Marina Silva is a veteran in Brazilian politics. Minister of the environment in the Lula administration, she resigned in 2008, switched from the Workers’ Party (PT) to the Green Party (PV) — not uncommon in Brazilian parliamentary politics — and ran for the presidential office in 2010, losing in the first round.
Despite her loss, Silva’s campaign was emblematic. Considered to be an alternative to partisan disputes between the PT and the conservative Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), she was a protest vote for many. Others truly believed Silva could do better than the candidates of the other main parties. Left-leaning voters believe her environmental concern and humble background could help to offset capitalist-developmentalist trends in Lula’s government, while center-right voters saw her as a PT dissident that could work to reform the economy in their favor.
Even as a second runner-up, she snatched almost 20 percent of the vote.
Playing on her 2010 image as a viable alternative, Silva is now a candidate from the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), which, despite its name, is better defined as a vaguely social-democratic party with liberal tendencies. Silva joined the race as the face of “new politics,” though even a quick look at her speeches, government proposals, interviews, and debates shows “post-politics” would be a better descriptor. Post-politics is form of post-ideological politics, as it claims to promote objectivity and consensus through technocracy and promises compromises the Left and the Right cannot reach due to their inherent antagonism.
Silva claims she will do away with the old, presumably rotten, aspects of political practice that have caused so much electoral disappointment in the population, and then take what was best from each previous administration to create a better form of government.
In the debates, Silva has tried hard to position herself as neither on the right or left, even if her proposals are clearly conservative. She has posited herself as a successor to both President Lula and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB) and avoids the perception of opposition or continuity in favor of a meritocratic consensus.
This project is the ideal administrative facade for reinforcing the status quo. After all, one aspect that has prevented the PT administrations from replicating the PSDB’s policies is its leftist ideological commitment to social assistance and its working-class roots. The rejection of this commitment would make Marina Silva not very different from the PSDB candidate, Aécio Neves, except that her project intends on retaining some of PT’s social gains as a technocratic symbol of social growth and democratic management.
Silva’s proposal to give the Brazilian Central Bank autonomy from the state is intended to appeal to the share of the population dealing with political melancholia, those who are still disillusioned with electoral politics due to corruption scandals and the continuous weakening of public services, as well as the fear of rising inflation. Of course, a Central Bank even more at the mercy of the markets is hardly the answer for that.
Anti-corruption was an important theme in the June 2013 protests in Brazil, although the moralist turn taken by the crowd drowned out a socialist critique of corruption and eventually facilitated a right-wing approach to anti-corruption that targeted the PT and the rest of the Left by association. A proposal like Central Bank autonomy not only fulfills Silva’s commitment to the financial market, but also captures the votes and attention of those primarily concerned with the connection between a corrupt state and monetary policy.
Silva’s active effort to depoliticize the economy and discussions around it extends even to her own expertise: the environment. Formerly known as an avid environmentalist who went head to head with Lula (and Rousseff) on many occasions over the rainforest and major development projects, now Silva claims to promote a brand of sustainable development that reconciles ecology and capital. This impossible feat has already led to changes to her government proposals due to pressures from Brazilian agribusiness.
Similarly, she announced changes to her program for LGBT rights, scrapping plans for effective marriage equality after pressure from religious fundamentalists. Silva has also removed provisions for revising the Amnesty Law, which let many crimes and human rights violations from the military dictatorship be swept under the rug. This change coincided with the release of a manifesto by the Military Club that pointed to Silva as an ideal alternative and beacon of hope for preventing another PT government.
But the problem is not simply Marina Silva. The Workers’ Party must also be held accountable for the decline of Brazilian politics, particularly because its growth as a party of order in the past twelve years of federal government can only be sustained through the effective depoliticization of the economy, of social rights, and how political decisions are made.
Because depoliticization becomes ingrained in the political view of a nation over time, the Marina Silva phenomenon is not its cause, but its result. Whether her candidacy succeeds or not depends on the ability of the Brazilian left (both moderate and radical) to assert the fallacy of “new politics” and repoliticize the economic and social sphere. This could also be a rude awakening for the PT, as it still struggles to breathe easy from the initial impact of Silva’s campaign and the fact she may still be a real threat if Rousseff is not immediately successful in the first round of the election this Sunday.
What about June 2013?
Those who were previously optimistic about the meaning of June 2013 have begun to rethink how far-reaching the event actually was. The revealing truth behind this electoral period is that not only did June fail to be a politicizing moment, it also enhanced post-political logic by the constant effort to disguise antagonism through idealist and moralist notions of social improvement.
