Two-Party Domination Showing Signs of Exhaustion

By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 4, 2010 (IPS) – Brazil’s presidential elections, which will be decided in an Oct. 31 runoff, have once against reflected the confrontation of the two parties that have dominated national politics since 1994. However, the unexpectedly strong performance of Green Party candidate Marina Silva points to a weakening of that dichotomy.

Some analysts say former environment minister Silva’s strong showing in Sunday’s elections, in which she took 19 percent of the vote, was due to support by religious voters, both evangelical and Catholic, while others stress her offer of an alternative to the candidates fielded by the two strongest parties — the left-wing governing Workers Party (PT) and the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).

Silva, a member of the largest Pentecostal church in the world, Assemblies of God, garnered twice the number of votes predicted in opinion polls carried out a month ago.  Her growth in the weeks running up to the elections is attributed to the defection of voters from Dilma Rousseff, due to the PT candidate’s ambiguous stance on abortion and religion, according to analysts.  Rousseff, whose lead in the polls over the last two months seemed to ensure her a first-round victory, ended up taking just under 47 percent, compared to nearly 33 percent for the PSDB’s Jose Serra.

Another factor cited to explain the drop in support for Rousseff, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s hand-picked candidate, was a scandal involving the president’s new chief of staff Erenice Guerra, who succeeded Rousseff in that post and was one of her closest aides.  Guerra, who was forced to resign on Sept. 16, denied charges that family members she had hired were involved in an influence-peddling scheme. Although the scandal did not involve Rousseff, it hurt her in the polls.

But the main reason for Silva’s growth in popularity was her “progressive” positions, according to Fátima Pacheco Jordão, a public opinion analyst with the Agência Patrícia Galvão, a feminist news web site.  In the elections, the Green Party candidate represented what is fresh and new, by placing the question of environmental sustainability on the campaign agenda and offering a guarantee of “ethics,” especially to women voters, after so many corruption scandals, according to Jordão.

On the issue of abortion, for example, Silva took “the most advanced position,” by proposing a referendum on the decriminalisation of abortion, while Rousseff said she was personally opposed to abortion, apparently backtracking from her previous position, and Serra said he would “leave the laws unchanged,” Galvão told IPS.

The final results, released by the electoral court Monday, represent “a wakeup call” to the dominant political forces, indicating that society wants “something new and different” from the dispute between the PT and the PSDB, which have monopolised the last four presidential elections, said Jorge Nahas, secretary of social policies in the city government of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the eastern state of Minas Gerais.

The Marina Silva phenomenon was especially felt in Belo Horizonte, and among young people and cultural movements, rather than in the vast hinterland where religion has a stronger hold on the populace, Nahas argued, based on his observations as a member of the PT who was active in the election campaign.  In Minas Gerais, the second-most populous state in Brazil after São Paulo to the south, that tendency was perhaps more accentuated, because it is a highly politicised and heavily Catholic area, he told IPS.

It is also the state where the PT supported, as candidate for governor, Hélio Costa of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), who represents traditional political forces and interests. Nahas lamented that decision, which he said was a “heavy mark” against the governing party. The result was a comfortable triumph by the opposition in the race for governor and two state senators.  The “decisive” factor in the much heavier than expected voting for the Green Party was the “rebellion and protest” against the political status quo, more than religious questions, Nahas said.

His assessment referred to what Silva repeatedly stated in the campaign: that what is needed is a “third way” — an alternative to the confrontation between the PT and the PSDB, which she said is holding Brazilian politics hostage, with the PT’s victories this decade and the PSDB’s triumphs in the 1990s.

Silva won more votes than any third candidate in presidential elections since the end of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.  That means “the ‘third way’ has been created in practice, as a new, modern factor,” according to Jordão.  The votes won by the Green candidate were mainly due to women, who are more prone to deciding who to vote for at the last minute, reflecting on the alternatives based on all the available information, the analyst said.

These women determine the results of elections that are a close call, she said, and most of them opted for Silva, who resigned as environment minister over profound differences with the Lula administration regarding environment and development policies.  Jordão said women in politics are generally seen as less corrupt and more responsible. But Rousseff lost that advantage due to a string of government scandals, especially the one that hit closest to home: the scandal involving Guerra, her protégé.

Nevertheless, Rousseff is heading towards the second round of voting with a strong lead, and was already just shy of obtaining a majority of votes Sunday, agreed Jordão and André Pereira, a political analyst with the CAC consultancy, based in Brasilia, the capital.  All she needs to do is win over a small portion of voters who supported Silva, avoid mistakes in the campaign, and step up efforts to reach out to evangelical voters who, in Pereira’s view, played a decisive role in pushing the elections into a second round by backing Silva.

Serra, by contrast, will have a hard time expanding his support base.  Pereira said the slight decline in support for Rousseff in the last few weeks did little to benefit the opposition candidate.   In addition, Lula and many of the governors elected outright on Sunday, most of whom belong to the governing coalition, will actively support Rousseff, he said.Serra, however, has the support of the governors-elect of the two most populous states, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, and can count on heavier backing in economically strong areas of the country, in the south and centre-west. (END)