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The latest poll by Ibope puts the incumbent, the PT’s Dilma Rousseff, on 39 per cent, Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party on 25 per cent and Aécio Neves of the pro-business PSDB party at 19 per cent. If Ms Rousseff obtains more than 50 per cent of valid votes she will win outright, but most expect her to fall short and the election to go to a second round run-off on October 26.
After growing rapidly in the first decade of this century, Brazil’s economy is stagnating, leading to sharp differences among Brazilians about the best way forward.
During the boom years, business and labour united behind the then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party, or PT, who championed more orthodox macroeconomic policies coupled with expanded social programmes.
However, under his protégé Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent president, the social consensus is crumbling. Her interventionist policies have alienated the markets. A new lower middle class is grateful to have been lifted out of poverty by the boom but its younger members are angry at the dilapidated state of public services and want better job opportunities. On Ms Rousseff’s side are the unions, the poor and many older working class people, who are keen to preserve the status quo.
A recession in the first half of the year has strengthened the opposition candidates. Marina Silva, a former environmentalist with the minority Brazilian Socialist Party, is championing change with responsible economic policies, while Aécio Neves, of the PT’s traditional rival, the pro-business PSDB, claims to have assembled a dream team to restore economic growth.
Caio Santos lives in the São Remo slum, or favela, which abuts the University of São Paulo, one of Brazil’s most elite educational institutions.
A gate in the wall that separates the two is like a portal between different planets. On one side, wealthy students debate politics on sweeping lawns. On the other the burnt-out shell of a van greets visitors to the crowded favela.
Mr Santos says things have improved in São Remo over the past decade. Retail chains have set up shop, there are more schools and hospitals and violence has declined. Many residents receive the Bolsa Família, a small monthly stipend the government pays poor families in exchange for sending their children to school. The programme is a hallmark of the PT government.
“Each year it gets better bit by bit,” he says, speaking in the narrow but tidy living room of his family’s home. His father works in street-fairs and his mother is a housewife.
Things may be slowly getting better. But Mr Santos belongs to a new class of Brazilians who are impatient for quicker change. Known as the Classe C, or new middle class, these are people who have recently emerged from poverty and are becoming increasingly disgruntled with the poor quality of Brazil’s public services, particularly in health, education, transport and security.
“For the level of taxes we pay, things could be a lot better,” he says.
Traditional politicians promise a lot but do not deliver. That is why he is opting for Marina Silva. “She belongs to a party that promises some changes and could generate results,” Mr Santos says.
Like many in the new middle class, he has travelled abroad and seen how much more effective a modern state can be. Thanks to a project in the favela, he has taken up skiing and has plans to visit Europe to train.
“We are a great country in football, in sport, but we could be great as well in other areas, in health, education . . . if they [those in government] really start to promote change,” he says.
Benedito Furtado de Aquino, mechanic
Preferred candidate – Dilma Rousseff, Workers’ Party
The horn on the car that Benedito Furtado de Aquino is working on jams, startling passersby on the street in Jardim Colombo, a São Paulo favela where he has his makeshift garage.
Waving a screwdriver, he indicates the cars lined up on the street waiting for his attention. Work is plentiful. If there is a recession in Brazil, he has never heard of it, nor does he understand economics anyway. “This is more my thing,” he says, gesturing at the cars.
Inflation? Because he has a job, he is making enough to pay his bills, which is more than he could say for Brazil before the PT took office 12 years ago, he says. “For me, things have got better,” he says. “If [Brazil] is bad with them [the PT], it would be much worse without them.”
Mr Furtado de Aquino says his ex-wife and the mother of his two children receives Bolsa Família. “It helps a lot, every little bit helps.”
Strolling out of the elite McKenzie Presbyterian University in the leafy neighbourhood of Higienópolis, Debora Roma Drazza already knows for whom she will vote this Sunday.
The law student from a city in the green interior of São Paulo state says Brazil is not living up to its promise given its huge resources. The present PT government is a form of “dictatorship”, while Marina Silva’s stance against homosexuality and abortion as an evangelical is anachronistic, she says.
The PSDB candidate, Aécio Neves, on the other hand, has a strong record as the former governor of Minas Gerais, one of the country’s most important states, she adds.
“Aécio was the governor of Minas Gerais and he did lots of change,” she says. Education and the economy should be the most important building blocks of the country but these had fallen by the wayside.
“Like Bolsa Família, I am not in favour but I am not against it also,” she says. “It is a help but it cannot be something that the government gives to everybody . . . We need people who want to work to build the country.”
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