Thursday, June 20th 2013. We were all there, in presence or in thought, together with the 2 million people in the streets of 22 different cities around Brazil. It was one of the largest public demonstrations in the country’s history. In Rio de Janeiro, I was amongst the 300,000 indignant compatriots walking towards the City Hall. For a moment, I lost my friends in the crowd and was alone amidst the mass of people. But I wasn’t really. Empathizing with strangers was natural – in a sense it reminded me of a soccer game in Maracanã: regardless of age, profession, economic status or political beliefs, we were there for the same reason – in many ways, we had had it.
The protests weren’t about the alleged $0.10 hike in bus fares or about public expenditures in hosting the World Cup. They were the result of perceived failures of the Brazilian government on administrative and ethical levels: the economy had stalled, with inflation hitting the target ceiling; social progress had stagnated; tax burden was excessive for poor public services; and rampant corruption at the highest echelons of government became the means to buy political support. This accumulation led to popular outrage. Increasing the price of public transport or finding money for soccer stadiums instead of health or education was but the last straw.
In 2010, when Dilma Rousseff was elected as President Lula’s successor under the ruling Worker’s Party (PT), Brazil seemed to be finally fulfilling its role as an emerging global power. Three years later, it was not the case anymore: Lula’s model, or Lulismo, deteriorated, and corruption took a toll on the PT’s reputation. Now, the situation is even worse. Macroeconomic instability has scared off long-term private investment, a punitive tax system is still hurting the economy, and Petrobras, the state oil company, is being butchered by bribery scandals and fuel price misalignment as a result of misguided anti-inflation policies.
The difference from a year ago, however, is that now the country is faced with a palpable possibility of change. This month’s presidential election is the first time in twelve years when the opposition, under Aécio Neves, of the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), has a real chance of winning. After an unexpected turnaround in the first round on October 5th, polls now indicate that Mr. Neves is taking the lead, even if by a small margin, and might be the winner of the second round run-off between him and Dilma Rousseff. Perhaps it has never been truer to say that the country faces a historical crossroads. On October 26th, Brazilian voters will carry the responsibility of deciding the future of their country. However, it is alarming that many don’t recognize this critical situation. The PT’s manipulation of public opinion and the fierce personal attacks and smears it uses against its opponents in this election’s political debate threaten Neves’s potential victory, and are representative of the dangers to democratic freedom that Ms. Rousseff’s government imposes.
With the President’s reelection slipping away, the Worker’s Party has undertaken a campaign driven by electoral terrorism: publicizing lies or half-truths and making baseless accusations to the opposition in order to inflict fear and distrust amongst voters are the common tools used by Mrs. Rousseff. Marina Silva, the third-placed candidate in the first round, fell victim to this strategy, and after leading the opinion polls, received only 21% of the votes in the first ballot some weeks ago.
Now, Mr. Neves is the new target. The ruling party uses its assets of popular gratitude – namely low formal unemployment, higher minimum wages, and the Bolsa Família cash transfers among other social programs – to separate them from the “enemy”, caricaturing the opposition in a simplistic and irresponsible manner, which is detrimental to the democratic process. Among other false accusations, the PT incorrectly claims that Mr. Neves will axe the Bolsa Família, scaring poorer and less educated voters who are dependent on such grants. The truth is that Neves has made a public commitment to maintain and expand the program, which itself originated from his party in the 1990s.
When it comes to the real flaws of the Rousseff administration, anything and everything is allowed in denying them. Low economic growth and high inflation, incontestably due to macroeconomic mismanagement, is blamed on the troubled world economy, even if Brazil’s Latin American neighbors seem, on average, to be doing considerably better. The government’s stock phrase “never before in the history of this country…” is known by heart by any Brazilian. To prove its right doings, the PT undermines the work of previous administrations, cites information with no respect to context, and uses official statistics in opportunistic manners. To justify consistent corruption scandals the President fallaciously states how “never before in the history of this country have corrupt politicians been punished so harshly”, as if the state’s law enforcement and judiciary institutions were simply an extension of the executive.
Lulismo today is far from its original socialist and populist ideals that elected Lula and the PT in 2002. What we are experiencing now is a system where state capitalism prevails, under the interest of one party that buys parliamentary support and extends favors to voracious corporate insiders and other parties thirsting for power – crony capitalism at its finest. A system where public opinion is undermined and the press treated with hostility: “the press should only publish information, not investigate”, said President Rousseff recently. A system which seemingly maintains the formal democratic institutions but gradually distances itself father away from the true meaning of democracy and draws closer to its Venezuelan and Argentinean neighbors. A system that urgently needs change.
It would be naïve to affirm that Mr. Neves is a flawless candidate. However, his proposed policies have the potential of putting Brazil back in the growth track and his political history, and that of his party, makes his discourse convincing. In the 1990s, under former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the PSDB overcame the threat of hyperinflation and laid the foundations for Brazil’s recent growth. Mr. Neves’s two terms as Governor of Minas Gerais, the country’s second most populous state, were an example of competent administration, resulting in more efficient public spending, and the country’s best primary education. Mr. Neves wants to push for tax reforms, a reduction of administrative bureaucracy and political reform, including a reduction in the number of ministries and increasing accountability of Congress, along with a sound macroeconomic agenda that aims at recovering stability.
Nevertheless, Neves’s policy proposals are of secondary importance compared to what seems to be the main difference between him and the current president: with prudence and determination, Neves has been avidly advocating for what Brazilians started demanding in June 2013, namely, a better country where the government would ensure the fundamental liberties and autonomy of civil society. The political diversity of the alliances and endorsements he has received for the upcoming second round are a testament of his support coming from different parts of the Brazilian society. Aécio Neves’s candidacy represents, more than anything, a call for a truly democratic Brazil. In only four days, we will know if his voice will have been heard.