In less than two weeks, more than 100 million Brazilians will pick the next president of the world’s fourth largest world democracy. Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent, runs against Senator Aécio Neves, who promised “safe change” after 12 years of Worker’s Party rule. Environmentalist Marina Silva, the proponent of “the new politics,” looked like she would make it to the runoff until the last minute. But the great winner of these elections is the old Brazilian politics—and that’s a good thing.
Marina’s politics above parties, congregating people of good will from all sectors of society around common goals, could have echoed the voices of the June 2013 national protests—spontaneous demonstrations that brought major Brazilian cities to a halt and caught by surprise established parties and major social movements. But voters chose someone else to run against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s protégé.
Aécio Neves presented himself as the candidate of the established political structure—his Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira is a major national party with solid footing in important states like São Paulo and Minas Gerais, consistently in the opposition since Lula’s election in 2002. During the campaign, he built his candidacy the old way, spending time talking to local political leaders and neglecting until the last minute the fashionable social media as a vehicle to reach voters.
Aécio brought back the memory of his grandfather Tancredo Neves, one of the greatest architects of the transition to democracy which took place in the mid-1980s. Inserting himself in the progressive and democratic Brazilian political history, the PSDB candidate often cited Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazilian president during the 1950s and builder of Brasília, who like Aécio was a Minas Gerais native and a bon vivant. The active participation of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso during the campaign also helped Aécio to appear as heir to a proud tradition and not as an inaugurator of a new era, as the Worker’s Party has repeatedly done. The narrative he presents in the campaign, more than one of a competent public official, is of a Ulysses who comes back just in time to prevent rogues from ruining his land.
The importance of his election cannot be overstated. In Brazil, it represents a return to traditional politics and to negotiations with legislators and political parties. Regionally, the spotlights will turn from Bolivarian speeches toward Brazilian investment figures. Given the size of the country, there will be no need for an abrupt reorientation of foreign policy to show where South America is headed. Symbolically, though, the return of an established democratic party to the federal administration will be even more significant, both nationally and internationally: it tells Brazil, our neighbors, and the world that formal democracy is alive and kicking.
Political use of social programs, subsidies and public expenses channeled to friendly private companies during the past governments of Lula (2003-10) and Dilma (2011-14) failed to bring Brazilians together in an egalitarian common project, which has always been the Worker’s Party professed goal. The presidential decree institutionalizing civil society councils in the various agencies of the federal administration was probably the final blow to this “new politics.” Instead of responding to the June 2013 protests, the councils were perceived as a further method of segregating “them” who are in power from “us” who are excluded.
The foreign observer might use economic and political divisions of right and left to understand these elections, but these labels don’t shed light on the present dispute or others in the region: Aécio assured he will not change social benefits. Conversely, the Worker’s Party repeated promised that inflation will not return. If elected, Aécio will certainly take care of financial stability, will search for advantageous trade agreements and will try to help entrepreneurs big and small with less bureaucracy and lower taxes. His emphasis on predictability and transparency of public policies signals something else: citizens will be on equal foot under his government and walls built by the “new politics” of the last decade will be dissolved.
Aécio is bringing back the modernizing and democratic political ideas of the great Brazilian presidents and appealing to Brazilian values of conversation and tolerance. In the process, he is also shelving the revisionist history that claims that the ideological armed struggle saved Brazilian democracy, which was actually rebuilt by skillful negotiations and social movements organized in the open. With these inclusive values, he might very well bring to the nation a sense of belonging and rebuild a tie between state and society that has been weakened by the corruption scandals occupying the headlines for almost a decade, and poorly reinforced by income transferences to the poor and easy credit for the emerging middle class.
The challenge for “old politics” now is to bring the Brazilian political culture to the 21st century, incorporating serious issues such as the environment, minority rights and a communications revolution while firmly rejecting the co-option of social movements and the democratic erosion of today. It seems that Marina’s demands to join in Aécio’s campaign will bring him to the green side. PSDB must bring women, blacks and minorities to its ranks if it wants to keep up with transformations in Brazilian society taking place for already 40 years. Finally, the thoughtful use of new means of communication can bring legislative debates closer to the large Brazilian electorate as well as illuminate the increasingly complex executive actions of a modern state, and the renewal of the traditional representative politics.