Even after huge nationwide protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to vent anger at ineffectual politicians, President Dilma Rousseff’s approval rating never dipped below 45%—and then rebounded. And even though more Brazilians tell pollsters they want “change” rather than “continuity”, few pundits expect Ms Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) to be booted out in October’s presidential election after 12 years in power. But an upset may be on the cards.
Around 48% of Brazilians now approve of the president, down from roughly 55% in February. Her fall in popularity is at last beginning to translate into support for her two main rivals: Aécio Neves (pictured left), a senator who heads the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), and Eduardo Campos (pictured right), leader of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB). They continue to trail Ms Rousseff but the gap has narrowed, especially with Mr Neves. He is now just ten points behind the president if it were a straight second-round race, down from 23 points two months ago.
As voters learn more about the anti-Dilma duo—both are still little-known outside their home states—they will spot some uncanny parallels. At 54 and 48, respectively, Mr Neves and Mr Campos are younger than Ms Rousseff, who is 66, and belong to a generation of Brazilian politicians who came of age after the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Both are scions of political dynasties; each cut his teeth as an aide to a prominent grandfather. (Tancredo Neves was the first president elected after army rule but died before taking office; Miguel Arraes, Mr Campos’s forebear, ruled Pernambuco before and after the junta.)
Both are trained economists. Both served stints as congressmen, then went on to become successful governors. In 2003-10 Mr Neves turned Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second-most-populous state, from a basket case into one of the country’s best-run states. His “management shock”, carried out by a team of able technocrats, involved cutting costs, boosting tax revenues, setting performance targets, capping public-sector pay and leaving 3,000 jobs unfilled rather than handing them over to political placemen. Poverty fell faster than in Brazil as a whole; the state now boasts the country’s best-performing pupils. Mr Campos emulated this approach in Pernambuco, in Brazil’s poor north-east, with equally impressive results from 2007 until last month, when he stepped down to focus on his candidacy. Both faced down unions opposed to reforms and were re-elected by big margins.
Small wonder, then, that Mr Neves and Mr Campos see eye to eye in many areas, especially on the economy. Armínio Fraga, an admired former central banker who is Mr Neves’s chief economic adviser, bashes Ms Rousseff for too little macroeconomic discipline (swelling budget deficits, persistently high inflation) and too much microeconomic intervention (suppressed petrol and electricity prices, subsidised credit from state-controlled banks). Eduardo Giannetti, a professor at Insper business school who is close to Mr Campos, recites the same criticisms nearly word for word.
Businessmen and bankers come out of meetings with both men purring. Both want to grant independence to the central bank, simplify Brazil’s convoluted tax system, slash the number of ministries (which has ballooned from 26 to 39 under PT rule), and do more to drum up private investment in much-needed infrastructure.
But many see Mr Neves as a better bet than the PSB leader, whose party’s bylaws still call for “common ownership of the means of production”. João Doria Jr, an entrepreneur and founder of Lide, an employers’ federation, which invited both men to a powwow in Bahia earlier this month, says that Mr Neves has so far been “more assertive” in articulating his market-friendliness, citing proposals such as a six-month deadline for tax reform.
Mr Neves’s talk of “unpopular measures” is honeyed by an affable manner, mischievous grin and fun-loving image. But it still leaves him open to charges of elitism. To mitigate that same risk to his campaign, Mr Campos has forged an electoral alliance with Marina Silva, a popular former senator and environmentalist who came third in the presidential race of 2010.
João Castro Neves (no relation) of Eurasia Group, a political consultancy, thinks that Mr Campos and Ms Silva will strive to portray themselves as the true heirs of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ms Rousseff’s mentor and predecessor. Lula enjoys sainted status among Brazil’s poor thanks to the generous cash-transfer programmes he introduced, but also earned grudging respect from the markets for not reversing economic reforms under the previous PSDB government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president from 1994 to 2002. Mr Campos and Ms Silva, who held the science and environment portfolios respectively during Lula’s first term, will claim that Ms Rousseff has wasted this progressive legacy.
Mr Campos is also banking on Ms Silva’s presence as his running-mate to attract growing ranks of her fellow evangelicals, as well as better-educated, wealthier Brazilians, especially in big southern cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the PSB is weak. But her—and her base’s—principled opposition to relaxing the onerous environmental-licensing regime scares employers. In private, businessmen cite the “Marina factor” as a concern.
Another is the strength of Mr Campos’s team. He surrounds himself with north-eastern business folk and can apparently count on the support of the Setúbal family, the clan behind Itaú, a big bank. He also inherited two top-notch economists from Ms Silva: Mr Giannetti and André Lara Resende, who helped vanquish hyperinflation 20 years ago. But neither has shown much interest in joining a potential Campos cabinet. Mr Neves, by contrast, has a crack team ready to take the reins, many with hands-on policymaking experience in the Cardoso administration.
That, combined with Mr Neves’s ideological clarity and strong party structures in the biggest states, puts him in better stead to challenge Ms Rousseff, reckons Alberto Almeida, a psephologist at Instituto Análise, another consultancy. Ms Rousseff remains the favorite to win. Unemployment is at historic lows and disposable incomes are unlikely to slide between now and October (although the possibility of protests at the World Cup may provide a focus for discontent). She will enjoy more free TV time than Messrs Neves and Campos put together. But she is in fight.