Brazil: Marina Silva's candidacy changes the elections game

On August 13th the Brazilian elections went through a major shift. Eduardo Campos, presidential candidate holding a third place in pools, died in a plane crash. Campos had Marina Silva as vice-presidential candidate, a popular environmentalist politician that had ran for President in 2010 getting nearly 20 million votes then (roughly 19% of votes). After a few days of intense negotiations among the political parties of the coalition headed by the late Campos and the Socialist Party (PSB), Marina became the new presidential candidate. Marina's original plan was to run as Presidential candidate, but electoral bureaucratic procedures prevented her to establish a new political party, “Sustainability Network”. She became the VP of Eduardo Campos' instead.

A pool made right after Campos death and even before the official announcement of Marina's candidacy indicates the scale of the impact of this change in this dynamic electoral context. Campos held 8% of voting intentions whereas Marina got a 21% level of support from voters even before she had become the official Presidential candidate. Last week’s opinion pools already showed a high probability of Marina not only winning against Dilma in a second round but also winning by 47% against 43% for Dilma.

It is obviously too early to make conclusive judgments. What we see is that instead of "stealing" voters from the PT-led coalition´s and their candidate, President Dilma Rousseff, or from PSDB´s right-wing opposition, Aecio Neves, Marina seems to have attracted the high percentage of undecided voters and it is still unclear if she will be able to retain these voters in the next weeks and months.

Nevertheless, this scenario already shows a big shift in the electoral dispute and in Brazilian politics. The sharp polarization of the political debate in Brazil dates back to early 90´s, with a division between visions expressed by the "neoliberal agenda" represented by PSDB and the "State-led developmentalism with social inclusion" sustained by PT. Marina seeks to present herself as a “mid-ground or an alternative” to this polarization. She claims to promote a ‘new way of doing politics’ in Brazil. She has also bee expressing a conservative narrative in a range of issues (i.e. abortion, religion), and is an open supporter of market-led solutions, but she is also a strong defender of sustainable development, small farmers agriculture and indigenous rights.

However, due to the fragility of Marina’s political party basis, it is also unclear at the moment the extent to which she may be able to sustain her political narrative or succumb to the influence of powerful political interest groups that have dominated the country’s political agenda for decades. Marina’s candidacy and a potential government headed by her is much less predictable than the other two candidates and this “surprise” factor is both Marina’s blessing and curse.

The next few days and weeks will be decisive to know what profile Marina´s candidacy will have and which priority issues she will raise during the campaign. Marina´s programmatic platform will be published in the coming days. Her campaign steering committee is being subject to major disputes among the Socialist Party members and her personal and historical advisers. Beto Albuquerque, her vice-president candidate, is a Socialist Party parliamentarian known by his links with the agribusiness sector and for having an active role on approving the controversial GMO soya authorization pack.

What is clear is that the terms of the debate in the national electoral dispute are now different. This scenario puts new issues on the agenda, but it is still unclear in which direction the agenda will move. Most analysts agree that the introduction of Marina as a candidate might force Dilma to take stronger commitments on the environment and climate change agenda in order to respond to a potential Marina offensive in this front. Nevertheless, it worth noticing that when Marina ran for presidency in 2010, she didn´t raise this agenda in the debates as expected.

The first presidential debate will be televised this week. Most people that are not following closely the presidential campaigns will start to be more exposed to the three candidate’s speech and programs.

Intense speculations are taking place in political parties, media, industrial and agricultural sectors and among social and environmental groups aiming at understanding the new trends and challenges posed by Marina´s candidacy. The only certainty so far is that the terms and contents of the new political scenario are not defined yet, and that Marina’s entry in the race opens up the possibility for all of us to push for a public debate about the development model supported by the different presidential candidates and how sustainable development and climate change issues will be addressed. As a country, we need that conversation and we welcome the possibility to have it.

Upcoming article sneak peek

What to Expect on Climate from Latin America's New Presidents?