Getting ready to do some homework.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Election Over, Battle for Brazil Rages

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Last week I sat down with a Brazilian acquaintance who was shaking his head over the state of national politics. A graduate of a military high school, he'd been getting e-mails from former classmates, many of them now retired army officers, who were irate over the recent presidential elections.

"We need to kick these no-good Petistas out of office," one bristled, using the derogatory shorthand for members of the ruling Workers Party, or PT in Portuguese.

Brazil's Highs and Lows

You'd think such partisan tub-thumping from the Oct. 26 race  might have subsided by now. And yet the battle for Brazil rages. On Nov. 1, some 2,500 protestors marched down Avenida Paulista, an important Sao Paulo boulevard. Some of their placards warned of an imminent radical takeover in the vein of Venezuela's so-called Bolivarian revolution for 21st Century Socialism. Others clamored for the impeachment of newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff.

"Golpistas!" (coup plotters!) and "Facistas!", answered the "Dilmistas" on social media.  In Congress, runner-up Aecio Neves was hailed as a conquering hero and launched into a two-hour speech. Humberto Costa, a ruling-party lawmaker, parried -- "This woman, a warrior, with a brave heart, won the election!" he protested -- but he was drowned out by jeers.

Maybe that's not so surprising: This was Brazil's tightest presidential race since 1898. But the polarization and antagonism of the 2014 campaign have Brazil-watchers worried. Plotting the partisan chatter on social media on the eve of the vote, sociologist Marco Aurelio Ruediger, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, found a nation cloven in two.

On one side of his bicolor web graphic hovered a red cloud representing Rousseff's loyalists, who tweeted mainly about justice and welfare.

Source: DAPP

Opposing it was a blue nimbus, illustrating opposition posts about corruption, transparency and efficiency in government. Between the two clouds was a black hole. "Society is radicalized and we aren't talking to one another," Ruediger told me. "We're going to need dialogue, not four years of political hell."

Political hell is politics as usual in Brazil, but not the sort wrought by ideological warfare. After all, Brazil is a fluid culture where artful accommodation and strategic surrender -- think samba and soccer -- trump head-on collision. (How many other nations won independence and toppled a monarch without firing a shot and then engineered a military coup d'etat by telephone, not tanks?)

Brazil's problem isn't ideological gridlock: Rare is the hard line that can withstand the crucible of Congress, now with 28 parties, where allegiances shift as opportunities arise. The real challenge is hewing progress from the muddle. Rousseff took several minutes of her victory speech to thank each of the 10 allied parties that backed her campaign. She must steer this unwieldy political contraption every time a line item is in play or an executive order needs congressional approval.

Emergency helps. In the mid-1990s, facing hyperinflation and a balance-of-payments crisis, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso whipped the fractious legislature into passing 35 amendments to a constitution that had been drafted a few years before. Cardoso's successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, managed 14 and Rousseff nine, to date.

What sort of reform will a more conflicted Brazil marshal now? The good news is that Brazilian muddleocracy also curbs government from straying to the radical fringe. The Chamber of Deputies made that clear two days after the election by voting down an executive decree to create citizens' councils to vet legislative initiatives. Rousseff's calls for deputizing a constitutional assembly to tackle political reform are likely to fare no better.

With the economy flat and inflation high, resorting to populist tax breaks, subsidies and generous wages to goose growth no longer looks viable. Though Rousseff won re-election by demonizing the austerity-mongering Social Democrats, her first post-election measures were to raise fuel and electricity prices and the benchmark lending rate. "Electoral fraud!", cried the blue cloud.

Realpolitik is the likelier motive. An economist by training, Rousseff knows better than to insist on repealing all the rules of the market economy. "We have to do our homework," she told reporters. That may not juice the reds, but it just might help Brazil make something of its muddle.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net