Abortion debate heats up Brazil election

Following a Brazil election debate that got heated over an exchange on abortion, Jose Serra's voter support climbed within several percentage points of ruling party candidate Dilma Rousseff.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
Brazil's presidential candidate Jose Serra of the PSDB party speaks during a television debate in Sao Paulo, on Oct. 10.
Sergio Moraes/Reuters
Brazil's presidential candidate for the ruling party PT (Workers Party) Dilma Rousseff smiles before a television debate in the Globo TV studio in Rio de Janeiro Sept. 30.

Even though she narrowly missed out on winning an absolute majority in the first round of balloting, Dilma Rousseff looked certain to romp home in Brazil’s runoff election on Oct. 31.

No longer.

Three new polls show the gap narrowing considerably between Ms. Rousseff and her more conservative rival Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party as debate over abortion emerges as the dominant theme of the second round and erodes her support.

Election gets heated

A Census poll published Thursday gives Rousseff 46.8 percent, with Mr. Serra just four points behind, the closest gap between the two frontrunners for months. Two other polls released Wednesday showed the Workers’ Party candidate holding leads of 48-40 (according to a Vox Populi sample) and 49-43 (Ibope).

The three polls were the first to be taken after Sunday night’s televised debate, which began with an exchange over abortion and was filled with insults and anger. The debate reflected how the lukewarm sparring of the first round has given way to aggressive clashes in the second phase of the presidential election.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger. Rousseff has flip-flopped on the issue and the influential lobby of Evangelical Protestants ran a smear campaign saying she would allow abortions as late as the ninth month of pregnancy, as well as legalize gay marriage and marijuana use.

Rousseff addresses abortion

Serra seized on the issue in new campaign ads, which forced Rousseff, who had previously supported decriminalizing abortion, to avow that position. Last weekend, she went to a prenatal center in São Paulo and then pointedly courted Catholics – who are also opposed to abortion – by taking mass at the country’s best-known cathedral.

It has clearly been an issue with some voters.

“I won’t vote for anyone who is in favor of taking an innocent life,” says Angelica Raissa, a first-time voter who chose Silva in the first ballot.

Analysts caution, however, that although the gap between the two candidates has closed, Rousseff is still the firm favorite. She has the immensely popular president on her side and should benefit from the fact that most Brazilians do not want a change in policy.

Corruption is larger issue

And if voters are unhappy with her stance on abortion, they are no less pleased with her ethical violations. Members of her party were caught hacking into the tax returns of rivals to look for dirt and then a close adviser resigned amid an influence trafficking scandal. Rousseff remains susceptible to scandals, especially with the media eager to dig up dirt.

“The key variable to keep an eye on in coming weeks, however, is whether new allegations of corruption surface against Rousseff,” says Christopher Garman, head of the Latin America practice at the Eurasia consultancy group.

“For Serra to win, voters who supported Rousseff in the first round will have to lose confidence in her in the second. That is only likely to happen if new allegations of corruption reach Rousseff.”

Rousseff won the first round on Oct. 3 with 46.9 percent, ahead of Serra, who had 32.6 percent. The Green Party’s Marina Silva came third with 19.3 percent.

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