Brazilian Presidential Election: Dilma Rousseff Is a Tough Sell Against Marina Silva’s Popular Standing

By: Juliana Moraes-Pinheiro, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Juan Acosta, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2015) is running for a second term in office in Brazil’s upcoming October 5th election, which has turned out to be a closer race than Rousseff expected.

The current head of state is campaigning on what she sees as a successful record of social policies, namely following many of the initiatives popular former President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2007, 2007-2010) set forth. Lula’s vision for Brazil aimed to eradicate extreme poverty, augment educational opportunities, and expand basic healthcare. Social welfare programs such as Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) and Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) have improved the quality of life for the country’s low-income households. The United Nations (UN) reported a 75 percent reduction of extreme poverty between 2001 and 2012, meeting one of eight Millennium Development Goals set forth by the UN.[1] In regards to educational projects, Rousseff established in 2011 the Ciência Sem Fronteiras (Science Without Borders) initiative, which sends university students abroad to enhance their education. The goal is for students to return and make Brazil more competitive in science research.

Under Bolsa Familia, families receive subsidies based on their child’s school attendance; without this, families are ineligible for support. Additionally, children enrolled in the program must regularly visit doctors. Historically, however, Brazil has a low doctor-to-citizen ratio, particularly in low-income areas and remote regions. In an effort to address the shortage of health experts in the country to better serve those Bolsa Família recipients, the Brazilian government collaborated with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to attract doctors from abroad. As a result, thousands of Cuban doctors were hired under the Mais Médicos (More Doctors) program. Though this initiative’s rollout continues to have its critics, it is widely acclaimed by Brazilians and is regarded as a major achievement for Rousseff.[2]

Modern Democratization in Brazil

Politically speaking, Brazil has made impressive strides in recent decades. After a harsh 21-year military dictatorship (1964-1985), Brazil democratically elected its first president in 1985 and in 1988, a modern constitution was drafted.[3] In the 1980s and 1990s, several political parties formed. Generally speaking, Brazil has had a two-party system since the 1994 elections, namely between the right wing party PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) and the left wing party PT (Labor Party). Rousseff (PT), a former guerilla fighter during the dictatorship, is the second leftist president since the 1988 constitution was developed.

Since Lula’s 2003 election, PT has faced a continuous stream of corruption accusations, one of which was the Mensalão scandal (a vote-buying scheme) in 2005. A recent incident includes a Petrobras scandal where former Petrobras Executive Director, Paulo Roberto Costa, revealed a kickback scheme involving congressmen, senators, and a PT minister.[4] Costa confirms he received $1.5 million Reais (roughly $725,000 USD) to purchase a refinery in Pasadena, California. Rousseff vehemently denies any knowledge of this scheme and has supported an in-depth investigation into the matter.

Despite Rousseff’s strong opposition to these accusations, the Petrobras issue, which has not yet been verified, undermines voter confidence in her effectiveness and will hurt Rousseff because of voters’ weariness of PT’s corrupt officials. If she loses votes, it could mark a historical end to Brazil’s two-party political system. The end of bipolar politics is contingent on how split Rousseff’s swing voters are because the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) party has never had a victorious presidential candidate. The latest Datafolha poll predicts Rousseff 40 percent; Silva will obtain 24 percent of votes, and right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate Aécio Neves 21 percent.[5] While other candidates from small parties like, among others, Eduardo Jorge from the Green Party (PV) and Luciana Genro from the Socialist and Freedom Party (PSOL) have 1 percent each. [6] Whether swing voters elect Neves, or shift their support to center-left (PSB), Marina Silva, the tradition of having only two main parties has come to an end. Silva became a prominent presidential candidate after Eduardo Campos (PSB) died in a tragic plane accident leaving the presidential opportunity to Silva. If she emerges victorious, it would be a historical election not only because it would end the bipolar political system, but also because she would be the first candidate to be elected without initial support from a major political party.

Brazil’s Economy

Over the past six months (the last two fiscal quarters), Brazil’s economy contracted. In the first quarter, it contracted 0.6 percent and in the second quarter, it contracted 0.2 percent.[7] A survey sent to economists, conducted by the Wall Street Journal, estimates Brazil’s economy will only grow 0.52 percent in 2014. In the same report, there is an inflation forecast of 6.3 percent, dangerously close to the 6.5 percent maximum set forth by Brazil’s Central Bank.[8]

Though these trends reflect poorly on Rousseff, in the larger scope Brazil’s economy has blossomed under the PT. The rise of Foreign Direct Investment ($4.4 billions USD in 1995 and $63.3 billions USD in 2014) makes Brazil the world’s seventh biggest economy. Another factor is the local Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which in 2004 was $663.55 billion USD and jumped to $2.5 trillion USD in 2014.[9] Despite the assumption that many entrepreneurs would leave Brazil if Lula won the 2002 election, these figures prove otherwise.[10] Employment rates were also positive (12.4 percent in 2003 and 4.9 percent in 2014).[11] Today, a controversial issue is high inflation, which Rousseff argues is a result of previous years of neglect.[12] According to Portal Brasil, inflation is at 6.27 percent for this year, which is high, but stable, compared to the last four years.[13]

A contentious issue between presidential candidates is the government’s relationship with the Central Bank. Rousseff believes the Central Bank should remain under the purview of the federal government, whereas Silva believes in granting the institution more autonomy by privatizing it. Mauricio Rand, Silva’s economic advisor, would like to implement a tax reform. He guarantees that his strategy will offer credit to more Brazilians and attract global investors.[14] Though the economy is contentious and both frontrunners have varied approaches, one issue Silva and Rousseff see eye-to-eye is on the significance of social programs. PT’s goal is to provide better conditions to marginalized sectors in Brazil. However, the accusations of corruption blur the positive image PT garners for its social programs.

