Workers Party’s Rousseff re-elected in closest vote since end of Brazil’s dictatorship

Workers Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff scored a narrow victory in the second round of Brazil’s presidential election Sunday, beating her right-wing challenger, Aecio Neves of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), by barely three percentage points.

While the vote gives Rousseff a second four-year term—extending the unbroken rule of the PT in Brazil to 16 years—the margin was the narrowest since the restoration of civilian rule after 20 years of military dictatorship more than three decades ago. Rousseff won 51.64 percent (54.5 million votes), while Neves won 48.36 percent (51 million votes).

Twenty-one percent of the electorate failed to cast ballots—in Brazil, voting is compulsory—and more than 7 percent cast blank or nullified ballots in protest over the choices on offer.

When she was first elected president in 2010, Rousseff led her PSDB opponent by 12 percentage points.

The financial markets responded to Rousseff’s victory with the fall of the Brazilian real to a nine-and-a-half-year low and a 2.7 percent slump on São Paulo’s Bovespa stock index. Foreign investors and large sections of Brazilian finance and corporate capital had backed a Neves victory as the best means of pushing through even more far-reaching pro-business policies.

“Change” was the watchword of the election campaign—the most polarized in 25 years. This was part of the attempt to channel behind the right-wing program of one or the other bourgeois party the immense anger expressed in the mass protests that brought millions into the streets last year over falling living standards, the lack of decent jobs, and deteriorating public services.

It first took the form of the candidacy of Marina Silva, who became the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party, a right-wing bourgeois political party, after its standard-bearer Eduardo Campos was killed in an airplane crash. Early last month, polls had Silva beating Rousseff in the first round of the election. When the first-round votes were cast, however, Silva placed a distant third, with barely 20 percent of the ballot.

Neves insisted that he represented “change,” claiming that more “investor-friendly” policies would reverse Brazil’s deepening economic crisis, characterized by less than 1 percent growth and an inflation rate that has topped the government’s stated ceiling of 6.5 percent.

Rousseff herself campaigned on the slogan of “new government, new ideas.” In her victory speech Sunday night, she declared that she was “being sent back to the presidency to make the big changes that Brazilian society demands.”

She insisted that “dialogue” with the Brazilian right would be her top priority. This after a campaign that saw former PT president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva warn that Neves’s party was “attacking [poor] people like the Nazis in World War II,” and Neves comparing the PT campaign staff to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Neves also accused Rousseff of “electoral terrorism,” a thinly veiled reference to her imprisonment and torture in the 1970s for participation in a guerrilla group that opposed the military dictatorship.

Rousseff expressed her hope “that the clash of ideas can create room for consensus,” and said her “first words are going to be a call for peace and unity.” She insisted, “Instead of widening differences and creating a rift, I have strong hope that we can use this energy to build bridges.”

Behind Rousseff’s call for unity, the government is preparing to implement economic adjustment measures along the lines advocated by its right-wing opponents. The “bridges” it wants to build, or more accurately, repair, are to Brazilian and foreign finance capital and the most powerful business interests.

The first indication of such a shift in policy is expected to come with her naming of a new finance minister to replace Guido Mantega, who was heavily criticized by the financial and corporate oligarchy. A figure more to their liking is expected to be appointed.

Rousseff expressed her commitment to “reform,” which is a code word for reactionary attacks on the social conditions of the working class. On the agenda are a labor reform to impose greater “flexibility” by destroying workers’ rights and a tax reform aimed at boosting corporate profits and putting the burden on the working class. She also vowed to “make improvements in the field of fiscal responsibility”—in other words, to impose new austerity measures against the working population.

Rousseff won re-election by the thinnest of margins largely because of fears among the most oppressed sections of the working masses that a Neves victory would spell the end of the minimal social assistance programs, such as Bolsa Familia (family grant), that have reduced levels of extreme poverty. Brazil remains a country where roughly 40 percent of households live on less than $700 a month.

The PT’s largest victory margins came in the most backward and impoverished states, particularly in the northeast. In Maranhão, Brazil’s poorest state, Rousseff polled 78.7 percent of the vote, while Neves received just 21.2 percent. In São Paulo, the most industrialized state, where the PT was founded under the leadership of metalworkers’ union official Lula, Neves won 64.3 percent of the vote, compared to 35.7 for Rousseff.

Politically, her second term is already overshadowed by a continuing scandal over massive kickbacks at Petrobras, the state-owned oil firm and Brazil’s largest corporation. Former Petrobras director Paulo Roberto Costa and the currency trader Alberto Youssef have testified that every contractor working for Petrobras paid 3 percent of the value of its contract in kickbacks that went largely into the coffers of the Workers Party. Costa has recounted handing over cash directly to the PT’s treasurer, Joao Vaccari Neto, while Youssef claimed that both Rousseff and the former PT president, Lula, were aware of the kickbacks.

While Neves and the PSDB attempted to make the corruption scandal central to the campaign against the PT, it proved less than successful, as the PT was able to counter with accusations of pervasive corruption under PSDB state governments, including that of Neves himself in Minas Gerais. The general response of the Brazilian electorate appeared to be resignation to the fact that all of the major political parties are deeply corrupt enterprises.

Rousseff also benefited from the lack of any significant opposition on the left. The groups that identify themselves as left opponents of the PT government include the PSOL (Party for Socialism and Freedom), founded by PT officials who were expelled for opposing a right-wing pension reform implemented under the Lula government, and the PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party), the Brazilian Morenoite party, which was also founded by a tendency that spent a decade in the PT before being expelled.

These two parties, which orbit the PT and the trade union bureaucracy, ran their own presidential candidates while engaging in unprincipled and at times farcical maneuvers aimed at forming “Left Fronts” with the largely moribund Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) on the state level.

The attacks that are being prepared by the Rousseff government will inevitably provoke a new social explosion in Brazil, which will eclipse the protests that erupted last year.