LATIN AMERICA

Dilma Rousseff’s worst nightmare

The Brazilian president is striving to win re-election in the first round in October "A runoff gives a chance for reflection, which would be risky," says one expert

Dilma Rousseff surveys flooded areas of Brazil by helicopter on Christmas Eve.
Dilma Rousseff surveys flooded areas of Brazil by helicopter on Christmas Eve.EFE

With less than one year to go before Brazil holds its next presidential elections, polls put President Dilma Rousseff as the frontrunner - for now. According to the firm Datafolha, Rousseff would win a second term in the first round with 47 percent of the votes, were the elections to be held today.

But the electoral panorama is uncertain, and Brazil's still-undecided voters have until October to change their minds. Rousseff's victory can only be assured depending on how the Brazilian economy fares within the next 11 months, and television campaign ads could play against her or in her favor, say analysts.

"Dilma was well ahead when the race began, but as with any other campaign, the finish line is important, not the start," says José Roberto de Toledo, a political columnist with O Estado de São Paulo and commentator for Rede TV!

Facing a runoff would pose a serious risk for Rousseff, explains Murilo Aragão, a political scientist who believes that the president should focus her campaign on the assumption that the October 5 election will take her to a second round of voting.

The economy is precisely the reason why Rousseff is leading in all polls

"The major challenge for Rousseff is to win in the first round. A runoff would give voters a chance for reflection, which would be risky for her," Aragão says.

Rousseff's main challenger - the candidate who would most likely face her in a runoff - is Aécio Neves of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB). "If there is a runoff, it would probably be between her and Aécio, based on the structure of the coalitions," says Aragão.

In the Brazilian political system, presidents need a strong alliance of different political parties before they can form a government.

"Aécio has a lot of support in the states of Pará, Tocantins, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, among others, while at the same time holds the position of the major opposition leader," explains Aragão.

One factor that could either make or break Rousseff is the support of Eduardo Campos, the current governor of Pernambuco and leader of the Socialist Party (PSB). Campos served as minister in the former government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the PSB had aligned itself in the past with Rousseff's administration. But there are still doubts as to whether he will side with Rousseff come election day. "We don't know what side Campos is on," says Aragão.

Since the summer, when protests broke out in major cities and thousands of people took to the streets to demand better lifestyles and social justice, Brazilians have found themselves in the middle of a fierce debate over their future. But Aragão doesn't believe that the unrest has directly affected the president's popularity. "The demonstrations were widespread and didn't reach the federal government; they grew from the middle class, where Rousseff's popularity continues to be less overwhelming," Aragão says.

The economy, he adds, is precisely the reason why Rousseff is leading in all polls. "Her popularity is at its peak among sectors that have benefited from her social programs. At the same time, a weak opposition and general apathy toward politics among Brazilians work in her favor," he said.

With Brazil preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its currency, the real, economic growth, decisions made by international risk agencies and the impact of the US Federal Reserve's decision in December to slow down its stimulus efforts will be the central topics of the upcoming campaign.

Another area of great impact is the broadcast time allotted to each of the candidates on television and radio. Each coalition is given free airtime with the amount based on the number of seats they hold in Congress. In this area, Rousseff's coalition has more members than others.

"Rousseff is also at an advantage here because she will have six minutes of airtime. After her comes Aécio, who has three minutes, and Eduardo Campos, who follows with one-and-a-half minutes," Aragão explains. "At least during the first round, the president has a greater advantage because many voters get their information from television."

Campos could also find himself rising in the polls as voting day approaches: he is considered one of the strongest governors in the country and has majority support in Pernambuco state. Rousseff's televised message will be decisive in helping her form alliances, which must be decided by June, and winning Campos support would be crucial.

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