A charismatic environmentalist is now leading Brazil's presidential race. Can she win and create the new politics she promises? There are worries about her messianic character, her links to evangelicals and her lack of formal political support in Brazil's congress.
The airplane crash on 13 August 2014 that killed the Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos transformed the context of the election to be held 5 October (with a second round run-off, if needed, on 18 October). The sense of tragedy was accentuated by the fact that Campos, whose grandfather was Miguel Arraes, a major left-wing politician from Brazil’s northeast and a prominent opponent of the military regime (1964-85), was only 49 years old and seemed to have a bright political future ahead.
Before the disaster, the incumbent Dilma Rousseff was showing 35% at the polls, well ahead of both her rivals: Aécio Neves in the 20s, and Eduardo Campos himself at 10%. A second round thus looked almost certain, and again one that – as in 1994, 2002, 2006, and 2010 – would pit a representative of the Workers’ Party (PT) against one from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).
Dilma’s predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) fought the first three of these election for the PT, winning in 2002 and then being re-elected in 2006, before Dilma herself – who had worked closely with Lula and was his favourite to succeed him – won against the PSDB’s José Serra in 2010. The exception to this recent pattern was 1998, when the PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso won outright in the first round, a success owed to the popularity of the dramatic currency reorganisation (Plano Real) which annihilated the hyperinflation that since the end of the 1980s had inflicted huge debt and social pain on the country.
Campos’s death left his running-mate in the vice-presidential spot, Marina Silva, to inherit his candidature. She is a charismatic environmentalist from the small state of Acre in the western Amazon forest, who is experienced in both politics and activism: she fought with the renowned campaigner for conservation of the forest and indigenous rights, Chico Mendes, became a senator of the Brazilian republic, stood as a presidential candidate in 2010, formed her own party (Rede Sustentável) which however failed to make a breakthrough, and then joined the Campos campaign under the banner of his Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB).
The sadness over Campos thus soon mixed with the thrill over Marina Silva‘s candidacy. The ex-senator had produced a tremendous performance in 2010, winning 18% of the vote (almost 20 million in total) in the first round, against Dilma Rousseff’s 46% and José Serra’s 32% (Dilma went on to win in the second round with 56% to Serra’s 43%). Indeed, one of Marina’s most important mottoes is that Brazil should break the polarisation between the PSDB and PT, since she argues that this is blocking the country’s progress.
Marina’s profile was further raised by the popular protests of June 2013, which targeted political and social problems – such as a discredited status quo and poor public services – that she had highlighted for years. The overall condition of economic crisis, national commotion and political disenchantment revealed by the protests has continued to weigh on Brazilians since the protests. In this situation, Marina’s appearance at the head of a presidential ticket rocketed her up the poll ratings: in the first survey after her formal endorsement by the PSB, on 14-15 August, she had 21% support against Dilma’s 36% and Aécio’s 20% (and in a putative second round, she would defeat Dilma by 47%-43%). Two weeks later, a Datafolha poll published in Folha de São Paulo gives her 34% – equal with Dilma, and far ahead of Aécio’s 15% (this time, she was predicted to beat Dilma in the second round by 50%-40%).
But Marina now has to face new challenges. She will be the main political target for the month until the first-round vote, and probably for more four weeks in the second-round. How she reacts to criticism (especially if something “dirty” comes up, which is always possible) will have an impact on her chances. Both the PSDB and (especially) the PT are strong and well established parties throughout the national territory, far more so than the small PSB; and the main TV channels and (again, especially) newspapers may also come out strongly against her. In her favour, though is strong social-media support such as on Twitter and Facebook.
There are also worries over Marina’s messianic character, her links to evangelicals, and her lack of formal political support in Brazil’s congress, which could (some argue) make her a very weak president. In relation to the last argument in particular, Marina is saying or trying to show that she has changed: no longer the person who refused to make an alliance with Serra and the PSDB against Dilma in the 2010 second round, no longer radically opposed on environmental grounds to economic development and to Brazil’s (very influential) agricultural sector.
Several policy moves have followed. She has recruited respected figures to her economic staff, such as Eduardo Giannetti and André Lara Resende (a co-creator of the Plano Real), and promises to turn the central bank into an independent institution while keeping inflation close to the 4.5% target. She also proposes several reforms: on political institutions and taxation, two very ambitious projects whose importance is agreed but around which there is no consensus; introducing all-day public schools; assigning 10% of GDP to the public healthcare system and digital-democracy initiatives to enhance citizens’ political participation and voice; and promoting alternative forms of generating energy rather than focusing on oil production and the Pré-sal.
Marina Silva’s rise poses questions to the other parties. The PSDB has been divided in recent elections, with great rivalries among leading figures such as Aécio Neves, Gerardo Alckmin and José Serra. Aécio Neves, representing Minas Gerais – electorally the second biggest state in Brazil after São Paulo – refused to back the efforts of Alckmin in 2006 and Serra in 2010 to become the party’s presidential candidate; Serra and Alckmin are now retaliating by denying Aécio the support of São Paulo (and Marina Silva’s own vice-presidential candidate Beto Albuquerque has even been pictured wearing a shirt with the name of Geraldo Alckmin on the back). Alckmin, the governor of São Paulo, is running for re-election there; he is currently above 50% in the polls, so he could win in the first round; Aécio has around 20%-25% support in the state as a presidential candidate.
Aécio is young, and can wait. My judgment is that getting into a government under a Silva presidency would be a way for him to become president in the future. Marina once said that José Serra is someone she would want to work with in her government – a signal to the PSDB that she may need this party (as well as the PSB) to support her. Some Brazilian analysts say that the PT will definitely go into opposition and will not be part of a Marina government.
Marina Silva is now the favourite to win the Brazilian presidency. She is already a historic political figure, and she is attempting to break with a political status quo that has been dominant for twenty years. The latter is characterised by a dichotomy between the PT and PSDB, which in turn expresses the paulista class struggle (the PSDB was generated by São Paulo’s elite, the PT by São Paulo’s working class – São Paulo being Brazil’s richest and most industrial state).
Both parties have been very important to the country in the last decades; the PSDB brought economic stability to the Brazilian market, the PT the social programmes that lifted millions out of severe poverty. But two important items on Brazil’s political agenda remain precarious: the extremely cynical and sometimes very corrupt Brazilian political dynamics, and the outrageously bad services offered to the Brazilian citizen by the public sector (including in education, healthcare, public security and justice). These were central themes present in the demonstrations of June 2013.
In this light, a great test for a Marina government will be to build political support and a coalition without dirtying her hands, as she promises. Will that be possible in Brazil’s current political context?
Marina Silva has the potential to be another big name in Brazil’s political history, after Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula (whom she served as environment minister). If she does win the election she will have huge political capital in her hands, including internationally.
However, Marina is not Lula. Lula changed to win and govern; Marina is promising that she will change just to win, but will govern differently, denoting that she will not make alliances with the “old” corrupted politicians but instead promote a “new” politics. So the question is: will this messianic evangelical environmentalist woman change Brazilian politics forever?
Arthur Ituassu is a leading Brazilian scholar of social and political science. He is professor in the department of social communication at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, and researcher at the Centro de Estudos Avançados em Democracia Digital (Centre for Advanced Studies in Digital Democracy and E-government (CEADD) in Salvador, Bahia. His website is here
Article courtesy of Open Democracy