Brazil: Marina Silva’s rise is a result of the left’s failures

Marina Silva running second in polls.

A fortnight out from Brazil’s October 5 national elections, the big news is the significant surge in support for Marina Silva, with some polls predicting the former Workers’ Party (PT) government minister and environmental activist could end up winning the presidential race.

Incumbent president and PT candidate Dilma Rousseff maintains a narrow lead over Silva, but the election will almost certainly go to a second round run-off on October 26.

If this occurs, current indications are that Silva has a chance of winning, a remarkable feat given that a little over a month ago she was not even a presidential candidate.

Her candidature came about as a result of the August 13 death of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate Eduardo Campos. Having previously taken the vice-presidential spot as part of a deal between the PSB and her own unregistered party, Sustainability Network, Silva was promoted to the top spot.

Since then the PSB’s fortunes in the polls have more than doubled. Recent polls give Silva between 30% and 35% of the vote, displacing the main right-wing opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), from second place.

Marina Silva’s politics

Silva is no newcomer to Brazilian politics. She was a long-time environmental activist who fought side by side with the legendary Chico Mendes, who was assassinated for his campaign in defence of the Amazon forest.

Many looked favourably upon her appointment as environment minister in the first PT government, headed by Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva. By 2008, however, with the PT government mired in corruption scandals, she resigned from her post.

Among the reasons she cited for her resignation were the government’s prioritisation of development over the environment and internal resistance to her stance on issues such as biofuels, hydroelectric dams and genetically modified foods.

In 2010, she stood as a Green Party presidential candidate, and polled an impressive 19.4%. She later went on to set up Sustainability Network, arguing that the formation was neither left nor right. Instead, its focus was on creating a “new” kind of politics in which people and the environment, not political parties, mattered most.

Given all this, it is not surprising that environmentalists and progressives disillusioned with the “developmentalist” policies of left-leaning South American governments have pointed to Silva as a potential “leading force for sustainable economic development, and alternatives to extractivism, throughout the region”.

The reality, however, is that if Silva is elected this would most likely be a conservative shift in Brazilian politics.

Her rise can in many ways be attributed to the failures, not successes, of Brazil’s left.

Much of the “anti-extractivist” left, lacking any clear strategic project and blinded by its hostility to what it calls the “developmentalist” left, has uncritically pinned its hopes on Silva.

Many have already noted the similarities between Silva and the right-wing PSDB when it comes to economic policies. Underpinning this is their shared opposition to state intervention and belief in the virtues of the market.

In these elections, both PSDB and PSB are advocating greater independence for the central bank, increased labour casualisation, measures to improve corporate profitability, cutting down the size of the state-banking sector, slashing state bureaucracy “red tape”, and improving trade relations with the US.

Silva has dropped support for gay marriage and abortion rights from her program.

There have also been shifts in Silva’s environmental policies.

In the past few weeks, she has backtracked on previous anti-petroleum statements, saying that any government she leads would continue to prioritise Brazil’s massive deep-sea, pre-salt oil exploitation project.

Similarly, Silva said she is no longer opposed to GMOs. She has also campaigned strongly in favour of Brazil producing biofuels, something the ecological movement has denounced not only for its negative environmental impacts but for the fact it redirects food products away from people and towards cars.

While Silva held up a number of licences for hydroelectric dams when she was minister, she now considers them to be a vital source of energy.

It is hard to find any issue on which the “anti-extractivist” Silva can be said to be to the left of the PT, even regarding environmental concerns.

Middle-class support base

However, Silva’s rise can also be attributed to the failure of Brazil’s other left — the pro-PT and anti-PT left — because, independently of her policies, much of her support is coming from sectors that identify as neither right-wing nor traditionally conservative.

Most of the country’s trade unions and social movements remain wedded to some extent to the PT. This is also true for large sections of the country’s poor, who have benefited the most from the PT’s social welfare programs.

At the same time, Silva has evidently been able to woo sections of the traditional middle class, who have historically opposed the PT and see her as a viable alternative. Many of those who continue to support the PSDB will come behind Silva in the second round if it means defeating Rousseff.

However, polls indicate that an important part of Silva’s support is coming from the 45 million people who comprise the 16 to 33-year-old category, many of whom are highly educated (at least in comparison to the previous generation), but find themselves with precarious jobs and living conditions. They make up a third of the electorate, have had little experience with trade unions or politics, and a majority believe the country would be better off without political parties.

Fed up with politics-as-usual, this grouping was unlikely to be inspired by traditional politicians such as PSDB candidate Aecio Neves, Campos or even Rousseff, as the PT increasingly is seen as part of the system.

Silva’s outsider status and “new politics” discourse, despite running on the PSB ticket and forming regional alliances with other traditional parties, has painted her as a viable alternative for many of these youth.

Polling that correlates political identification with voting intentions shows that if Silva were to win the second round, she would do so with not only the support of right-wing identifying voters but also a majority of centre and centre-left voters, who together represent 48% of the electorate.

On the other hand Rousseff would only maintain a large advantage among left-identifying voters.

Brazilian sociologist Ruy Braga argues that there is a large cross-over between youth and centre and centre-left identifying voters. So, in the context of the established two-party system, at least part of Silva’s support base should be seen as “an electoral manifestation of a progressive desire for change”.

Last year's mass protests

This also seems to be the case if we consider that these elections follow the massive mobilisations that shook Brazil in the middle of last year.

Sparked by opposition to proposed fare hikes, the protests quickly mushroomed and soon involved a mixed bag of issues such as expansion of public services, anti-corruption, opposition to police repression and support for greater judicial independence.

Two key sectors within these millions-strong mobilisations were this new, youthful “precariat”, and sectors of the traditional middle class who saw them as a way to undermine the PT government.

While it is fair to point out the somewhat dubious motivations of a section of these protests, it is just as true that many of the demands were driven by real shortcomings in the PT government.

Ironically, while the PT argued that its weaknesses were the result of limitations imposed by the existing balance of forces, much of the PT left saw the protests as a threat, rather than as an opportunity to push for greater change.

Meanwhile, the anti-PT left continues to be viewed by many as dogmatic, irrelevant or little different to the PT itself.

The inability of both these lefts to harness these mobilisations towards progressive goals is a big factor in explaining Silva’s rise.

A Silva victory would not represent a positive step forward for Brazil, much less South America, given her negative comments about Venezuela and other radical governments in the region.

Nevertheless, as the demands and desires of those who may end up voting for Silva are legitimate, the left would do well to think about how they could win over this natural ally to supporting a genuine proposal for change.

[Federico Fuentes is a regular contributor to Green Left Weeklyand co-author of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism.]

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