SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A late injection of campaign cash is helping business-friendly opposition candidate Aecio Neves push Brazil’s presidential runoff against incumbent Dilma Rousseff down to the wire, eroding her huge fundraising advantage.
Many of the banks, builders and ethanol companies that led contributions to Neves doubled down on the centrist senator last month as his sudden polling surge ahead of a first-round vote turned him from an also-ran into a real contender.
Total fundraising for Neves nearly doubled in September to about 140 million reais ($58 million), according to his campaign treasurer Jose Gregori, a former justice minister.
“We saw contributions accelerating from many of the same donors,” Gregori said in a telephone interview. “Financial institutions, service providers and builders ... they didn’t wait until the second round of the election to give again.”
The fresh cash has helped fund a flurry of campaigning by Neves, raising the former state governor’s national profile as polls show him in a dead heat with the leftist Rousseff ahead of the runoff election on Oct. 26.
Neves has already won over many investors and business leaders with promises to restore fiscal discipline, clamp down on inflation and revive struggling state-run companies in order to pull Brazil’s economy out of recession.
Still, it will be tough to overcome the fundraising lead that Rousseff built in the early months of the race, helped by her incumbent advantage and an initial lead in the polls.
Policies offering tax breaks and cheap loans to select sectors of the economy have also built up a hard core of support for the president in some industries.
Rousseff and the national committees of her Workers’ Party had raised more than 185 million reais by early September, according to the most recent campaign finance data published by Brazil’s electoral authority.
A Workers’ Party spokeswoman declined to comment on fundraising since early September and turned down a request to interview the treasurer of Rousseff’s campaign.
Neves and his Brazilian Social Democracy Party had raised about 71 million reais by the start of September. At the time, he was polling around 15 percent support and looked bound for a first-round exit, behind environmentalist icon Marina Silva.
Many of Neves’ biggest backers had also supported Silva when polls showed her with the best chance of beating Rousseff. As Silva faded in late September under a barrage of attack ads, however, voters and campaign donors looking for a new president quickly consolidated behind Neves.
An analysis of campaign finance data shows Neves has done best with fundraising in industries unhappy over what they perceive as Rousseff’s heavy-handed policies.
Ethanol producers, for example, have protested for years that they cannot compete against gasoline at the pump because Rousseff’s government has kept down official fuel prices and scrapped a traditional gas tax to control inflation.
While Neves collected just one quarter of contributions to the major presidential candidates in the most recent public fundraising data, he was matching Rousseff dollar-for-dollar in the ethanol industry.
Brazil’s biggest sugar and ethanol trader, Copersucar, donated 1 million reais to the Neves campaign and nothing to Rousseff. Representatives for Copersucar and most of the other companies mentioned in this story did not respond to questions about their contributions.
A Neves victory would also end years of tense, often hostile, relations between the government and private-sector banks.
Rousseff has accused private banks of charging exorbitant interest rates and she champions aggressive lending by public banks in segments she considers under-served by private lenders.
One of the president’s recent campaign ads warned against an independent central bank by showing a dark room of bankers scheming while food disappeared from a family’s dinner table.
Neves has found generous support in the finance industry, including contributions of 700,000 reais and 550,000 reais from Banco BMG and insurance company Porto Seguro SA PSSA3.SA, which have not donated to Rousseff.
The president has had far more luck with the companies that benefited from a surge of new lending from state development bank BNDES over the past 12 years of Workers’ Party rule.
Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, pushed BNDES to lend heavily to so-called national champions such as brewer AmBev SA ABEV3.SA and meat packer JBS SA JBSS3.SA, which used the subsidized loans to engineer a spree of mergers at home and overseas.
Neves and his proposed finance minister, former central bank president Arminio Fraga, have questioned the current role of the BNDES, promising more transparency and the end of what they call “corporate welfare.”
Grupo JBS has given at least 25 million reais to Rousseff’s campaign, some five times its contributions to Neves, according to the latest public data. Ambev and its subsidiaries gave over 8 million reais to Rousseff, more than twice what they offered to the Neves campaign.
Even as Neves trailed Rousseff in fundraising among Brazil’s biggest corporations, he has garnered more than twice as much in contributions from individual donors, due in part to his ample support among wealthier Brazilians.
For example, Eugenio Pacelli Mattar and Jose Salim Mattar Junior, who founded car rental agency Localiza SA RENT3.SA, each donated 1 million reais to Neves’ party in August. The brothers are prominent businessmen from the state of Minas Gerais, where Neves served two terms as governor.
The largest private donation to Rousseff’s campaign was 500,000 reais from Erai Maggi Scheffer, one of Brazil’s biggest soy farmers, whose billionaire cousin, Senator Blairo Borges Maggi, is part of the president’s coalition in Congress.
For both candidates, the largest source of contributions by far is the construction industry. Big builders and engineering companies, which profit from government-sponsored infrastructure projects, account for about half of donations to each campaign.
Major construction groups, like donors in most industries, steered about two of every three dollars to the incumbent.
By the start of September, builder Andrade Gutierrez had given nearly 17 million reais to Rousseff and about 12 million reais to Neves. OAS, the industry’s biggest donor, went even further, giving over 30 million reais to the president, more than five times its contribution to the challenger.
But Neves’ recent surge in polls may have some companies hedging their bets.
In separate statements, representatives for Ambev and Andrade Gutierrez said the companies aimed to support democratic debate by donating to multiple parties based upon the political support behind each one.
Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray