CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

The Once and Future Brazilian Presidency: Lecture by Alfred Montero

Dr. Alfred Montero, chair of the political science department at Carleton College, visited Tulane University on November 21 to give a lecture on the recent presidential elections in Brazil. Dr. Montero’s lecture focused on explaining how Brazil, a country known to have an electorate with very low levels of partisan identification, has had enough political stability to re-elect three incumbents in a row in the last twenty years.

In the period immediately following the military dictatorship, Brazil’s first few presidencies were characterized by mismanagement, corruption, impeachment, and economic ills. Beginning with the first administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil entered into a period of more political stability and security. Dr. Montero attributes this at least in part to Cardoso’s stronger assertion of executive power through alliances with various different parties in the Brazilian congress. Brazilian scholars have described this strategy as “coalitional presidency.” The president is able to create such alliances primarily through the executive influence on the distribution of the national budget.

Cardoso was re-elected, and after his second term Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected and also served for two terms. Lula was followed by Dilma Roussef (of the same party as Lula), who was just re-elected in Brazil’s October 2014 elections. This feat, the re-election of three presidents in a row, has never happened in Brazil and indeed is rare in the rest of the world as well and indicates a high level of political stability. Another indication of stability is the fact that in most of Brazil’s elections in the last several decades, two main parties, the PT (Worker’s Party) and the PSDB (Social Democrat Party) have been the major contenders for power although Brazil has at least a couple dozen other political parties. The puzzle, as Dr. Montero presents it, is how to explain the stability in this system of coalitional presidentialism, with its high electoral volatility and low partisanship but consistency in two main parties competing for power.
Dr Montero argues that an important piece to answering this puzzle lies in the program “Bolsa Familia,” a cash transfer program that is administered directly by the federal government and targets low-income families, who receive a cash benefit based on certain conditions such as meeting health care requirements and keeping children enrolled in school. There is a strong correlation between the distribution of Bolsa Familia and votes for the incumbent. Dr. Montero argues that this is because people who may not identify with broader parties do in fact identify with the personality of individual presidents, who are associated with the success of the Bolsa program.

In this most recent election, the three main contenders were Dilma, PSDB candidate Aecio Neves, and Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva, who entered the race at the last minute when the original Socialist Candidate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash in August.

In first round of the election, Dilma received 42% of the vote and Neves and Marina together got 55%. But Dilma defeated Neves in the second round. Dr. Montero’s question is, Why did voters who selected Marina in the first round transfer their votes to Dilma rather than Neves?

Dr. Montero argues that although Bolsa predicts votes in the second round, it does not predict the shifting of votes between the first and second round. This is because all three presidential candidates were committed to Bolsa. What really made an impact is that Neves and Dilma differed on other questions of social and economic policy. Neves, for example, said that the minimum wage would have to be lowered, while Dilma’s message was more nuanced. She admitted that the economy was facing challenges and that hard decisions would have to be made, and asked voters to consider the entire panorama of each party’s social policy when deciding who they would trust more.

Under the PSDB, inflation was brought under control and growth was achieved, but even as poverty declined, inequality increased. On the other hand, under the PT administrations of Lula and Dilma, the minimum wage was increased which led to many families moving above the threshold of poverty. Also many more workers were brought into the formal sector, with a corresponding increase in access to social security and pension benefits. This increased formalization occurred primarily in the northeast, where Dilma received 70-75% of the vote.
In short, Dr. Montero argues that structural changes are important in explaining the outcome of this election as well as the wider trend of political stability. For the first time, the majority of Brazilians are now in the middle class, even as the rich have become richer. That is, everyone has done better in the last decade, and this can help explain why voters who do not identify with a particular party continue to vote for the same parties.