Analysis: Unease over Rousseff turns Brazil runoff into race

By Brian Winter

SAO PAULO (BestGrowthStock) – Maybe it’s Dilma Rousseff’s wavering faith in God. Or her past as a Marxist guerrilla. Or the sense that, with her Bulgarian surname and confounding lectures about technical matters, she almost seems foreign.

For reasons that often have less to do with policy than unease fueled by weeks of negative campaigning, the Brazilian ruling party’s presidential candidate is struggling to capture the sliver of votes needed to win an October 31 runoff election.

“Every time I hear her talk I like her less,” said Nilson Pereira da Silva, 36, a street vendor who says he had considered voting for Rousseff before changing his mind.

“I don’t know. She’s just not good people, you know?”

Those doubts, inflamed by a recent corruption scandal and questions about Rousseff’s views on social issues such as abortion, have opened a window for opposition candidate Jose Serra to steal the election by portraying himself as the safe, sober alternative for a so-called “silent majority.”

The first round of the election on October 3 saw Rousseff fall just short of the absolute majority of votes needed to win — she took 47 percent of the votes to Serra’s 33 percent. The third-place Green Party took the bulk of the remainder.

Despite widespread expectations that Rousseff would cruise to victory in the runoff, the gap between the candidates has narrowed and Serra trails by between four and seven percentage points in recent polls.

Serra’s PSDB party says that in the final stretch of the campaign he plans to exploit some of the electorate’s apparent unease with the frontrunner, especially among the emerging lower-middle class that forms Rousseff’s base.

“It’s true, people aren’t comfortable with (Rousseff),” Geraldo Alckmin, governor-elect of Sao Paulo state, told Reuters. “Serra will continue to distinguish himself as the competent candidate with experience.”

About 7 percent of voters in the latest Datafolha poll said they were still undecided, while another 10 percent said they could still change their vote — indicating a higher level of voter uncertainty than seen three weeks ago.

Serra’s restrained performance at Sunday night’s debate, in which he mostly avoided attacks and touted himself as a “candidate of national unity,” reflected his pursuit of voters who might be turned off by Rousseff.

The former governor of Sao Paulo state has also exploited Rousseff’s comments favoring greater abortion rights, running TV ads in which pregnant women stand in the background while Serra vows to “protect life.”

Rousseff, 62, who was plucked from relative obscurity by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him at the helm of Latin America’s largest economy, has accused Serra of “lies and slander,” and Internet videos have distorted her record.

That said, the career civil servant who is running in her first-ever election has made several mistakes that she will probably regret even if she wins the runoff, as most analysts still expect.

Her comments in a 2007 newspaper interview questioning the existence of God have proven disastrous in the YouTube era in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country.

Most critically, her campaign has lacked a clear strategy since failing to deliver the first-round knockout to Serra.

Rousseff abandoned the fuzzy “mother of all Brazilians” message that she was best-suited to build on the country’s recent economic prosperity, and instead went on the offensive against Serra.

Even her top aides now admit that the bitter nature of the attacks and Rousseff’s often gruff style may have alienated some voters, especially those still uncomfortable with the idea of electing the first female president of Brazil.

PSDB POLITICAL MACHINE SWINGS INTO ACTION

The emphasis on personality may in part be tied to the broad ideological similarities of the candidates: both pledge to continue Lula’s stable economic management, which has made Brazil a darling of foreign investors and lifted millions from poverty.

Serra, 68, who is seen as potentially having a tighter rein on fiscal policy, has had his own problems connecting with Brazil’s poor majority.

But the PSDB plans to compensate by deploying several popular regional leaders, such as Alckmin and Minas Gerais state Senator-elect Aecio Neves, who possess strong political machines and a more deft common touch.

Neves told O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper this weekend that he would help organize a “silent majority” around Serra.

“These are leaders who were busy with their own campaigns during the first round, but now they have won and they can concentrate on Serra,” Jutahy Magalhaes, a PSDB congressman from Bahia state, told Reuters.

“These guys can go into municipality X in Minas Gerais, for example. They talk to the mayor, who commands 40 percent of the voters there, and get him to tell his people to choose Serra. These were (Rousseff) votes in the first round.”

“These people don’t really want to vote for (Rousseff). They don’t like her,” Magalhaes concluded. “Anybody who is productive in Brazil, who works, wants Serra. The other party is just for people who want to live off the state.”

Magalhaes’ statements also reflect the PSDB’s biggest potential liability — its reputation as an elitist party that responds to a handful of business leaders in Sao Paulo, the hub of Brazil’s fast-growing economy.

Lula, who remains wildly popular with most Brazilians, tried to exploit that image by lashing out against “rich elites” at a campaign rally over the weekend with Rousseff by his side.

That approach, though, smacks of the same divisiveness that has depressed Rousseff’s favorability numbers and could make it harder for her to govern even if she wins by poisoning the political climate and alienating business leaders.

“Rousseff’s image has suffered, no question, and there’s a part of the population who wants to vote for anybody but her,” said political analyst Luiz Piva. “The sooner she can get back to a positive message, the better she’ll be.”

Piva, however, added that he still expected Rousseff to win the presidency.

(Editing by Todd Benson and Paul Simao)

Analysis: Unease over Rousseff turns Brazil runoff into race