Brazil: Dilma’s Dilemma

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.