TO DESCRIBE the final weeks of Brazil’s presidential campaign as dramatic would be putting it mildly. There was tragedy, when Eduardo Campos, leader and candidate of the centrist Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), perished in an aeroplane crash in mid-August. There were tears: Marina Silva (pictured left), Mr Campos’s running-mate-turned-candidate, broke down after being criticised by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in whose cabinet she had once served as environment minister but whose protégée and successor, Dilma Rousseff (pictured centre), is seeking a second term. This being Brazil, there was also scandal, as a former executive at Petrobras, the statecontrolled oil firm, alleged that politicians from Ms Rousseff’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) and some coalition allies were involved in a kickback scheme there.
The twists and turns have led to lots of head-scratching among pollsters and pundits. With days to go before the first round of voting on October 5th, firm predictions are scarce. Mauro Paulino, boss of Datafolha, a big polling company, says the way the campaign as a whole has unfurled is “incomparable”. And not just with any prior Brazilian election, but with anything that has happened anywhere in the world, at least in living memory, according to José Toledo of Estadão Dados.
The prediction that commands most confidence is that Ms Rousseff will not secure an outright majority in the first round and that the election will go to a run-off on October 26th. There she will almost certainly face Ms Silva, who in the weeks following Mr Campos’s death has surged past Aécio Neves (pictured right), the candidate of the centre-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). The latest second-round simulations show Ms Rousseff and Ms Silva running neck and neck.
For a while it looked as if Ms Silva would carry the run-off with ease. At one point she enjoyed a double-digit lead over the incumbent in second-round polling. A black environmentalist with a reputation for probity and the promise of breaking the PT-PSDB chokehold on power, she had already managed a solid third place in the presidential election of 2010, with 20m votes. Then most voters craved continuity—and plumped for Ms Rousseff. Now three-quarters clamour for change, giving Ms Silva a clear advantage over Ms Rousseff, who is weighed down by the PT’s decade in power, as well as piffling growth and shoddy public services decried by the 1m-plus protesters who took to the streets in June last year (see Bello).
But the momentum has shifted in recent weeks. Ms Silva’s surge spurred Ms Rousseff’s campaign into action. João Santana, a formidable marketer who had helped both Ms Rousseff and Lula, as well as four foreign presidents, to get elected, threw the incumbent’s resources into “desacralising” the saintly Ms Silva.
Use of negative campaigning has been unprecedented, at least by Brazilian standards. Felipe Borba of the State University of Rio de Janeiro has analysed the prominence of attack ads since direct presidential elections were introduced in 1989. He found that on average just 3% of frontrunners’ free television time (allotted to candidates on the basis of the size of their electoral coalitions) was spent bashing rivals. And in previous campaigns it was the usurper who would use attack ads to finger the incumbent’s failures. Not this time. Ms Rousseff boasts six times as much TV time as Ms Silva before the first round (the balance is much fairer in a second round) and may end up devoting as much as 15% of it to laying into her rival.
The ads have been brazen. They allege that Ms Silva plans to cut social programmes (she doesn’t) and, by promising to grant the Central Bank autonomy (which Ms Rousseff has undermined), hand power to shady bankers. The PT’s blitzkrieg has had an effect. Ms Silva’s “rejection rate”, the percentage of voters who say they would never vote for her, now exceeds that of Mr Neves, though it remains ten points shy of Ms Rousseff’s (see chart). Yet given the attacks, the PSB candidate might have been expected to collapse completely, says Mr Paulino.
In response, Ms Silva delivered a rhetorical masterstroke at a recent rally in the poor north-eastern state of Ceará. Born to a family of indigent rubber-tappers in the Amazon region, she recalled how her mother would forgo meals so that her eight children could share one egg with a bit of salt, flour and onion. “Somebody who has lived through that would never end the Bolsa Família,” she said, referring to a popular cash-transfer scheme. The clip was later disseminated in her TV ads.
There is still time for more fireworks. A debate on Brazil’s most-watched television network on October 2nd will offer a chance to shine for Ms Silva, whose on-screen performances have been more assured than the president’s. But the truth is that victory will be hard for Ms Silva without the PSDB’s explicit blessing in a second round. Some PSDB bigwigs, including José Serra, who lost to Ms Rousseff four years ago, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president from 1995 to 2002 and Mr Neves’s political mentor, have hinted at a possible accommodation. Others are wary of backing a third-party candidate, fearful that it could trigger a slide into irrelevance.
Half of Mr Neves’s voters currently plan to migrate to Ms Silva in the second round, according to IBOPE, a pollster. That is three times as many as would go to the incumbent—but down from two-thirds at the end of August. The battle for Brazil is going down to the wire.
Man burned alive in latest Chile bombing
SANTIAGO, Chile — A man was burned alive when a homemade bomb went off in Santiago on Thursday, law enforcement officials said, the latest in a series of explosions in Chile’s usually safe capital.
The bomb shook the Yungay neighborhood near the center of the city, where horrified witnesses screamed for water as the victim collapsed in flames.
The dead man appears to have been handling the bomb when it went off, though it is unclear whether he placed it or was simply a passerby, local prosecutor Claudio Orellana said.