Today, Sunday Oct. 5, some 142.5 million Brazilian voters will go to the polls to elect the next president of the Republic, as well as governors, senators, congressmen and state and district representatives.
Brazil has the most computerized election of the planet with about 530,000 electronic voting machines, allowing the end result of the election to be known about three hours after the polls close at 17.00 hrs local time. The total number of voting machines includes extra equipment to be provided in the event a device breaks down.
Brazilian election law dictates that voting is obligatory. Of course the voter has the option to vote blanco or nullo, but he/she has to present him/herself at the poll.
But who is the voter? According to political specialists the median voter is, what’s called, the ‘rationally ignorant’
Political scientist Marcus André Melo, professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), argues that the average Brazilian voter first will look at his income and job before making a voting decision. The country’s economic and political situations remain in the background.
The main indicators, such as the interest rates, inflation, public debt and the trade balance, all worsened in 2014, but many voters seem oblivious to the deteriorating economic environment. The explanation, according to Marcus André Melo, is that the elections this year will be in large part defined by the so-called “rationally ignorant”.
“It’s a voter to whom the word macroeconomics doesn’t make sense”, he explains. “He makes a rational calculation of his salary and employment status. And, within this limitations, his vote is consistent”.
Melo continues with arguing that the economic decay only affects the voting intentions when unemployment increases. As the average electorate doesn’t know in detail how public policies work, he can’t judge their sustainability over time. “The only way to acquire this awareness of time is through education. Education also is the only way to enable voters to confront the information passed by the candidates in the election propaganda”, he says.
Here some excerpts from an interview published in the Brazilian weekly Veja.
Nearly three decades after the return of democracy in Brazil, do you think the Brazilian voter is more mature?
Yes, he is more rational. But the situation now is more complex for decision making. Before, the axis were between democracy and authoritarianism. It was very easy to position himself and everything was simplified by this situation. Today, the voter takes into account the quality of life and services that are offered by governments. He has more tax consciousness and this makes that he has to put more information in the balance. He matured so that new issues are inserted on the public agenda, as same sex marriage and abortion. He is also more sensitive to issues such as corruption, for example.
The Dilma government has been the target of many corruption scandals, but she still is in front of the polls. How can that be explained?
The variables for the effects of corruption in the election are many. In 2006, when there was the large scandal of the “menselão” (the monthly paid out allowances by the PT-party top), we saw a decline by 11% in the number of representatives, who managed to get re-elected. Statistics show that there was a strong impact of news on corruption. But for a corruption scandal with the power to reverse the political panorama, it takes a massive informational shock. It takes a tsunami of press coverage, as did the trial of the monthly allowances, for example. You also need the right timing. For if the tsunami happens long before the election, the information is trivialized. The memory of the voter is short.
The scandal of Petrobras (state-owned oil company) happens on the eve of the election. But it hasn’t been enough to change the electoral scene.
Petrobras does have the potential to change the picture. According to the federal police investigation, there was a deviation of 10 billion reais (4.5 billion USDollars). It is the second largest corporate scandal in history, second only to a Chinese state owned company. It’s bigger than the scandals of Enron and Siemens. When information of the whistle-blower is made public in its entirety, there is a potential tsunami.
The economic indicators worsen month after month and show that Brazil may soon succumb to a recession. Does the voter care when voting?
There is a tiny portion of the population that associates with indicators to a worsening economic crisis. The rest of the electorate is made up of individuals for whom the word macroeconomics makes no sense. At the time of voting, the median voter makes a rational calculation of his salary and employment status. He weighs the quality of life, services and his feeling towards the government, and makes the balance. Within its limitations, his vote is consistent. It’s what we call ‘rational ignorance’, in the literature. To understand this voter, one must make a distinction between macroeconomic management and the actual behaviour of the economy. The economic indicators are all very negative. The primary surplus disappeared. But those who observe it are very skilled analysts or readers. The average voter is only interested in the economic dynamics of his own pocketbook. In this aspect, inflation rose, but is not rampant. The labour market is not the same, but unemployment is still very low. The critical view of the elector in relation to the government is much more in the public services such as education and health, than about the economy. And, through income transfer programs, it is undeniable that the lives of many people improved.
But in the case of the middle class, the assessment is another. They went to the streets in 2013.
The profile of the protesters is very heterogeneous. But there is indeed a large share of this middle class that came out of the public health system and the public schools and went to private schools and to health plans. The problem is that many realized that the public sector is bad, because it lacks investment. And the private sector is also bad, because it lacks regulation. And as they got acquainted with the tax laws, they realized they are paying twice for poor services. This population is very dissatisfied with the current government and want change. Research indicates that 60% of the voters will not vote for the re-election of President Dilma Rousseff in the first round. But one can’t ignore the fact that there are many Brazilians living in extreme poverty and have gained the minimum to survive. Perhaps, for this population, school and health are not so bad.
How can this voter better his assessment of a government?
Education is the only way, because it improves public debate. The ‘rationally ignorant’ does the temporal calculation of things. He does not know how policies work and what the economic sustainability of certain programs is. The only way to acquire this awareness is through education. This is also the only way that voters are able to confront the information passed by the candidates in the election propaganda. In the United States, political marketing is very strong, but the political debates have greater weight. Conservatives and liberals defend their positions forcefully, there is a proposed agenda. Not so here.
The manifestations of June showed that the population wants change. But that’s not what the polls on voting intentions for state and federal governments show. What happened?
The changes are not immediate. Many things have happened since June last year. The Clean Record law was approved in record time, there was a general mobilization. Governments have failed to provide an adequate response to the claims, but tried. The change is not fast and is not robust, but the signal is very positive. It shows that the electorate is manifesting and becoming aware of its duty in a democracy.
Has progress been made in Brazilian democracy?
Certainly. While there are problems, the country functions better. Control institutions, such as the Federal Police and the press, have resisted attempts to be weakened by other powers. The judiciary is more solid. Democracy is better than ten years ago. It is true that the economy is worse. But on the other hand, the arrests in the corruption scandals were fundamental to the maturity of democracy. The citizen comes to have faith in the future of the country when seeing the institutions functioning.
And with this we have to wait for the results. Does the opposition have a chance against the ruling PT and sitting president Dilma Rousseff. No, I’m afraid that we will see a victory for Dilma, hopefully small enough to grant a second election turn in 14 days.