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.

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