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A presidential candidate in Brazil just died. Now what?

- August 14, 2014

Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos poses with a supporter during a campaign rally in Osasco, Brazil, last month. The Socialist candidate died Wednesday when a small plane carrying him and several campaign officials crashed. (AP Photo/Partido Socialista Brasilero)
Eduardo Campos, one of Brazil’s presidential candidates, died Wednesday morning. He was on a private jet that crashed over a residential area of the city of Santos in São Paulo state. All seven people aboard the jet died immediately. Thus far there has been no indication of foul play; the crash has been attributed to severe weather.
Regardless of their politics, Brazilians seem to be united in their shock over the accident. Campos had celebrated his 49th birthday only a few days earlier, and leaves behind five children — the youngest of whom is eight months old — and his wife of 30 years. The night before his death, Campos gave his first high-profile interview as a presidential candidate. The interview was broadcast on TV Globo, by far Brazil’s most watched television channel, and was part of an ongoing series of interviews with all major presidential candidates. On Wednesday, morning news programs across the country were featuring extensive analysis and discussion of his performance in the interview and its potential to increase his numbers in the polls when the tragedy was announced.
Recent polls had Campos in third place in polls of voters’ intentions (9 percent), behind Aécio Neves (23 percent) and the incumbent Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking reelection (38 percent). However, many political analysts consider the upcoming election, scheduled for Oct. 5, to be in its early stages. Voting in Brazil is mandatory for all citizens between 18 and 60 years, leading to a very high turnout: in 2010, about 100 million Brazilians (out of 135 million registered to vote) cast their ballot in the presidential election, with 55 million choosing Rousseff.
Despite his relatively low numbers in the polls, Campos was seen as having a real opportunity to expand his appeal. He was well known in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, where his family has a long political history. His grandfather was Miguel Arraes, a national figure who was elected governor of Pernambuco in 1962. Arraes’s left-leaning politics (he had strong ties to the Communist Party) would eventually result in his prosecution by Brazil’s military dictatorship. In a sad coincidence, Eduardo Campos passed away on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death nine years ago.
Campos was very popular in his home state: He was reelected governor in 2010 with more than 80 percent of the vote and had left his post to campaign for the presidency with a remarkable 76 percent approval rating. His greatest struggle in the presidential election was overcoming his limited national visibility, which he and his supporters expected to change.
They were betting on the fact that in Brazil, starting 50 days before the elections, all political parties are entitled by law to free time on every radio station and open television channel. In practice, this means not only brief radio and TV ads, but twice-daily, mandatory half-hour allotments of air time for political party media. Since only a quarter of Brazilian residences subscribe to cable, everyone else watching TV during the “Free Electoral Hour” (Horário Gratuito Eleitoral) has no option but to see the candidates’ propaganda. Campos was counting on this new phase of the campaign to finally gain traction at the national level. Only 12 percent of prospective voters said they would not vote for him under any circumstance, compared to 17 percent who said they wouldn’t vote for Neves and 35 percent who wouldn’t vote for Rousseff.
The question now on the mind of every pundit in Brazil is what Campos’s sudden, tragic death will mean for the presidential race. The first and most crucial decision that his party, Brazil’s Socialist Party, and its political coalition must make is who will take his place. Brazilian law stipulates that the party has 10 days to designate its new candidate.
The most prominent perspective replacement for Campos is Marina Silva, Campos’s vice-presidential candidate. Given her long-standing support for Amazonian rubber tappers, her role as then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008 and for her own bid for the presidency in 2010, Silva is already well known to most Brazilians. Although she ended up in third place in her presidential run, her 20 million votes was seen as an electoral “wonder.”
One reason for her alliance with Campos was that she herself could not run for president as a candidate of her proposed new party (Rede de Soliedariedade). New parties in Brazil must have about half a million verified signatures to be established, and the Supreme Electoral Court did not believe this was the case for Silva’s party. Right now, it is in no way certain that Marina Silva will be Campos’s replacement. Once the new candidate is presented, we’ll know more about how voters are likely to respond.
Déborah Barros Leal Farias is from the state of Ceará in Brazil and is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia.