This Sunday, Brazilians decide between two progressive women presidents. How do they compare?

October 2, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Oxfam’s  country director, Simon Ticehurst (right), fills in the simon ticehurstbackground ahead of this weekend’s election

Some colleagues asked me this week, what is going to happen in the elections and who should I vote for?

First up, prediction is not my forte. Last year in June I sent an optimistic briefing on Brazil to Oxfam´s CEO, saying that poverty was coming down, inequality was coming down, hunger had been largely dealt with, Brazil had full-employment, the happiness index was on the increase, and the Brazilians were generally happy with their lot. A week later 1.5 million people were on the streets across 15 cities in the biggest protests for decades.  In my defence, no-one predicted that, just as no-one can predict the outcome of next week´s elections (with a second round toward the end of October). It is too close to call.

Brazil is going through a most unusual electoral process. Not least, because we have two women from humble origins and a leftist background as the frontrunners, the incumbent Dilma Rousseff  and former environment minister Marina Silva. I don’t think I have seen that anywhere. For Brazil and  Latin American this is an important symbolic moment for women’s political leadership.

What Simon missed

What Simon missed

What was a done deal a couple of months ago with Dilma Rousseff´s victory a matter of course -despite the debacle of Brazil losing 7-1 to Germany (football was never going to be the determining factor) now looks like a technical draw. Since presidential candidate Eduardo Campos died in August, Marina Silva, who was running as vice-president, has ridden a wave of emotional support and captured much of the anti-PT vote. Eduardo Campos was the new generation of the left, allied to Lula, he split when Lula favoured Dilma Rousseff in the last elections. His tragic death in an air crash has generated a wave of emotion, which, combined with Marina Silva´s own appeal, has catapulted her to her current position.

Polls have swung back a little this week toward Dilma who looks like she might win  the first round, but it is not clear who would win in a second- round run-off. Up until this week, polls had Marina winning that. Now it is has swung back toward Dilma. But it is too close to call.

So who to vote for? One of the legacies of last year´s protests is that people are talking about change and a new political cycle of reform. Things cannot carry on as they are and it is clear that the economic model is running out of steam (Brazil has slipped into recession) and Brazil´s democracy needs overhauling. Everyone wants change. But I don´t think either candidate will be able to deliver on the changes needed.

Marina has the advantage and disadvantage of having published her proposed government programme, a lengthy document which has some good and

Dilma left; Marina right

Dilma left; Marina right

bad stuff and some inconsistencies. The PT has a shorter call to action building on the positive changes of the past 12 years and promising  “More Change – More Future.”

Marina is pushing a more liberal economic programme, stimulating private investment and trade liberalization, and free-trade agreements with the US and Europe and closer association with the Pacific Alliance.  For those of us that worked on the Make Trade Fair campaign  this is a step backwards, and she clearly has private sector backing for this agenda. We know who would benefit from this agenda, and it won´t be the poor. Marina´s strengths lie in a push for political reform and how she is challenging the political corruption that has corroded the PT in power. Obviously her environmental credentials are second to none and this appeals to youth. However she will also have to make unholy alliances in order to survive and get anything through Congress. And the fact that she entered the fray with a party that until recently was a PT ally, dilutes the newness of the idea of a citizens “network” as a new political expression for the democratic process.

One contentious issue is Marina Silva´s evangelical background, for which she is sometimes attacked. In addition to backing a neo-liberal economic agenda, this enables her to bring a neo-conservative, anti-abortion and traditional family caucus into her “unholy” alliance (which the PT also has to do to govern). But I am not sure that this is the defining feature of Marina Silva (after all she does come from a PT background).

Brazil v EuropePart of Marina´s appeal comes from her almost spiritual aura. She can move an audience, she has charisma and stage presence. My daughter Sarah had to translate for her at a civil society event at Rio+20 and struggled to control the emotion enough to translate. For young, intellectual, urban middle classes, less groomed in the class struggle and who want to save the Amazon, Marina is a hero. And her humble origins may also bring support from the poor northeast (which is where Eduardo Campos was from). Marina´s government would also continue the PT’s much-praised social programmes .

Dilma is the incumbent and offers the continuity of the PT’s gradual reformism. Her programme centres around maintaining a stronger role for the State in economic and development management, with substantial social programmes funded by a neo-developmentalist agenda  that pursues economic growth through big infrastructure projects, agribusiness, energy and mining (until recently, quite successfully).  It is this reliance that is challenged by the environmentalists. A second term in office for Dilma would probably mean some political reform and attempts to lighten the bureaucratic burden of the state through greater decentralization. Corruption is a big issue that seems to galvanize the anti-PT vote and is swaying middle-class opinion. Certainly more needs to be done. But I actually think Dilma has been good in tackling corruption – the fact that it is so high on the agenda is because finally someone is doing something about it. Corruption is not the problem, it is what you do about it that matters. Despite everything the PT has done, much more is needed. Politics can be a thankless task –  it is the same emerging middle class millions that the PT has helped move up and out of poverty that are demanding political change, quality public services, and less state intervention.

Rather than political adversaries I would rather see Dilma and Marina in alliance. Together neither would have to pander to neo-liberal economic or a neo-conservative social agenda. The options for more radical reform and greater social justice would be greater, while recognizing environmental constraints.  But that is not going to happen, at least not this side of Sunday’s election.

The other day Lula was giving a campaign speech and someone shouted from the audience “I love Marina.” Lula replied. “I love Marina too, but elections are not defined by love, otherwise I would vote for Marisa (his wife).” In case you were wondering, I am (still) with Lula.

Update: Oops, so much for opinion polls

October 2, 2014
Duncan Green