On Sunday, incumbent President Dilma Rousseff won an election run-off that has seen twists and turns worthy of a Brazilian telenovela. In the wake of mass protests last year and the Brazilian football team’s humiliating exit from its own World Cup, Rousseff and her Workers’ Party (PT) seemed headed for defeat. When a main opposition candidate tragically died in a plane crash, his running mate, Marina Silva, was catapulted to the top of the polls. Rousseff and the impressive party and state machinery at her disposal outlasted Silva, but she was nevertheless pulled into a close and bitterly contested run-off with Aecio Neves, who belongs to the centre-right Social Democracy Party (PSDB). Rousseff has emerged victorious in what many Brazilians describe as the most ugly and acrimonious election in recent memory, but only just. The vote — the closest in a generation — was split almost in half along class and geographical lines.
High on Rousseff’s to-do list will be to infuse new energy into Brazil’s deteriorating economy, which slid into recession in August, while attempting to reunite a country divided by a noxious campaign characterised by name-calling, Nazi allusions and accusations of corruption. Previous PT governments — the party has been in power for 12 years — under Rousseff and her predecessor, Lula da Silva, rode the global commodity boom to engineer successful welfare programmes, including the celebrated Bolsa Familia, which lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty and kept unemployment at historic lows. But Brazil’s new middle class now wants more. Last year saw thousands take to the streets to express their discontent over the state of public services, demanding better schools, hospitals and transportation.
In her victory address, Rousseff struck a conciliatory note, speaking of “unity”, “consensus” and “dialogue”. If she is to affect the full-fledged structural change Brazil needs, the president must use her mandate, weak as it is, to forge alliances with the PSDB and others.