Attempts to radicalize the event by social movements and political parties of the Left who had been on the streets long before the rise in mass mobilization were met with hostility, and a wave of non-partisanship soon became anti-party sentiment. The Left failed to mobilize and organize workers to pressure the PT from the left.
It could also be said that the radical left has grown in membership since June 2013, although the same is true for many right-wing organizations that capitalized on the emergence of new forms of polarization and the crowd’s moralism. For the Right, June meant the opportunity to identify and homogenize the overtly conservative, and to promote more coercion in the streets in order to foreclose politicizing spaces that could lead to a real threat to hegemony.
The depoliticized aspects of June and Marina Silva’s re-emergence are connected. The heightened nationalism promoted in the large crowds is an effective symbol of how the fear of polarization led to the abstraction of unity as national identity. The political characteristics of any demand were prevented from visibility because the Brazilian flag, rather than critique, was said to be what the amorphous masses sought in a political system.
It is not, then, a coincidence that Silva’s campaign slogan is “We will not give up on Brazil” and that she has appealed to the patriotic green and yellow rather than the PSB colours. By connecting “new politics” to a seemingly objective project to do what is best for the country — rather than govern in relation to power arrangements and contestation as would her adversaries — Silva plays on the tone of false unity that marked the June protests.
Challenges for Left this Sunday
Strategically, Silva’s rise and her ability to depoliticize electoral debates present a dual challenge to the radical Left. First, it must ensure that the gains from June, even if smaller than expected, are not taken away by a post-political frame. Second, it also forces the presidential candidates from the three radical left parties, PSOL, PSTU, and PCB (as well as the ultra-left PCO) to shift some of their focus from PT and Rousseff in order to demystify the Silva phenomenon for progressive voters.
If there is not a majority winner on October 5, then the final dispute may come down to Rousseff and Silva. If this is the case, it is more than likely that Neves’s voters will migrate to Silva, presenting a real threat to Rousseff and the PT (and moderate leftist institutional power in Brazil).
Whereas the radical left is critical of the PT and its governments (and the PSOL and PSTU even sprung out of schisms inside PT), the radical parties have only remote chances of winning governor and presidential seats and must consider eventual support for moderate left candidacies in the second round. This support would, undoubtedly, still come with criticism and reservations. Because Silva seems to attract both moderate leftist and moderate right-wing votes, this has created the need to balance the criticism of Rousseff and prevent her voters from joining Silva.
PT intellectuals fear that any criticism of Rousseff could prove fatal, and they have accused the PSOL, PSTU, and PCB of adding to the power of right-wing attacks. Needless to say, this accusation is misguided, given that the PT’s transformation into a party of order and neoliberal policies should be and must be highlighted by the Left.
Responding to the Marina Silva phenomenon, the radical left has tried to demonstrate that Silva is neither the alternative the progressive voices of June were seeking, or a symbol of “new politics.” This has not been easy, given that out of three radical left candidacies, only Luciana Genro from PSOL has been invited to the televised debates. Further, these candidacies rely mostly on grassroots financing from supporters in order to create, publish, and distribute materials.
Rousseff, Neves, and Silva, on the other hand, are well financed by construction corporations, banks, and other multinational corporations. Combined with attacks from the PT and, to a lesser extent, from the PSDB, this effort has been somewhat successful, as Silva’s voting intentions have declined. Some polls suggest a technical tie between her and Neves, suggesting voters have begun to question Silva’s post-ideology politics and whether it is truly possible to be neither a left-wing or right-wing politician.
While conservative weekly magazines, such as Veja, had come to her rescue in light of the PT’s own efforts to deflate the Silva phenomenon, other mainstream media outlets have returned to their original positions and now label Silva a temporary “summer dream.”
Not all may be lost for the radical left, however, as congressional seats are also being disputed at the federal and state levels, and the presence of coalitions between PSOL, PSTU, and PCB in many states may guarantee a few victories. This is important for struggles related to the legalization of abortion and marijuana, and proposals for equal rights, since the number of conservative and religious fundamentalist members of the National Congress and Senate has recently increased.
If Rousseff returns as president for another four years, the radical left must organize collectively to address its crisis of praxis and its own incoherence during the elections, and to grow in opposition to moderate leftist trends. In addition, even through victory the PT must re-think its ambiguous past that has allowed threats such as the one posed by Marina Silva to emerge with such ease. However, if Silva (or even Neves) comes out victorious, then far more fundamental reordering of the moderate and radical lefts will be necessary in Brazil.