Nevertheless, Silva stands as a strong alternative to Rousseff. Silva’s popularity and notoriety for this presidential election came quickly, standing as a major threat to Rousseff. Silva’s popularity dates back to her days as an Environmental activist and Minister. She combatted corporate projects with high environmental impact, particularly in the Amazon where she worked side-by-side with prominent environmental activist, Chico Mendes.[15] Orphaned at age 16, Silva was taken to a covenant where she learned to read and write. She later graduated college when she was 26 and created the first workers union of Acre, her rural home state that borders Peru and Bolivia.[16] Despite her remarkable background, Silva’s socially conservative stance could prevent her from triumphing over Rousseff. Silva disapproves of same-sex marriage and abortion, stemming from her Evangelical faith.[17] Silva also avoids addressing the war on drugs and is inflexible when it comes to legalizing marijuana. She is calling for a political renewal, but her agenda is still dramatically unclear. Additionally, though Silva claims to have a centrist/moderate political ideology, her support for privatizations juxtaposes this claim.[18]

Rousseff has Catholic support (65 percent of the population) and Silva has Evangelical support (22 percent of the population), though these are not necessarily decisive factors in the election.[19] The president of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), Raymundo Damascenso, asserts churches should not be involved in elections.[20] He calls for Brazilians to vote based on the candidate’s platform, history, and proposals. However, Silva does have religious officials in her corner. For example evangelical conservative congressman and pastor, Marco Feliciano (Social Christian Party – PSC) and influential pastor Silas Malafaia openly support Silva. Interestingly, they only started to support her when she stopped defending LGBT rights.[21] Silva’s polls increased when she gained the support of the aforementioned. Although they are not decisive factors, church affiliation does play a role in the election.

The economy, corruption, and political reform stand as the most significant issues in this election. The tragic death of Campos spun the international community to closely monitor Brazil’s upcoming election. Whether Rousseff or Silva emerge victorious, this election will stand as a beacon of democracy for other countries. Though voting is compulsory in Brazil, there is also a strong spirit of political participation. The combination of a growing middle class, greater access to information, and a more politically active population contributes to a successful democracy, but most importantly, a democracy with a population who is more attune to their choices.

By: Juliana Moraes-Pinheiro, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Juan Acosta, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured Image taken from: TV Globo.


[1] “Relatório Da ONU: Fome Diminui, Mas Ainda Há 805 Milhões De Pessoas No Mundo Com Desnutrição Crônica.” ONU BR Nações Unidas Do Brasil. ONU, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

[2] Juan Acosta, “Brazil: More Doctors, More Politics” Washington Report on the Hemisphere. Vol.34, No.14 September 24, 2014. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Print.

[3] “Diretas Já – 30 Anos Do Movimento.” Portal Da Câmara Dos Deputados. Câmara, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

[4] “The Petrobras Affair.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 08 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[5] “Pesquisas Eleitorais.” UOL Eleições 2014. N.p., 02 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

[6] ibid

[7] Mario Sergio Lima, and Matthew Malinowski. “Brazil Keeps 11% Rate as Inflation Crimps Recession Response.” Bloomberg, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Oct. 2014

[8] Paulo Trevisani, “Slow Economy, Stubborn Inflation Put Brazil’s Central Bank In Tough Spot.” Real Time Economics RSS. The Wall Street Journal, 02 Sept. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

[9] “Brazil – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 2014 | Statistic.” Statista. N.p., 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[10] Hélio Campos Mello, “Bolivarianos! Comunistas! Socialistas! Tucanos! Petralhas! Coxinhas! Haja Impropério!” Brasileiros. N.p., 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.


[12] “Dilma Rousseff é Entrevistada No Jornal Nacional.” N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[13] “Previsões De Inflação, Juros E Câmbio Em 2014 Ficam Estáveis, Diz BC.” Portal Brasil. N.p., 01 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[14] Rogerio Jelmayer, and Paul Kiernan. “Silva Aide Outlines Plan to Lure More Investors to Brazil.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[15] Eliane Cantanhê de, Fernando Rodrigues, Jeff Hornbeck, David Fleisher, and Paulo Sotero “The Changing Course of the Brazilian Elections”The Changing Course of the Brazilian Elections. Wilson Center, Washington D.C. 16 September 2014. Lecture.

[16] “Marina Silva 1996 South & Central America.” | Goldman Prize. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[17] “Marina Silva Fala Sobre Aborto E Casamento Gay.” Roda Viva. TV Cultura, 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[18] Antônio David, “O Paradoxo De Marina.” Brasileiros. N.p., 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.

[19] Gisele Motta. “Apesar Da Maioria Católica No País, Quem Lidera Nas Eleições São Os Evangélicos.” Jornal Do Brasil. N.p., 04 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[20] Gabriela Guerreiro. “Igrejas Não Devem Influenciar Eleitores, Diz Presidente Da CNBB.” N.p., 30 Aug. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.

[21] Bernardo, Caram. “Feliciano Sugere Que Everaldo Desista E Apoie Marina Silva.” Estadão Política. Estadão, 02 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Oct. 2014.