THE BLOG
10/17/2014 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Five Things Neves Must Do to Win the Brazilian Presidency

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Fresh off a surprising victory in the first round of Brazil's presidential election, Aécio Neves suddenly seems like a man with a real chance at leading the first center-right administration in 12 years.

As Brazilian voters focus on the campaign for the October 26 runoff, the second post-election Datafolha poll gives Neves, the former governor of Minas Gerais and the candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), a slight lead of 45% to 43%.

It's not the first time, however, that a poll has showed a challenger leading incumbent Dilma Rousseff, who is hoping to win a fourth consecutive term for her governing, center-left Workers Party (PT). For much of the month and a half preceding the October 5 vote, Rousseff trailed Marina Silva, who unexpectedly finished in third place after vaunting to the top of polls, when she suddenly replaced Eduardo Campos, who died in an August 13 airplane crash. As the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Silva hoped to thread a third way between the traditional left and right.

But a steady stream of negative advertising successfully beat back the Silva challenge, and Rousseff is now counting on the same machine to defeat Neves. Unlike in the first round, however, Neves will enjoy equal access to television airtime, so he'll be on much more solid footing against Rousseff than Silva was.

Fresh off their first debate, however, Neves is still very much in the game. Here are the five things he needs to do between now and October 26 to become Brazil's next president.

1. Embrace lulismo.

The most effective attack that Rousseff has deployed against Neves is that he will introduce harsh economic reforms that could roll back the gains that have accrued to Brazil's poor and newly emerging middle class in the past 12 years of PT rule. Neves has tried to assure voters that won't be the case, but it's true that the last PSDB administration under former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso caused too much economic tumult in its otherwise successful efforts to reduce inflation and modernize Brazil's economy by selling off state-owned businesses.

But the neoliberal orthodoxy that swept Latin America in the 1990s was replaced by something new in the 2000s -- lulismo. When he won the Brazilian presidency (on his fourth attempt) in 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva brought a balanced approach that prioritized business and investment interests and higher GDP growth, while channeling the fruits of higher growth to social welfare programs, including cash handouts to Brazil's poorest families and lavish spending on health care and education.

Lulismo has become the prevailing approach of many Latin American countries today, from center-right Peruvian administrations to Bolivia's 'indigenous socialist' government. Neves should emphasize the ubiquity of Lula's approach, hugging the former Brazilian president all the way to victory.

2. Maximize support from Silva, the PSB and their supporters.

Within a week of the first round result, Neves won the endorsement of both Silva and the Brazilian Socialists, a party that under Campos moved out of the Rousseff-led government coalition and toward a more pro-business platform in its attempt to breakthrough as a major player in Brazilian politics.

Though the Socialists withered in the face of the superior PT machine, Silva led the vote in two Brazilian states, the far-western Acre and northeastern Pernambuco (Campos's home state). But she won a significant share of the vote in Brazil's Federal District, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where she won 31% of the vote, around 5% shy of Rousseff's total. That could bolster the tucano vote in the south and give it some inroads into the nordeste, which has become an increasingly reliable vote bank for the PT.

More importantly, however, Silva gives Neves the imprimatur of change. Silva, for all her faults, embodies the kind of 'fresh breath' that Neves has tried, with varying results, to project as Rousseff's opponent. That's been a challenge for Neves, a three-decade politician who lacks the common touch of either Lula or Rousseff and whose grandfather, Tancredo Neves, was a leading player in Brazilian politics from the 1950s until his 1985 death (as the first post-dictatorship president-elect). Silva's support also gives the Neves coalition greater ideological balance, which will be just as important if Neves wins the election. In exchange for her support, Neves has agreed to pursue land reform measures and greater protections for Brazilian indigenous communities.

Silva, as a foreign minister in particular, would add significant credibility and visibility on the global stage to a potential Neves administration.

3. Lean on his support in the state of Minas Gerais.

In 2010, Rousseff won the state of Minas Gerais by a margin of 58.45% to 41.55% against the PSDB's candidate, José Serra.

That's not going to be the case in 2014, because Neves remains incredibly popular in the state among voters of all ages, ideologies and backgrounds. Voters in the state avidly recall the success with which Neves revived state finances without causing havoc to social welfare programs. Neves's performance in Minas Gerais is to the Brazilian election what Narendra Modi's stewardship of Gujarat was to India's elections last spring -- the chief economic case for electing the opposition.

Though the PT recaptured the state's governorship in the October 5 general election, that's largely because its high-profile candidate, Fernando Pimentel, the outgoing minister of development, industry and trade, had the full support of the Rousseff campaign, and because the PDSB incumbent, Antônio Anastasia, who carried out many of Neves's policies in the 2000s, stepped down to run, successfully, for one of the state's senatorial seats.

A state that came to prominence for its mining interests, it joined São Paulo as the 'milk' in the café com leite politics of the 19th century that saw the two states dominate Brazilian government. Today, with 19.9 million residents, the state is the second-most populous in Brazil. Unlike São Paulo, which has supported the PSDB candidate in each of the last three elections, winning Minas Gerais is within the PSDB's grasp for the first time in nearly two decades.

In the first round, Rousseff won just 43.48% to Neves's 39.75% (Silva won 14%).

4. Embody the mantra of 'change' and paint Dilma's government as tired and corrupt

Neves did so well in the first round not by savaging Silva, but by relentlessly attacking the Rousseff administration for corruption, notably the most recent revelations of kickbacks to prominent politicians (chiefly within the PT and other government parties) from the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.

Almost as soon as Lula da Silva took office in the early 2000s, his administration was tarred by the so-called 'Mensalão' vote-buying scandal. Minister after minister in the past 12 years was forced out of office through corruption or graft charges. Despite Rousseff's housekeeping early in her term, Neves must argue that the underlying culture of corruption has continued -- and it's made government less effective in accomplishing better public transportation, infrastructure and social welfare. Every real that's wasted to bribery is a real that isn't being spent on education.

Moreover, the Rousseff coalition has accumulated several partners over the years with unsavory connections. The most egregious of these is the sprawling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which has become something of a centrist cesspool that exists solely as a legislative vote bank for the government of the day. Unfortunately for Neves, he'll need PMDB votes to effect his legislative agenda, just like Rousseff, Lula da Silva and Cardoso before him. That shouldn't stop him from attacking the cozy deals that the PMDB has demanded over the past 12 years.

5. É a economia, estúpido.

It's still the economy, stupid. That's as true in the developing world as it is in the developed world.

The best argument that Neves has is the slowdown in the Brazilian economy and the loss of confidence that has enveloped the Rousseff administration over the course of the last four years.

Brazil's own estimate for 2014 GDP growth is now just 0.9%, and the country has struggled to maintain the value of its currency, the real, which has lost 30% of its value against the US dollar, notwithstanding the efforts of the Rousseff administration to inflate its value by intervening in currency markets.

Neves needs to convince Brazilians that he can do for the country what he did for Minas Gerais -- continue to invest in public welfare while boosting incentives for greater international trade and foreign investment. The next government, no matter who wins, will probably be forced to cut Brazil's budget, but Neves has experience in streamlining government finances without endangering public safety, education or health care.

Arminio Fraga, Brazil's central bank president from 1999 to 2003, is widely tipped to become finance minister in a Neves administration, and he has said that Neves will focus on fiscal austerity, lowering inflation to the target rate of 4.5% and allowing the Brazilian currency to float freely.