Elections

Brazil and Elections: A rare opportunity to put sustainability on the agenda

Sustainable development has been peripheral to Brazilian elections, yet this election could mark a turning point. Street protests in 2013 sent a clear message to politicians: people want to debate Brazil’s future in the 2014 election, but so far politicians have reduced the election to a debate around personalities and power. In the run up to the October election we have a chance to show that sustainable development is not merely a debate among elites but an essential issue for Brazil’s struggle for citizen rights and equality. The task this year is to connect the dots between the environment, development and citizen rights thus making sustainable development a key electoral theme in 2014. Could the street protests and new political coalitions help promote sustainable development as a campaign issue? We argue that the political situation in Brazil may create a rare opportunity to do so for the first time since the return of democracy in the mid 1980s. Here we explain why.

The Brazilian context: Three Core Issues

Public protests

The 2013 social uprisings across Brazil showed the extent to which voters, especially younger generations, no longer accept “politics as usual”. This mobilization exposed opportunities for the development of new political narratives to restore citizens’ confidence in their politicians.

The mobilization of more than a million people, which swept the Brazilian streets in June 2013, startled political leaders. What began as a demand to cut 20% from bus fares soon became a massive platform for a range of demands including better schools; less corruption; complaints against the World Cup; an improved health system; better citizen representation; greater social mobility; land reform; respect for homosexual and minority rights, and more. Although environmental concerns were not paramount to protesters’ demands (see Infographic of “Key Themes”), the united call against “business as usual” does arguably connect these causes. The media certainly interpreted the June protests as, above all, an expression of how disenfranchised people continue to feel about the political system and their political representatives

Environmental issues could become visible in the political agenda if voters see a stronger link between their everyday concerns about urban mobility, health, energy, agriculture, or waste management and sustainable development. Take climate change, for example. Because the negative effects of climate change differ from region to region in Brazil (see Infographic about “Climate effects”), mobilizing the constituencies that are affected negatively by climate and environmental injustices may increase the likelihood that regional politicians make these issues a priority. Improved quality of life is a central concern for many voters that could be linked to an environmental agenda and consequently a new area for politicians to address.

A threatened coalition

Led by the “Workers Party” (PT), the government’s great coalition has been in place for 13 years, but is under threat for the first time.Underpinning this shake-up of traditional politics is a strong alliance in the Parliament. Until recently, the coalition led by PT and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) was expected to easily re-elect president Dilma and keep an ample majority in Parliament. Not much was expected to change in 2014. If anything, the elections were said to be about “consolidation,” not transformation. The street protests last year changed that. With a new coalition between Eduardo Campos and Marina Silva and strong competition within state-level Governors, the outcome of the election is less certain.

Before the street protests there was therefore little expectation that much would change with the forthcoming presidential elections and many were calling it an election of consolidation, not transformation.

These new events are forcing the PT to renegotiate the basis of its coalition at both state and federal levels , which may in turn impact both president Dilma´s re-election chances and PT´s coalition with PMDB and other parties in congress.

Growing polarization

Most political narratives in Brazil present sustainable development as resting on three pillars: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. Nevertheless, environmental protection is severely restricted in practice whenever it’s perceived as detrimental to economic growth. Whenever environmental protection is considered an impediment to the interests of major economic players, “pressing” national priorities will override it.

Linking environmental concerns to the concrete issues that emerged from the street protests may demonstrate the inconsistency and weakness of the candidates’ approaches to and discourse about sustainable development. If framed properly, we could turn the debate into a national vision, along the lines of “sustainable development for Brazil” building a far more attractive vision for voters, social movements, businesses and the media.

If framed properly, we could turn the debate into a national vision, along the lines of “sustainable development for Brazil” thus building a far more attractive vision for voters, social movements, businesses and the media.

Several events and political disputes became emblematic of the growing polarization between those worried about environmental impacts, on the one hand, and those supporting a development model that relies intensively on natural resources. The approval of changes to the Forest Code, the construction of Belo Monte dam, the exploration of the Pre-salt oil fields and legal proposals to change Indigenous people’s rights confirmed the scale of these colossal tensions in Brazilian society.These controversial approvals also confirm the contradictions between political discourse in favour of sustainable development and what occurs in practice in the name of development.

The recent battles in the Brazilian Congress showed that the national legislative houses are presently dominated by fragmented elites and regional oligarchies that organize themselves across party interest groups, such as the powerful and well-organized agribusiness caucus, or “Ruralists”. This dominant group supports setbacks in environmental policies whenever they perceive that limitation on the exploitation of natural resources, be it land, mineral or water affects their interests.

Despite the formidable power of the agribusiness caucus, the rise of new and bigger natural resource conflicts in Brazil has been divisive among the elite. The emergence of a new elite within the private sector that grasps why environmental protection can secure competitiveness is gaining power within the agribusiness caucus and could further divide this group.

The growing divergence within the agribusiness caucus, pitting traditional farmers against modern farmers on matters related to sustainable agriculture and productivity, has become more evident in the media.As a result, the media has “upgraded” the environment in their list of pre-electoral topics. This exposure could further deepen the differences within this powerful group and alter their alliances with both the left and right (PT and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party).

