Upcoming Event: September 16, 2014 - The Changing Course of the Brazilian Election


With one month left in Brazil’s presidential and general election campaign, environmental leader Marina Silva emerged as the opposition’s strongest challenger to President Dilma Rousseff and to the continuation of the twelve-year rule of the Workers’ Party. A Datafolha poll released Saturday, August 30, showed Silva, known as Marina, tied with Rousseff in the first round of votes on October 5th and ten points ahead in the runoff scheduled for October 26th.

The phenomenal rise of the former senator and Environmental Minister from a frustrated politician without party affiliation as of late last year to a leading candidate started, unpredictably, with the tragic death of presidential candidate Eduardo Campos. Campos, a popular former governor whom Marina joined after a failed attempt to create her own political party, died in an airplane crash on August 13th.

The potential success of Marina’s political career was not, however, unforeseen. She received an impressive 20% of votes in 2010, when she first ran for president as candidate of the small Green Party, after leaving the Workers’ Party. More recently, political analysts viewed Marina as the principal political beneficiary of massive street protests that erupted in June 2013 in dozens of Brazilian cities, to the surprise of the government, the opposition and the media.

The potential transformative impact of Marina’s alliance with Campos in this year’s elections was not missed by some of Brazil’s best political commentators. Their opinions were collected in an article I wrote last October for the Huffington Post. Most analysts, including some of Rousseff’s sympathizers, predicted at the time that the Campos-Marina ticket, launched earlier this year by his Socialist Party, would bring a new dynamism to the race. It introduced a potentially attractive alternative for many members of the new emerging middle class who took to the streets last year but had lost interest in the political process afterwards, disappointed by the government’s and the opposition’s responses to the protests. Their reaction reflected the growing frustration of an emerging middles class looking for solutions to real challenges on education, health, and public transportation. For these voters, Brazil’s self-serving political class became part of the problem, reflected in the polarization of  national politics  between the Social Democratic Party of former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the Workers’ Party of Cardoso’s successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Two forces propel Marina’s campaign and threaten Rousseff’s reelection, which just a month ago was seen as assured in advance. The Socialist candidate’s campaign has captured and channeled the political energy of the stunted street revolt of last year and provides the change of direction that two thirds of voters have consistently demanded in every opinion poll released since the protests. A rapid deterioration of Brazil’s economy under Rousseff, with rising inflation and declining rates of growth that put the country in a technical recession in the first half of this year, has seriously undermined the confidence of investors and the business community in the president’s capacity to turn the situation around. In contrast,the rise of Marina Silva in the polls has been well received by the markets. A self-educated black woman and a former Catholic turned evangelical who rose from poverty in the Western Amazon state of Acre, Marina has helped herself in the first televised debate by claiming for her the best of Cardoso and Lula’s legacies. On the one hand, she reassured the private sector with a mix of sensible economic proposals to reduce inflation, making the Central Bank institutionally independent of the executive branch – as in the United States and Europe – and prioritizing a more efficient use of public funds.  On the other hand, she adopted a progressive social agenda and committed herself to continuing the conditional cash transfer programs originally initiated by Cardoso and aggressively pursued by Lula and Rousseff.

Although current Brazilian President Rousseff faces record level rejection by the voters and is clearly in trouble after underperforming in the first two televised debates, it is still premature to see Marina as favorite to win. Rousseff is supported by a strong political party with seasoned popular leaders like Lula and will use the powers of incumbency to renew her mandate for four more years.

Marina’s religiosity could become a target for criticism by her opponents. Such strategy could, however, backfire. A devout Christian who abides by the separation of church and state, the former senator has never proposed or supported a bill to advance her religious beliefs through public policy. She seems politically safe from attacks on her nuanced positions on abortion and sexual orientation, which increased after she released a “clarification” on her position about same sex marriage, attributing an earlier version to an editorial mistake of the campaign. In the new version of the campaign platform, support for legalization of same sex marriage was replaced by a more vague statement of “support of rights derived from civil unions” among homosexuals, which has been upheld by Brazil’s Supreme Court. Brazilians tell pollsters, by large margins, that they oppose gay marriage and legalization of abortion, which is banned in Brazil and is one of the main reasons for back-alley abortions, which cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged women. Marina has proposed a national plebiscite on abortion after the topic is thoroughly debated by Brazilian society.

She is also criticized by her opponents and sectors of the media for  proposing “a new politics” that relies on “good people” from various parties, and no more on Brazil’s political system controlled by leaders of some thirty parties who mostly use them as vehicles for patronage and corruption.

Rubens Ricupero, a respected retired diplomat and occasional adviser to Marina, responded Monday to the criticism in his weekly commentary in Folha de São Paulo. He recalled that former president Itamar Franco, a transition figure whom he served as ambassador to Washington and environmental and finance minister in the 1990s, resolved the two most serious problems the 1964-1985 military government left to the country – a foreign debt crisis and an imminent threat of hyperinflation – without relying on a coalition of political parties in Congress. Instead, Franco picked experienced leaders capable of forming good teams. According to Ricupero, Marina’s announced commitment not to seek a second term in 2018 if elected next month strengthens her case to pursue a political reform based on the merit of the problems and the national interest in a way that “revalues politics in the eyes of the people,” as she stated last Sunday during the second debate of the campaign.

Paulo Sotero is the Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Photo credit to Flickr users Talita Olveira and the Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação.