Brazil: Elections and a tale of three women

July 16, 2010
Marina Silva.

Months out from the September national elections, the eyes of football-crazy Brazil have been focused on the World Cup.

Discussions have centred on the performance (or lack thereof) of the men in the national football team. But it is three women who have been making the biggest impact on politics — especially on the left.

All three are household figures, best known by their first names: Dilma Rousseff; Workers’ Party (PT) presidential candidate; Marina Silva, former environment minister in the PT government and Green Party (PV) presidential candidate; and Heloisa Helena, Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) leader and senate candidate

Dilma is leading the polls against the right-wing Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) candidate Jose Serra and is best positioned to replace president and historic PT leader Luiz Ignacio da Silva, better known as Lula.

Lula was elected in 2002 after 30 years of struggle. His election was part of a broad anti-neoliberal movement sweeping South America.

Lula, along with other trade union leaders from Sao Paulo, was key to the growth of the PT from the late ’70s. The PT was forged out of working-class struggles against the military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.

The PT aimed to be a political instrument for workers in their fight for social justice and democracy.

For some, the 2002 electoral victory was a vital step forward in achieving these goals. For others, what happened in the electoral campaign and afterwards was a nightmare.

Committed to winning the elections at all cost, party leaders pushed aside the people’s and workers’ movements and built a heartless electoral machine with all the vices of the traditional political parties.

Unlike electoral victories by progressive forces in other Latin American countries, Lula’s victory didn’t come on the back of large social mobilisations. Lula was under less pressure to comply with the movements’ demands.

Lula initiated a new model very similar to the old one. Many economists described it as a hybrid between neoliberalism and social democratic populism: Brazilian social-liberalism.

Following International Monetary Fund recipes, Lula deepened neoliberalism. He supported the push by banks and corporations to increase interest rates, lower salaries and promote privatisation.

The government introduced programs to assist the poorest sectors with the aim of creating “neoliberalism with a human face”. But it blocked real advances for the poor in the cities and agrarian reform in the countryside.

The PT government worked to demobilise social movements by coopting union leaders.

Internationally, the Lula government has helped convert Brazil into an important emerging political and economic power. This is reflected by the nomination of Brazil to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

Brazil’s influence is greatest in Latin America — a fact accepted by other countries, such as Argentina, that follow Brazil’s strategic decisions.

Brazil is leading the United Nations’ military occupation of Haiti and working to contain the revolutionary processes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Brazil is seeking to play a similar hegemonic role to other developing nations emerging as regional powers. But years of submission to the US has left it in a position closer to that of India or South Africa, who play second fiddle to nations such as Russia or China.

It is not part of the select powers that define the global order.

Lula’s popularity is unrivalled in Brazil, but constitutionally he is unable to run for a third consecutive term. With no other potential candidate with similar levels of support, the PT and its allies have come behind Dilma — a relative newcomer to the PT and Lula’s ex-chief of staff.

Like the PT, Dilma’s political outlook has evolved over the past 30 years.

She is a former member of the guerrilla organisation, Revolutionary Armed Vanguard (VAR-Palmares), which fought the military dictatorship. The group was famous for kidnapping pro-dictatorship businessperson Delfim Neto.

In 1970, Dilma was jailed and tortured for three years. She helped found the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) in 1979, before joining the PT in 2000.

Neto is now an economic advisor to Lula.

Dilma’s political approach is concerned with the national development of Brazilian capitalism, even at the cost of the “social pact” initially offered by the PT.

She argues that to achieve the stability needed to develop, it is necessary to strengthen the big economic groups by continuing Lula’s policies of public contribution to the development of infrastructure.

Internationally, she assured Brazil’s allies she will maintain “business as usual”.

Dilma initially trailed Serra when she entering the electoral race in March, but now leads most polls by 5%, with a 53%-47% margin in the likely case of second round run-off against Serra.

Along with the support of most centre and centre-left parties, Dilma has also secured the backing of the centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB).

The PV, however, is running Marina — a black woman and environmental activist who learned how to read and write at the age of 16.

Marina is a direct product of the degeneration of the PT: a long-term party militant, Marina accused the PT government of environmental vandalism and resigned as environment minister in 2008.

This stance, while far from representing an anti-capitalist alternative, has helped raise environmental issues in the presidential debate.

Sections of the left, particularly within PSOL, entertained the idea of supporting Marina.

In the end, this option was ruled out due to the alliances the PV is building with the right. In Rio do Janeiro, for example, the PV is standing in alliance with the PSDB and MDB.

However, Marina has received support from an unlikely source: the first female presidential candidate in Brazilian history and PSOL president, Heloisa.

Heloisa was first elected senator as a PT candidate in 2002, before quickly being expelled from the party for opposing the government’s anti-worker attacks on superannuation.

She helped form PSOL with others expelled from, or who left, the PT.

In 2006, she ran a united left presidential candidate. She was supported by PSOL, the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU) and the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). She won more than 7 million votes.

In 2008, she was elected as a municipal councillor, with the highest vote of any candidate in the country. This made her the most appealing candidate for the left in the presidential vote.

Instead, Heloisa is running as a PSOL candidate to keep her senate seat.

On June 18, Heloisa said Marina “is the candidate of my heart”. Heloisa said Marina represents the possibility of “promoting a serious debate in regards to sustainable economic development with social responsibility”.

Heloisa’s stance has worsened the already existing tensions and divisions inside PSOL, which is standing its own presidential candidate, Plinio Sampaio.

Unlike 2006, the far left will go into the elections divided. The PSTU has announced it will run left-wing trade union leader Ze Maria. The PCB will also stand its own candidate.

The other key left-wing force is the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), probably the biggest social movement in Latin America, which has maintained a contradictory relationship with the PT government.

Joao Paulo Rodrigues, MST leader in Sao Pablo, described its relationship with Lula as: “He is our friend, but also a friend of our enemies.”

In a 2009 document, the MST said: “2010 is an electoral year and we have the chance to push for political changes and agrarian reform through alliances with social and trade union movements.”

The MST called for a vote for “socialist and progressive candidates, committed to agrarian reform”.

It added: “Brazil has to show to the world in next period that, more than being the country of the Olympics and World Cup, it has to be the land of social justice, for all their citizens.

“A country without illiterates, and a symbol of agro-ecology. A country where land and wealth concentration has been stopped and reversed.

“This is the country we are calling all to fight for in 2010.”

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