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

Marina Silva.

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By Federico Fuentes

September 16, 2014 -- TeleSUR English, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- A fortnight out from Brazil’s October 5 national election, the big news has been the significant surge in support for Marina Silva, a former Workers’ Party (PT) government minister and environmental activist, with some polls predicting she could end up winning the presidential race.

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

If this occurs, current indications are that Marina 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 only came about as a result of the August 13 death of Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB, Socialist Party) presidential candidate Eduardo Campos. Having previously taken up the vice-presidential spot as part of a deal between the PSB and her own unregistered party, Sustainability Network, Marina Silva was promoted to the top spot.

Since then the PSB’s fortunes in the polls have soared: while Campos had been polling around 10%, this figure more than doubled as soon as Silva took over. Recent polls give her between 30-35%, meaning that the PSB has pushed aside the main right-wing opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and currently sits in second place.

Silva’s politics

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

Many looked favourably upon her appointment as environment minister in the first-ever 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 was 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 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 Marina Silva as a potential “leading force for sustainable economic development, and alternatives to extractivism, throughout the region”.

The reality is however, that Silva’s election would most likely lead to a conservative, not conservationist, shift in Brazilian politics. Moreover, her rise can in many ways be attributed to the failures, not successes, of Brazil’s lefts, starting with the “anti-extractivist” left.

Much has been made of Silva’s environmental credentials and anti-development talk. However, when it comes to concrete policies and programs, Marina offers little in terms of a progressive alternative to the PT.

The problem is that 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 Marina Silva and the right-wing PSDB when it comes to economic policies. Underpinning this is their shared opposition to state intervention (or as Silva calls it “developmentalism”) and belief in the virtues of the market.

In these elections, both parties 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 United States.

Backflips on environment policies

Then there are the backflips that Silva, a conservative evangelical Christian, has done in terms of social policy, such as dropping support for gay marriage and abortion rights from her program.

Perhaps less attention has been paid to her shifts in environmental policies.

The last few weeks have seen Silva backtrack on previous anti-petroleum statements, saying that any government she leads would continue to see Brazil’s massive deep-sea oil exploitation project as a priority.

Similar, Marina stated she was no longer opposed to GMOs. She has also campaigned strongly in favour of Brazil producing biofuels, something ecological movements have denounced not only for its negative environmental impacts but for the fact its re-directs food product away from people and towards cars.

And while Marina held up a number of licenses for hydroelectric dams when she was minister, she now considers them to be a vital source of energy.

In the end, 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 on environmental issues.

Left's failures

However, Marina Silva’s rise can also be attributed to the failure of Brazil’s other lefts – the pro-PT and anti-PT leftbecause, independently of Silva’s policies, much of her support is coming from sectors that neither identify as right wing nor pertain to traditional conservative sectors.

Most of the country’s trade unions and social movements remain wedded to one extent or another 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, Marina has been able to woo sections of the traditional middle class who have historically opposed the PT and see in Marina Silva a viable alternative. Many of those who continue to support the PSDB will undoubtedly come behind Silva in the second round if it means defeating Dilma 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 their 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 of them 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.

On the other hand, Marina Silva’s outsider status and “new politics” discourse, despite running on the PSB ticket and forming regional alliance with other traditional parties, has converted her into a viable alternative for many of these youth.

Polling that correlates political identification with voting intentions show that if Silva was to win the second round, she would do so not only with 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.

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

This also seems to be the case if we consider the fact that these elections follow on from the massive mobilisations that shook Brazil in the middle of 2013.

Sparked by opposition to proposed transport fare hikes, these protests quickly mushroomed and began raising 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 these protests 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 Marina Silva’s rise.

None of this is to say that a Silva victory would represent a positive step forward for Brazil, much less South America, given her negative comments about Venezuela and other radical governments in the region.

There should be little doubt that a Silva government will be to the right of any potential Rousseff government.

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

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