Brazil’s ‘accidental’ presidential candidate

Is Marina Silva the right choice for Brazil?

Silva entered the presidential race when the Socialist candidate was killed in a plane crash, writes the author [AP]

Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva’s success story is almost too good to be true for the media. She was born into a poor, mixed race family in the Amazon – one of 11 children. She learned to read at the age of 16 and was the first member of her family to become literate. Living in poverty, she contracted malaria and hepatitis but overcame both.

Silva entered politics by being elected to the Brazilian Senate in 1994. In this initial phase of her career, she established a strong environmentalist position. While serving as minister of environment during Lula da Silva’s presidency she was criticised for slowing down the country’s agricultural growth by her actions to protect the forest resources of the Amazon.

Yet in 2014, no one expected Silva to be so highly regarded as to be put forward as a presidential candidate running against the incumbent Dilma Rousseff. To the surprise of many, her chances of winning are looking good with her popularity rising in polls against Rousseff’s workers’ party. Silva entered the race when the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash and Silva, his running mate, was selected to seek the presidency.

Different background

With her background being quite different from the regular ruling elite – a woman of African descent from Amazonia – she has been portrayed favourably by the international media both as a disruptive force and as a welcome departure from the usual suspectsrunning Brazil (Rousseff’s workers’ party has been in power for more than a decade). Silva has even been depicted as a kind of “green” heroine, all of a sudden popping up on the political field to save Brazil from corruption.

With her background being quite different from the regular ruling elite – a woman of African descent from Amazonia – she has been portrayed favourably by the international media both as a disruptive force and as a welcome departure from the usual suspects running Brazil.

But not all disruption is good. The country’s progressives and those who know Silva’s past, and her political trajectory, see little to be thankful for should she become the president of Latin America’s largest country.

In her early days, Silva worked on a number of projects with Chico Mendes, an environmental activist working to preserve the Amazonian forest. When Mendes was assassinated by a rancher in 1988, Silva appeared on the scene soon after as his “disciple”. Her name often appeared with that of Mendes who had become an international martyr.

Yet Silva’s environmentalism is questionable. During her time as the minister of environment, she was often criticised for her inability to implement programmes and to mediate effectively between competing interest groups.

Unable to resolve her disagreements with the government and political opponents, she resigned in 2008, after five years of serving in the ministry; an act of frustration which revealed her inability to form political alliances to implement her political agenda.

When Silva presented her proposed governing plan for her campaign, it looked like an improvisation that was hastily put together by combining various doctrines. She was even accused of plagiarism with parts of the doctrine directly taken from other texts.

Socially progressive vision?

Sloppy preparations aside, what Silva is proposing for Brazil is far from being a socially progressive vision. Instead, Silva’s plan for governance unabashedly adopts a neoliberal approach to economic and social policy, which places her farther right of Rousseff. Yet, she couples this with discordant claims of being an ardent supporter of the June 2013 demonstrations, and by employing an anti-party and anti-corruption discourse, aligning herself with a youth disenchanted with politics.

The key points of her programme are to facilitate the operations of a free capitalist market by means of decreasing public expenditures, having independent agencies regulate public services and ensuring the autonomy of the Central Bank. This latter adjustment means giving up the country’s monetary sovereignty and subjecting it to the manoeuvres taking place in the global capitalist system. Silva also proposes to subordinate the country’s industrial sector to the interests of foreign trade.

In addition, Silva is committed to making labour legislation more flexible, which is most likely to translate into subjecting workers to far greater control by their corporate employers.

Furthermore Silva is a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian with conservative views on social issues such as reproductive rights and marriage equality. The biggest faux pas of Silva’s proposed government plan occurred when she announced marriage rights for gays and the criminalisation of homophobia hoping to gain votes. When she was pressured, it took her exactly 24 hours to remove the part about gay rights from her plan and announce to the public she had published it “merely by mistake”.

This incident raises two important concerns: First, that Silva has no real political position herself and keeps sliding between discourses in reaction to the public and her support groups. Second, and alarmingly for a secular state, is the apparent influence that the Evangelical church will have should Silva come to power.

Additionally, Silva’s speech seems incoherent and unrealistic at times. Her contradicting positions are reflected in the strange composition of her main lines of political support. That is, besides being subservient to the outlook of the Evangelical church and the ruling urban elite (constituencies that both support free capitalist market and entrepreneurship), she has also gained the sympathy of people disenchanted with politics and those seeking regime change to replace the Workers’ Party that has been governing Brazil for over a decade.

Far from representing any kind of change, Silva poses a big threat to Brazil’s future. Her oligarchic neoliberal plan will put an end to the little social welfare Brazilians now enjoy and create bigger socio-economic gaps in a country already plagued by class differences and huge income inequalities. Her conservative Evangelical values are regressive and justify intolerance and hate crimes in a society that is more diverse than any other. Such concerns do not even address worries about Silva’s executive competence to lead a complex and polarised country of 200 million.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.