By Savannah Haeger
The upcoming October presidential election in South American giant Brazil was shaping up to be a lackluster, uneventful contest: polarizing incumbent faces mediocre opponents, voters generally unenthused by any candidate, incumbent wins.
Enter Marina Silva, and what was once all but decided has been turned on its head.
Following the August 13 plane crash that killed Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) candidate Eduardo Campos, then vice-presidential candidate Silva took helm of the ticket, causing some former Campos staffers to bolt, but generally exciting a population about an election they had all but written off. Prior to the fatal accident, the PSB had been polling in a distant third place with 9% with incumbent Worker’s Party (PT) President Dilma Rousseff exercising a comfortable lead in the first round vote. Now, Silva and the PSB have skyrocketed in popularity, posing a real threat to Rousseff.
In Brazil, where politics are frequently accompanied by corruption and inaction, Silva has been viewed as an electoral savior, a political Cristo o Redentor of sorts, that has drawn comparisons to U.S. President Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to fame and the presidency in 2008. But is Marina really as much of an agent of change as she proposes to be? And just as important, will this take her to the Palacio do Planalto following the October 5th election?
At first glance, Silva’s biography seems to form the perfect political narrative, almost lifted from a novela; Silva, born into an impoverished family in Amazonas, was illiterate until her teenage years, battling disease and the odds to climb the political ladder in Brazil. Not to mention, she would be the first non-white president of Brazil, a country with a majority non-white population that grapples with profound questions of racial inequality despite its mythical moniker of a “racial democracy.”
With all of the chatter of Marina being a breath of fresh air into Brazilian politics and an agent of change, it is important to recall that Silva once formed part of the political establishment in Brazil; she helped former President Ignácio “Lula” da Silva (no relation) create the Partido dos Trabalhadores and served in his administration as his Minister of the Environment until she quit regarding disagreements in policy. Nor is Silva new to the world of presidential campaigning; in the 2010 elections, she came in third place overall as a candidate for the Green Party (PV) with nearly 20% of the nation’s votes.
Silva’s current connection to the PSB is best described as weak and lacking sincerity. Silva climbed into the ring of this election cycle originally as Eduardo Campos’ vice-presidential candidate of the PSB, coming on the heels of an attempted creation of her own environmentally-focused party Rede Sustentabilidade, that failed to collect the required amount of signatures to become a registered political party in 2013. Looking at Silva’s migration from the PT to the PV, followed by Rede and now as a candidate for PSB, it is difficult to take her commitment to the ideals of the PSB without any reservations, especially as she changed part of the PSB platform soon after being named Campos’ successor on the ticket. While this lack of strong ideology and frequently shifting party alliances has been commonplace in Brazil for decades, it hardly serves to classify Silva as spearheading some sort of new wave of progress and change in the country’s politics. Instead, it might be ”Velha política em estado puro” – Old politics in its purest form.
Where it stands now, the October 5th race looks to be neck-and-neck the first round, with the most recent Datafolha polls giving Silva 33% to Rousseff’s 36%. In a corresponding run-off, Silva leads Rousseff by a 7% lead, 48% against Rousseff’s 41%, though other polls place a theoretical second round as a virtual tie.
Based on that drastic shift in public opinion, it is easy to credit at least some of Silva and the PSB’s meteoric rise in the polls to the outpouring of public sympathy following Campos’ fatal plane crash. The PSB is astutely using this sentiment to its advantage over a month after declaring Silva as their new candidate, referring to the PSB as the “Party of Eduardo Campos” in electoral propaganda and utilizing Campos’ quote of “We will not give up on Brazil” as Silva’s campaign slogan and primary lyrics of her official campaign song.
Courtesy of Marinasilva.org.br
Whether voters decide to vote for or against her, Silva’s presence in the election has reenergized the previously ambivalent populace. In a country where voting is mandatory and punishable by monetary fine, Datafolha currently projects that 6% of the population intends to cast a null or em branco vote, down from over 12% at the beginning of August. Though still disheartening that even 6% of Brazilians might believe that voting for no one is better than voting for any of the current candidates (of which, there are officially 11, including smaller political parties) this shift from the double digits should still be viewed as progress against voter apathy. In this election, a blank vote for many is an expression of their frustration with the choice of candidates and with the political system in general.
After the June 13, 2013 protests that swept Brazil, demonstrating against a hike in public transportation fares and unfulfilled education, health care and infrastructure promises, Rousseff’s administration has not done much to respond to complaints. Despite this, the protests and political pressure have diminished and Brazil has once again returned to complacency. This election, therefore, is a chance for the electorate to express their continued dissatisfaction with the way the current government has neglected their needs and continues to engage in corrupt practices. Silva and Rousseff themselves are not too far apart on the political spectrum (save economic policy, where Silva appears to align with more conservative PMDB candidate, Aécio Neves), making a contest between the two more a decision between alternatives as opposed to complete rivals with very little in common.
Perhaps with Marina Silva, a viable and very real threat to President Rousseff’s chances at reelection, the voters of Brazil will put more pressure on whomever heads the country next to make actual changes to political culture and positive reforms that bring the country forward. In Brazil, the promises of tomorrow are only possible with the actions of today.
Image Source: The Guardian
Savannah Haeger ’16 is a Political Science and Latin American Studies double major. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.