O menos mal means “the least bad.” It was a phrase I have heard a lot in the lead up to yesterday’s elections, as Brazilians told me they were voting not for their ideal candidate, but the one who wasn’t quite as bad as the others. That was especially true here in Rio, where they were voting for the governor between a powerful figure from the evangelical church and Pezao, who represents the previous hated governor Serge Cabral’s regime. In the end, Pezao won, another example of people voting for continuation rather than change.
In the case of the president Dilma Rousseff, 51 per cent of votes is hardly a resounding endorsement. After such a nasty campaign on both sides, that comes as no surprise. It wasn’t unusual to see fights and arguments in the streets here between fans of Dilma and her challenger, PSDB’s Aecio Neves. Television debates focused on character assassinations and generally inaccurate scaremongering rather than policy. Social media was full of vitriol from both sides, with Aecio supporters blaming voters in the poor north east for his defeat, even while the majority in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the well-off state which Aecio is from, voted for the Workers’ Party and Dilma.
It is fair to say with an abstention rate of about 20%, in a country where voting is a legal obligation, that many were disillusioned. It is still quite difficult to believe that this is the country where millions took to the streets to protest in 2013. Many people I know who voted for more radical, left-wing candidates in the first round transferred their votes to Dilma for the second round, as the “menos mal” option. They saw Aecio as a step into the past, a representative of Brazil’s elite and a spoiled playboy. A cutting resurfaced of an interview from his student days in the United States, in which he said that all Brazilians had maids, and joked about never having made his own bed. The project of social inclusion which many see as beginning in earnest under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government was one they couldn’t turn their back on.
Critically, the economy boomed under Lula and it has stalled in recent years, leading many in the business community to back a change under Aecio. But it seems that Brazilians haven’t forgotten the advances of the Lula years. In case they were about to, Lula himself was a constant on the campaign trail, appearing in the TV propaganda and even on the Dilma stickers supporters wore. He was side by side with Dilma for her victory speech last night. Many think he will run again in 2018. People often talk about social issues as being totally separate to the success of the economy, but with inequality comes instability, and invariably crime and other issues. Having large numbers of people who are unable to participate in the market stalls growth, and when a small group of people run everything it is hardly an incentive to become more competitive and efficient. Perhaps voters recognised this.
Nevertheless, Brazil’s interminable bureaucracy is in dire need of sorting out, and people are tired of corruption scandals. Dilma said in her speech that she doesn’t believe Brazil is a divided nation, but the viciousness of this electoral campaign suggests otherwise. While 95 per cent of Brazilians own a TV, only 57 per cent have access to proper sewage. It is a country with one of the biggest rich poor gaps in the world, where those who enjoy its riches are impatient to see Brazil reach its promise, forgetting about those who are lagging behind. While the markets are already showing their disapproval of Dilma’s victory, the next four years will reveal if the choice was really the “menos mal” for Brazil and its citizens.