Where Brazil stands

The kind of political coalitions that support presidential and congressional candidates will define the next government’s stance on environmental issues.

Brazil’s fluid political dynamics mean that it is too early to makereliable predictions. The country has more than 30 political parties (see Infographic “Political parties in Brazil”), two were created in 2013, and 24 are represented in the legislative houses, suggesting that much can still happen before the election.

Three core themes

What are specific themes that could directly or indirectly affect the next electoral debates in Brazil? We discuss what sustainable development advocates must do differently in order to ensure that the environment and climate are visible issues in the upcoming election.

  1. New constituencies: The presence of young voters could make a difference in the next election. If Marina Silva continues to mobilize young people, especially 16 and 17 year old potential voters, to participate in the next election, and if environment issues are flagged as being important for the next generation, then the media and politicians might place environmental issues higher up their own agendas.
  2. “Lost” constituencies: Although voting is obligatory in Brazil, analysts predict high levels of abstention in protest against the political system. The possible 30% - 40% of disgruntled voters are looking for new narratives and clearer positions on issues that are important for them such as the fight against corruption, injustice, inequality, unemployment and unchecked environmental destruction.
  3. Natural disasters: If the summer rainy season in the Southeast region of Brazil is severe, as it has been in the last few years when thousands were left homeless and scores dead, this may compel the media and political parties to talk about climate change and environmental issues in the election. During the last weeks of December 2013, almost 50,000 people were forced to leave their homes and 21 were killed due to a massive flood in the state of Espírito Santo. According to the Civil Defense Department, the level of rainfall in the state capital was 200% above the expected amount for the whole month. Another severe weather event may further put environment and climate change in the spotlight. While not guaranteed, environmental and climate issues could receive more attention in the campaign if the public demands politicians to take a stance on how to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts or how to advance sustainable development in practice.
  4. Social unrest: June 2014 will mark the first anniversary of the massive street protests in Brazil, a date which coincides with the start of the World Cup and the world’s attention firmly on Brazil. The issue of urban mobility and the quality of public services are likely to be discussed publicly. Trade unions, social movements from different backgrounds and anti-World Cup movements are already preparing massive protests. These actions could become a game changer in the elections if they force political parties to take stronger stances that respond to the issues raised during the street protests. The sustainable development movement is diffused and covers an array of issues, from indigenous peoples rights, small-scale farming and environmental protection, to public transport groups and gender issues. The challenge is therefore to articulate a set of demands that can push at least some candidates to break ranks with those traditional groups that insist on a model of resource intensive development for Brazil.

Connecting sustainability, people and the economy

Getting political parties and candidates to take more explicit views on sustainability is possible, yet thorny. This is because they do not see “sustainability” as a core electoral issue for Brazilian voters.

Brazilians, however, care deeply about urban mobility and public transport, clean beaches, and healthy and safe food. They are also sensitive to the inclusivity of Brazil’s development model. Because these issues are both directly and indirectly linked to sustainability, advocates of sustainable development in Brazil might need to reframe the narrative to be relevant to the everyday concerns of voters. It is the reconfiguration of sustainable development politics that could break the silence on these issues in the Brazilian elections.

In order to push this agenda forward, communication between advocates of sustainable development for Brazil and voters must improve. It is in our interest to undo the widespread perception, and often prejudice, that environmental issues are divorced from everyday life, or that a trade-off exists between individual wellbeing and “nature preservation”.

We also need to work on the common perception that the environmental agenda is “a plot” orchestrated by rich nations to stifle Brazil’s progress. The idea that environmental protection means a step backwards for Brazil will need to be confronted with evidence. We should do away with the idea that these issues are too complex and scientific for the public to understand. Again, new and better communication with the Brazilian people is critical. We must show why fighting for the environment means fighting against injustice and inequality.

We must show why fighting for the environment means fighting against injustice and inequality.

Most importantly, we must combine environmental and climate change issues with the economic debate. It is insufficient for environmental advocates to simply state what they reject. They need to demonstrate what the economic alternatives are and why environmental and climate protection makes sense for Brazil’s economy.

Critically, the linkages between environmental protection and development will need to be framed in social terms. We need to quantify the benefits and costs of the alternative pathways to development to map the potential winners and losers of shifting away from a resource intensive model in order to better manage the support and opposition to the status quo. Because Brazil is an exporting nation, providing top-quality analysis on how resource efficiency improves competitiveness will be needed. This analysis could help move the political discussion of proposals in favor of sustainable development beyond the paralyzing framing of “left” versus “right” ideologies.

The opportunity to place sustainability on the Brazilian election agenda in 2014 looms large. Street protests and changing political alliances are creating political space that was not present before.A growing political debate among citizens (especially young and disgruntled voters), environmental and rights advocates, and the media could push politicians to talk publicly – beyond easy rhetoric – about their plans for integrating sustainability into their development and economic plans.

No matter who wins the election, Brazil will win as a country if the next election succeeds in placing sustainable development at the center of the political agenda.

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