Gwynne Dyer: The Brazilian election and the rise of Marina Silva

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      You mustn’t expect politicians in a democratic system to come up with ideologically pure, intellectually consistent policies. Their job is to put together a winning coalition of voters who have different and even conflicting interests, and if that requires compromises and even contradictions, so be it.

      But they must appear to be consistent, and Marina Silva has mastered the art.

      Until last month Silva was the vice-presidential candidate of the smallest of Brazil’s three main parties, a woman with a national reputation as an environmental activist but little prospect of high political office. President Dilma Rousseff was cruising serenely towards re-election in the first round of the elections on October 5, despite the fact the Brazil’s once-booming economy is in a recession.

      And then a small plane crashed.

      Marina Silva was supposed to be on that plane, but changed her plans at the last moment. All seven people who were on board died, including the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Eduardo Campos. With the election campaign already underway, the PSB had no choice but to promote Silva in his place, and suddenly the election became a real race.

      A woman as president is no longer an innovation in Brazil. Dilma Rousseff broke through that barrier four years ago.

      A dramatic back story—Marina Silva is the daughter of illiterate rubber tappers in the Amazon, and only learned to read when she was 16—is also not unusual in a Brazilian president: Rousseff was tortured and jailed by the military dictators who ruled Brazil in the 1970s. But Silva really is different.

      She is bright Green: her own party, which she took into coalition with the PSB, is called the Sustainability Network. Even more importantly in a country where half the population is non-white, Silva is a caboclo, the mixed-race combination of native Indian, black, and white that is common in the Amazon. On census returns, she calls herself “black”. There has never been a serious presidential contender who was black before.

      Only two weeks after Silva was chosen to replace the late Eduardo Campos, she has tripled the PSB’s support in the opinion polls. There is now almost no chance that Dilma Rousseff will win outright in the first round of the elections. The polls predict that Silva will come second to Rousseff in that round—and then beat the incumbent by 47 percent to 43 percent of the votes in the run-off three weeks later.

      All very well, but what would Marina Silva actually do as the president of Brazil? It’s an important question, because Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country (200 million people), is going through difficult times.

      Over the past 12 years, the governing Workers’ Party has lifted 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, but economic growth has now stalled. Many people blame the government’s highly protectionist policies.

      Silva is a plain-speaking woman with no allegations of corruption trailing her around (as they do so many other Brazilian politicians), but she has been remarkably unforthcoming on what she would do about the economy. This is because she now heads a political coalition whose major member, the PSB, is actually “business-friendly”, as they say.

      No political party in Brazil ever calls itself “right-wing”. After the brutal reign of the generals in 1964-85, the phrase went out of use, and all three major parties sound as if they are on the left: the Workers’ Party, the Brazilian Socialist Party, and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

      But only the Workers’ Party is even moderately socialist; the other two are centre-left and centre-right.

      Silva’s plans for the environment are equally obscure, beyond the well-known fact that she disapproves of giant hydroelectric dams in the Amazon (and she hasn’t even cancelled any of them).

      She still talks like a Green, but her vice-presidential running mate, Beto Albuquerque, was responsible for pushing a law legalizing the use of genetically modified soybeans through Congress.

      She is, in other words, a “typical politician” who is trimming her sails to the prevailing wind. She accepted Albuquerque as a running mate because she needs to appeal to the agribusiness sector, which accounts for almost half of Brazil’s exports and a quarter of the economy.

      Indeed, Silva’s economic platform is practically identical to that of the centre-right candidate, Aecio Neves: she would end price controls and energy subsidies, strengthen the autonomy of the central banks, and “streamline” (i.e. cut) the federal budget.

      On the other hand, despite her pursuit of business support she is still strong on environmental issues in general and an end to the deforestation of the Amazon in particular.

      This is not consistent, and ideologically pure Brazilian environmentalists are already disappointed in her, but she has nothing to apologize for. She has put together a set of policies and a coalition of supporters that are inconsistent and sometimes downright contradictory, but they may deliver her into the presidency.

      And that is the point of the exercise, after all: without power, policies are irrelevant.



