity has suffered, the Workers Party still has a strong following, especially in the populous north and northeastern states," Zucco said. "She doesn't need to go to each town because the party has people in regional offices campaigning for her and for the government's social programmes that have helped many out of poverty."

Young men from Rio de Janeiro's Cantagalo favela chat near vandalised campaign posters [Flora Charner/Al Jazeera]

Lula's legacy

Rousseff, 66, a former marxist who was imprisoned during the country's military dictatorship in 1970, served under former President Lula da Silva as his energy minister and chief of staff.

Marina Silva, her main challenger, also served under Lula as his environmental minister until 2009, when she publicly broke away from the party. A year later, she ran for president under the Green Party and came in third place.

Silva, 56, was born in the Amazon state of Acre on a rubber plantation. The mixed-race environmental activist fought against deforestation with the late Chico Mendes.

During this election, she joined a new political party alliance and began campaigning as late Pernambuco governor Eduardo Campos' running mate. She replaced Campos on the ballot in August, following the tragic plane crash that killed him and seven others.

At first, Silva's popularity was high, especially among former Rousseff supporters. In September, polls showed her with a two percent lead ahead of the incumbent. But her popularity quickly dropped, many attribute this to her conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage, while others believe she is pandering to the business elite.

There are a lot of anti-petistas who want to see an end to this party's leadership.

- Pedro Fassoni, Sao Paulo's Catholic University

"I think the problem was that she doesn't really identify with the party she is representing," Fassoni said. "Although she is to the left on environmental issues, her social views are more in line with conservative evangelicals and economic policies with the Social Democrats. I think voters looking for a return to neoliberal policies will vote for Aecio."

Aecio Neves, 54, is a Brazilian economist and the former governor of the state of Minas Gerais. He is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, the late politician who was elected president in 1985 but never took office due to health issues. Neves, who is currently third in the polls, is favoured among the country's middle-upper class and those who are looking to break away from the Workers Party rule.

"There are a lot of anti-petistas who want to see an end to this party's leadership," Fassoni said. "But I honestly don't think he used this to his advantage. Polls show him trailing in Sao Paulo, the Social Democrats strongest base. He is even behind in his state of Minas Gerais."

The potential runoff in the presidential election is scheduled for October 26. A survey conducted by the Datafolha group shows Rousseff leading against both Neves or Silva by nearly 10 percent. It also simulates a potential 15 percent victory for Silva if she faces Neves in the second round.

Standing on the windy favela streets draped in campaign ads, Carvalho is still wearing his work uniform and badge. As he continues to evaluate each of his potential candidates, he leans on a bent telephone poll and looks down.

"I guess it doesn't really matter if I make up my mind by Sunday, since I will most likely have to go through this again in a month."

Source: Al Jazeera

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