Presidential vote: What issues really matter to Brazil's voters?

Brazilians go to the polls Oct. 5 to elect their next president, and no candidate is safe. From political corruption to lagging public services, voters may not cast their ballots with salient topics – like the faltering economy – in mind. 

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters/File
A supporter of the ruling Woker's Party waves flags before a meeting by Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff with workers of the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers in Brasilia, August 28, 2014.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blogRiogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

On Oct. 5, Brazilians will decide their next president. It could have been a straightforward reelection victory for Dilma Rousseff, but given an unexpected and tragic twist, it has become a much closer race. Because of the death of candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash in July, Marina Silva has become a real contender and has knocked President Rousseff's former main competitor, Aécio Neves, into third place. Ms. Silva has gone from a quirky third-place candidate in the 2010 elections to a real threat to a sitting president.

Since I've been following the campaign, I wanted to share some insights I've noticed about this particular race.

10. On voter issues, the economy matters less than quality of life.

In the press, there's been much ado about the economy being in recession and creeping inflation. But until the unemployment rate begins to rise in a significant way and people begin to feel a real impact on their wallets, the economy itself may not have a very big effect on this election. Instead, the big issue is a stagnated quality of life, including insecurity and poor public services. Voters care less about GDP growth than the hours of traffic they sit in to get to work every day and having to worry about muggings and carjackings.

9. The 2013 protests changed the game, and Marina stands to benefit the most.

These same quality of life issues were the ones that helped fuel the 2013 protests, and while the government scrambled to try to address demonstrators' concerns, Rousseff's administration wasn't entirely successful given the wide range of complaints. Instead, a lingering sense of disillusionment remained. Mr. Neves, a wealthy, white, right-leaning senator and a a former governor, is the most traditional candidate of the three main candidates, while Silva is more of a political outsider. As a result, she's trying to cast herself as the candidate for change, hoping to be the one disgruntled voters choose when they're channeling that post-protest anger. She's the "product of a moment, not of the construction of a platform," writes journalist Mauricio Savarese.

8. Corruption is an issue, but it's always an issue.

The latest corruption scandal that broke this month involves Petrobras and a whole host of legislators, a minister, and governors accused of taking kickbacks. Calling it "mensalão 2," Neves is the one trying to capitalize on the scandal and to try to turn more people against the ruling Workers' Party. Plus, one of the accused governors is the late Eduardo Campos. But this is hardly Brazil's first corruption scandal, and it's not the first time a scandal has happened before an election.

7. There's been much ado about religion in this election, but there are bigger issues at play.

The power of the evangelicals has been in the spotlight. This is largely due to Silva's flip-flopping on LGBT rights as she came under pressure from fellow evangelicals, as well as commentary from high-profile evangelicals like Silas Malafaia during the campaign. Plus, Rousseff has been courting the evangelicals, too, showing up at the inauguration of the massive "Solomon's temple" in São Paulo in July. There's also been criticism of Silva's evangelical beliefs, as well as rumors that she'd impose her religious beliefs on government if she was elected. While the evangelical vote is an important one, Marina's not the only candidate on the ballot that evangelicals may vote for (there's an evangelical pastor polling fourth.) And while polls show evangelicals tend to lean more toward Silva than Rousseff, religion is not the make or break issue for the election.

6. Polls provide a big picture, but they're not always accurate.

In 2010, Silva polled lower than the votes she actually received, at around 20 percent. In recent weeks, by contrast, many surveys show her winning against Rousseff in a runoff. It's the same case in other Latin American countries that polling isn't always spot-on. In Costa Rica, for example, the candidate polling fourth ended up winning the election this year. That won't happen in Brazil, but polls may not match up to election day results.

5. Former President Lula made Rousseff his protégé, but Silva's background is more similar to Lula's.

Arguably one of Brazil's most famous global leaders, who still in some ways has more clout than Rousseff, Lula was unique when he was elected given his background of growing up poor in the northeast and working his way up as a labor leader. Lula built his legacy on creating programs to reduce poverty and building his support base among the country's poor. And while Rousseff has continued his policies, her background is upper middle class. Meanwhile, Silva grew up very poor in a remote, rural state and has taken a new tactic to highlight her background in an emotional new ad. She vows to continue Bolsa Familia, the country's anti-poverty cash-transfer program, and spoke about battling hunger as a child, in a way that echoed Lula's approach.

4. Parties matter, when it comes to the Workers' Party and those without a party.

After 12 years of the Workers' Party in power, there's a fair amount of PT fatigue in Brazil. Among those who oppose the PT, there's a lot of distrust when it comes to corruption, and some are apt to blame the party for just about anything. So if it comes down to a Rousseff vs. Silva runoff, as polls predict, it's likely that right-leaning voters are going to pick Silva, just based on the hopes of expelling the PT from the Planalto. On the other hand, the PT still enjoys wide support, especially in the northeast.

At the same time, part of Silva's base – young, well-educated, and middle-class – have little or no party ties. In fact, a Data Popular survey of 16 to 33-year-olds found that a majority think the country would be better off without political parties. That's good for Silva, who's running on a ticket she joined after she was unable to create her own new party. Plus, it's precisely this PT fatigue and feeling that the party isn't helping the country that has helped fuel Silva's rapid rise.

3. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, but that doesn't stop people from skipping the vote or voting blank.

While Silva could benefit from voters wanting change, those same voters could either sit out (and risk paying a very small fine), or vote blank in protest. During the first round of the 2010 presidential election, around 18 percent abstained and around 8 percent cast null or blank votes. Given last year's demonstrations and dissatisfaction with the current administration, voting blank could be a form of protest in this election.

2. It's likely the election will be decided in a runoff, so the game isn't over yet.

Even though the polls may not be exact, it looks like Rousseff is not going to get enough votes to avoid a second round. So while these last weeks leading up to the first round will be important, October will be even more critical. Rousseff and her team have been hitting Silva hard, and how Silva handles the pressure will be important.

1. Don't underestimate the power of an incumbent.

In the past three decades, only two Latin American presidents have lost reelection bids. In Colombia this year, it really looked like President Juan Manuel Santos was going to lose, especially after his opponent beat him in the first round. But he eked out a victory by roughly six points in a runoff. That's a possible outcome for Rousseff, too.

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