      I Chandler

      Sep 8, 2014 at 5:17pm

      "Silva is a plain-speaking woman with no allegations of corruption trailing her"

      What about the people trailing her? Politicians can attract people like Mulroney's pasta machine partners. Silva’s campaign coordinator,Maria Setubal, is a member of one of the richest families in Brazil. Setubal’s brother, is the current CEO of Itau Unibanco, the largest bank in the southern hemisphere.

      Dyer:"Silva still talks like a Green"

      Silva talks like Obama (clean coal?) when she claims that Brazil could double its crop output without clearing of the rainforests. Sustainable? GMO? Obamaspeak?

      Dyer:"She is a typical politician who's trimming her sails to the prevailing wind"

      Funny? The Guardian says Silva has never been about Crowd-pleasing:
      "Throughout her career, she has put her principles above allies. This is one of the reasons why she effectively on her fourth party. It has also led to criticism that she is autocratic, to much a loner to get things done."

      Dyer: "Until last month Silva was the vice-presidential candidate of the smallest of Brazil’s three main parties,had little prospect of high political office.

      And then a small plane crashed."

      An unfortunate accident. Hope they find the cause soon. Unfortunatly for the MH17 accident investigation,the black box data from the MH17 crash is “classified”.
      Stephen Cohen writes that Ukraine, Netherlands, Australia, Belgium signed a non-disclosure agreement:

      A. C. MacAuley

      Sep 9, 2014 at 2:53pm

      @I Chandler

      I think your second point (that she's saying ridiculous things just to get votes) contradicts your third (that's she's not saying things just to get votes).

      Not sure why you tacked on a bit about the plane crash in Ukraine, but it suggests you didn't understand that a different plane crash was referred to in the above article. In recent news the black box data from MH17 has been released and Stephen Cohen just says things to get attention.


      Sep 10, 2014 at 10:24am

      I Chandler, couldn't find anything to suggest the Brazilian plane crash was a CIA/NSA plot, so he had to add something about a CIA/NSA plot.


      Sep 10, 2014 at 9:35pm

      Hey man, Chandler doesn't need any evidence to claim that anything and everything is a CIA/NSA plot. He just has a fetish for bringing up things that aren't in any way related to the subject of conversation.

      I Chandler

      Sep 11, 2014 at 8:22am

      Dyer: " the military dictators who ruled Brazil in the 1970s."

      The military regime actually ruled from 1964 until 1985...

      doconnor: "couldn't find anything to suggest the Brazilian plane crash was a CIA/NSA plot"

      The CIA's mop-up men make it difficult to find anything - if one bothered to look:

      Although suggesting that a plane crash was a CIA plot maybe silly ( unless it was loaded with 4 tons of cocaine ) , suggesting that the Brazilian 1964 was a CIA plot is not. CIA involvement included covert support of friendly labor and student groups and encouragement of pro-democracy street rallies etc. The CIA also had the help of the US Navy in the form of an "aircraft carrier (USS Forrestal) .

      I Chandler

      Sep 11, 2014 at 9:35am

      "Stephen Cohen just says things to get attention."

      A professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University, Stephen Cohen American does not say things to get attention - US Congressman Ron Paul might though:

      There is no evidence to suggest the Brazilian plane crash was a CIA plot - but maybe the FBI will find some. Russ Baker writes about instances in which FBI have shown up at sensitive crash scenes with great haste— sometimes arriving in force that would seem impossible based on local staffing:

      "One of many examples where FBI swarmed a crash scene was the 1972 Chicago plane crash that killed Dorothy Hunt, a former CIA officer and wife of the embattled CIA officer and Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, while she was cooperating with a journalist on inquiries into Watergate. The FBI took over the investigation, prompting complaints from the National Transportation Safety Board, which has statutory responsibility for such air disaster probes. (A detailed review of the incident can be found in Carl Oglesby’s Yankee and Cowboy War.)"


      Sep 12, 2014 at 4:25am

      'And that is the point of the exercise, after all: without power, policies are irrelevant.'

      Sure...and nothing ever changes.

      You stick by your policies and don't worry about the votes...that is the only way (imo) to save humanity.