In the 2010 presidential election, Silva came out of nowhere to win 19.33% of the vote.
In 2014, she looked like she might win it all.
Instead, she blew what seemed like an insurmountable path to the October 26 runoff, falling into third place with just 21.32% of the vote, more than 10% behind the second-place finisher. That’s just under 2% more than she won four years ago.
When Brazilians choose their next president in three weeks, they’ll choose between the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, and the center-right former governor of Minas Gerais, Aécio Neves. Silva, now a two-time presidential loser, will be watching from the sidelines (though she’ll have at least some power as a kingmaker in what could be the closest presidential runoff in Brazilian politics since 1989).
* * * * *
RELATED: In Depth — Brazil
RELATED: Neves will face Rousseff in runoff
* * * * *
Fate — in the form of a tragic airplane crash — initially brought her into the 2014 presidential race, when her running mate Eduardo Campos’s plane crashed on the southern Brazilian coast on August 13.
Silva had wanted to make a second presidential bid all along, and polls showed that she was the most popular of Rousseff’s potential opponents. When her attempts to form a new party failed, Silva partnered with Campos, joining his center-left Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB, Brazilian Socialist Party) and serving as the party’s vice presidential candidate. In mid-August, she became the only clear choice to replace Campos on such short notice.
She peaked in late August, when a Datafolha poll showed Silva tied in the first round with Rousseff at 34%, Neves trailing with just 15%, and leading Rousseff with a nearly double-digit margin in a potential runoff.
Despite leading in the polls, despite having the support of a much stronger party organization in 2014, despite running a much more disciplined and politically moderate campaign and despite the sympathy of Brazilians mourning Campos, Silva failed.
So what happened? Here are five reasons that explain just why Silva will be sitting out the next round.
1. Silva tried too hard to be all things to all voters.
If Brazilians wanted a leftist, they could vote for Rousseff.
If Brazilians wanted a neoliberal, they could vote for Neves.
By running as the candidate of change, a political outsider and a former activist, on the one hand, and as a candidate with relatively centrist economic policies and relatively conservative social views on the other hand, Silva tried to run to both the right and the left of Rousseff. In so doing, she failed to convince Rousseff’s skeptics on either side of the spectrum.
By emphasizing neoliberal economic policies — a pledge not to increase taxes, promises of fiscal discipline, and plans to halt the Rousseff government’s intervention to support the value of the Brazilian real — Silva gave Rousseff the ability to paint Silva as a president who could endanger the gains of the poorest Brazilians over the past 12 years.
Of the two alternatives to Rousseff, Neves has the clearer record as an economic manager, reversing the precarious finances of the state of Minas Gerais in his eight years as governor. For Brazil’s business class and its conservative voters, Neves was always the more intuitive choice.
Silva’s attempt to build a broad tent following may have been a smart move for a runoff campaign, and it may have been the sign of a truly collaborate leader. But in the first-round vote, that posture may have turned off the soft supporters who ultimately turned away from Silva and back to Rousseff on the left and Neves on the right.
It’s almost eerily similar to the way in which former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who in March seemed headed for a runoff with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and led some direct polls in a runoff, ultimately placed fifth in the May presidential race. Santos narrowly defeated conservative contender Oscár Iván Zuluaga in a June runoff.
2. Silva peaked too early and became an easy target for Rousseff’s attacks.
If Silva was untouchable in August, with the memory of Campos’s death still raw, she was fair game in September, and Rousseff, in particular, let loose with a torrent of negative advertising. Silva, Rousseff alleged, would cut back the social programs that she once supported as a fellow member of Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) and as an environmental minister in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government between 2003 and 2008.
Rousseff took full advantage of Silva’s centrist platform, and Silva’s growing (if surprising) support from the business community, to paint her as a neoliberal stooge. Silva also lacked the tools of incumbency, such as Rousseff’s ability to direct a splurge of state spending at voters in an election year. Even though Neves directed more of his criticism at Rousseff (and not Silva), including serious and substantive charges of corruption that go back to the beginning of the PT’s 12 years in power, none of it seemed to dent Rousseff. The Rousseff campaign’s scare tactics against Silva, however, were devastatingly effective.
3. Silva lacked the resources of the PT and the PSDB.
Though it offered more institutional support than the Green Party in 2010, the Brazilian Socialist Party faded in contrast to the funding and power of Brazil’s two leading parties, Rousseff’s center-left, governing Workers Party and Neves’s center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party). The two parties controlled 13 governorships among Brazil’s 26 states and federal district going into Sunday’s general election, and they constitute two of the three largest parties in Brazil’s Congreso Nacional (National Congress).
Moreover, both Rousseff and Neves had the support of a handful of leading regional and other shape-shifting parties in Brazilian politics. Most importantly, Rousseff, like Lula da Silva before her (and the PSDB, when it was last in power) benefitted from the institutional support of the amorphous Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), which formed to promote democracy during Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship and now exists as a non-ideological amoeba most attuned to maintaining a foothold in Brazil’s power structure.
Though the Brazilian Socialists were probably helpful in boosting Silva to victory in Pernambuco (one of two states that Silva won, along with Acre in the northwest), where Campos served as governor until earlier this spring, the party didn’t have the kind of infrastructure or machine that could reasonably compete with either the PT or the PSDB.
4. Silva didn’t maximize her support
In contrast to Barack Obama, who depended on the backing of African-Americans for his historic 2008 presidential election (and even more in his 2012 reelection), Reuters‘s Brian Winter reported earlier this week that Silva trailed among Afro-Brazilian voters, noting that it was a missed opportunity for Silva to appeal to working-class and poorer voters:
Brazilians overwhelmingly shy away from speaking about race, preferring to speak in terms of class instead. Over the centuries, more than 10 times as many African slaves were brought to Brazil than to the United States. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish the practice, in 1888. Today, blacks are more than three times as likely as whites to suffer from extreme poverty.
Asked in an interview with Reuters last week what it would mean to be Brazil’s first black president, Silva replied: “Not just (that) … I’d also be the first environmentalist.I’m very proud of my identity as a black woman,” she continued. “But I don’t make political use of my faith, or my color. I’m going to govern for blacks, whites, (Asians), believers, non-believers, independent of their color or social conditions.”
Silva’s strongest supporters in the 2010 election were urban, upwardly mobile professionals — she won the Distrito Federal (Federal District) in 2010 (though Neves narrowly defeated her there in the 2014 race).
5. Evangelicals just don’t constitute
a majority in Brazil.
Protestantism, especially evangelical Protestantism, is growing wildly throughout Latin America, including in Brazil, where an estimated 22 million people worship in evangelical churches. But the vast majority of the country’s voters are still Catholic, and in an era where the Argentine-born Pope Francis can bring out millions to the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro for a papal mass, Silva was always going to have to appeal to Catholics as well.
Despite Brazil’s social conservatism, one of Silva’s biggest strategic errors may have been her reversal on same-sex marriage, reversing the PSB’s support for marriage equality after the party’s platform endorsed it. In an era where even the Catholic Church is taking a more relaxed view on personal sexuality, Silva seemed out of step with many young Brazilians, many of whom are nonetheless disenchanted with the political establishment’s inefficacy, the country’s economic downturn and the corruption of Rousseff’s government.