Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A strong challenge for Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections?

Tom Gatehouse offers a realistic assessment of environmentalist Marina Silva’s policies and ambition

September 18, 2014
7 min read

Marina_Silva_CandidaturaThe tragic death of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash in August has turned Brazil’s presidential election on its head. Campos had been trailing well behind his two main opponents, the incumbent Dilma Rousseff (of the Workers’ Party – PT), and the senator Aécio Neves (of the Social Democrats – PSDB), and seemed unlikely to break the 20-year stranglehold of these two parties on the presidency. Yet when Campos was replaced for the 5 October vote by his running mate, Marina Silva, everything changed.

Silva is a popular, if divisive, figure in Brazilian politics. Best known for her environmental work, she served as environment minister during the Lula administration, eventually resigning in frustration in 2008 after finding herself overruled on issues ranging from GM crops and nuclear power to the construction of new hydroelectric dams in the Amazon. In 2010, she ran for the presidency as the Green Party (PV) candidate, standing against Rousseff, Lula’s protégé and her former colleague. She came third, with one fifth of the vote, an impressive showing considering she had only a fraction of the resources and television time available to her opponents.

She had been planning another shot at the presidency this year, but failed to gather the signatures necessary to register her own party, the Sustainability Network (Rede Sustentabilidade). While Campos was alive, her alliance with the PSB was no more than a marriage of convenience. Now, however, it may have a decisive effect on the outcome of the election. Silva more than quadrupled the PSB’s poll ratings after assuming the candidacy. She and Rousseff were neck and neck with polls showing them attracting about a third of votes as Red Pepper went to press. That would trigger a second round, which polls suggested Silva could win by a full ten points.

Both the PT and PSDB have been discredited in recent years by a string of corruption scandals, and popular discontent with mainstream politics in Brazil is high. This exploded in June 2013 in spectacular fashion, with the country’s largest popular protests for a generation. Silva aims to tap into this discontent, presenting herself as a clean, ethical candidate, free from the dirt and point scoring associated with the two big parties. She speaks of wanting to end the ‘polarisation’ between the PT and PSDB, which she says is jeopardising recent gains and hindering Brazil’s future development. The strategy has enjoyed unexpected success.

Achilles heel

Her achilles heel is her lack of a credible political base. The PSB is significantly smaller than either of its two main rivals, both in terms of funding and seats in congress. Moreover, Silva herself had no affiliation with the PSB before the botched attempt to launch Rede, and it remains to be seen how long the party’s goodwill towards her will last. This political fragility is likely to prove highly problematic were she to win the election. The Brazilian political scene involves continuous horse-trading among a complex mosaic of parties, blocs and interests. Despite Silva’s assertion that she will not submit to ‘political blackmail’, it is hard to see how in the long term she could govern effectively if she refused to get her hands dirty.

Her lack of support is all the more troublesome given that her manifesto, published at the end of August, is in many ways extremely ambitious. She pledged to gradually introduce the passe livre, free public transport for students and schoolchildren, beginning with those from low-income families. She also promised massive investment in public transport as well as incentivising non-motorised transport. She said she would promote wind and solar power, construct a million houses powered by solar energy and introduce selective waste collection in every city in the country. Perhaps most significant was her pledge to earmark 20 per cent of GDP for health and education (10 per cent each).

As much as Silva has insisted on a ‘new politics’, the reality is that she made a number of concessions from the very start of her campaign. Unveiling her running mate as the congressman Beto Albuquerque, she claimed he helped her during her time as environment minister. This is rather generous. In fact, Albuquerque was involved in drafting the law that authorised the cultivation of GM soya in Brazil, a move Silva strongly opposed. Moreover, Albuquerque’s last election campaign in 2010 was funded by companies from a number of sectors rejected by Silva and Rede, including alcoholic beverages, arms and, most significantly, agribusiness. It is likely Albuquerque was chosen to mediate between Silva and Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, which still views her with much suspicion.

Silva’s economic policy also made concessions to the PSB (naturally more market friendly than Rede), and appeared designed to attract PSDB voters and reassure business leaders and investors that she could be trusted. She has defended the autonomy of the Central Bank, advocates a floating exchange rate and proposes reduced regulation of the private sector. It remains to be seen how she could reconcile a light-touch, laissez-faire economic policy, not only with a programme that effectively pledges massive new state investment across several sectors, but also with her environmental principles. Brazil’s current economic model is based on a number of industries that have significant negative environmental impact: agribusiness, mining, automobiles, petrochemicals, oil and gas extraction. In this context, the contradiction between a pro-business approach and an emphasis on sustainable development and environmental preservation seems obvious. Something has to give.

Fudges and deals

Silva speedily fudged on one key social issue. In the original version of her manifesto, she pledged her support for most of the main demands of Brazil’s LGBT community, including the legalisation of gay marriage and the distribution of material in schools aimed at combating homophobia. This came as quite a surprise, given that she is an evangelical Christian and a significant chunk of her support comes from the country’s large evangelical community – 40 to 50 million people not generally known for their support for LGBT rights. However, less than 24 hours later, following howls of outrage from church leaders, she retracted much of the section, blaming its initial inclusion on ‘a mistake in the editing process’.

One of the frequent criticisms of the PT, particularly from the left, is that they sold out to remain in power. In his first years in government, Lula formed an initial coalition with, among others, conservative parties such as the Progressive Party (PP), the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB) and the Brazilian Labour Party (PTB). When it appeared this coalition would not provide them with sufficient support in congress, the PT resorted to bribery in what became known as the mensalão scandal.

Lula survived, but to obtain greater support, he made deals with larger parties, including the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a party notorious for corruption and opportunism. Then came alliances with powerful establishment figures such as José Sarney, Paulo Maluf and Fernando Collor, corrupt reactionaries with links to the dictatorship. Lula was blunt about it: ‘In the future, anyone who wins the presidency will have to do the same kind of deals because that’s the way the Brazilian political spectrum works.’

As much as Silva has attempted to present herself as a more honest, principled candidate, there is no escaping the fact that, if elected, she would have to perform just the same juggling act with different parties and interests as her predecessors – perhaps even more so given the fragility of her base. Her ambition is impressive and many of her proposals exciting. They should, however, be taken with a heavy pinch of realism.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright