Why Marina Silva won’t be the next Brazilian president

Since the candidacy of Ms Marina Silva was officially announced on 21 August 2014 the Brazilian presidential elections have undergone great volatility. While only a month ago the media and many political scientists were suggesting that Marina could win the elections, first round results finished with Marina scoring just 21% of votes, not enough to continue with the race. The ‘Marina phenomenon’ lost its strength quickly over the past weeks due to many factors. Here are some of the reasons why.

1) Marina attracted a high percentage of undecided voters, though most were not supporting her candidacy based on her proposed reforms but rather on anti-Workers’ Party (PT) sentiment. Up until fairly recently the overall perception was that the other opposition candidate, Mr Aecio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), was weak and would not be competitive enough to beat PT’s incumbent candidate Ms Dilma Rousseff. This all changed in the past weeks due to more aggressive campaigning against Marina from both Dilma and Aecio, as well as a loss of credibility in the public’s eye of Marina’s capacity to truly represent an alternative to the 20 year polarization between PT and PSDB: Despite the over 30 political parties in Brazil, since 1994 PSDB and PT have alternated presidencies – PSDB from 1994-2002, and PT since 2003.

It is quite clear now that Marina’s true supporters number roughly the same as in the 2010 elections, or about 20 million votes.

2) Voters did not buy Marina’s discourse on “a new way of doing politics”. Marina kept insisting on promoting the idea of a 'new way of doing politics' based on ideas and concrete proposals instead of the current interest-led coalitions. She targeted the youth from last year’s protests and aimed at the population’s feeling of lack of representation and overall distrust for political institutions. The problem was that Marina did not explain how this could be feasibly done. Would she be able to subjugate the powerful agribusiness cross-party coalition? If she governed without the support of the old oligarchic candidates, who would she assign to run the ministries? In the end, people were not fully convinced that she would be strong enough to challenge the political status quo in Brazil.

3) Marina failed to leverage the debates around the need to pursue a new development model for Brazil. Marina’s ideas about the need to re-think the Brazilian development model through a lens of sustainability and to foster more active and direct social participation in the political decision-making process did not resonate with public opinion. When Marina stated that she would diminish the Pre-Salt seabed oil exploitation’s centrality in the national energy matrix strategy in favor of more investment in solar and wind power plants, the other candidates and public opinion severely criticized her, saying she was “moving backwards” and curbing the country’s economic growth. When Marina invited people to occupy the streets and participate in the campaign, nobody followed her.

While both PT and PSDB were pointing fingers at each other about corruption scandals or comparing the legacies of past PT and PSDB administrations, Marina failed to reframe dialogue towards a programmatic focus for the future of the country. Even given the chance, she could not leverage the issue of climate change and sustainability in her public debates.

4) Marina’s campaign did not communicate well with the public about which sides she represented. Due to Marina’s handicap of running for presidency through her fresh but faltering Sustainability Network party, she was forced to build a coalition with the Socialist Party (PSB) and other smaller parties, each with their own agendas and priorities. When PSB established partnerships with both PT and PSDB for state-level elections, Marina refused to give or receive support, and this inhibited her from developing some of her truly progressive agendas. This, combined with the already traditional political polarization and blurred PSB positions, led people to question which side Marina would be on if elected. This lack of clarity all the more damaged Marina’s credibility.

5) Marina’s contradictions during the campaign undermined her trustworthiness. While public opinion welcomed Marina’s long and detailed government program proposal, she had not revised it completely before its release. As a result, the contradictions between her proposals and her personal opinions were intensively explored by PT and PSDB rivals. Marina presented a more progressive civil rights agenda, but her conservative convictions blew away her support from many progressive voters. Her program included suggestions for a pro-homosexual rights agenda, but her own views against homosexual marriage and the public pressure from evangelical leaders against it led her to withdraw the idea and change her official program stance in less than 24 hours after its release. Her credibility suffered a sharp decline after this episode.

6) The media’s use of voting intention polls weakened Marina’s candidacy. Brazilian newspapers, social media, and websites were flooded with voting polls in the lead to the first elections round. They all showed a decline for Marina and an increase in support for Aecio. None of the projections captured the highly disputed results of the elections (with Dilma scoring 41% and Aecio 33%), but as previously stated, Marina's voters were not necessarily voting for her but for any strong, non-PT candidate. With the powerful influence of the voting intention polls, many voters ultimately understood that Aecio was a more competitive candidate, and the votes changed towards him.

What to expect in the coming weeks?

Now that Marina is out of the running, the old political spread is back on track and as strong as ever. Brazilian elections have been shaped by a division of ideologies since the 1990s, with the liberal agenda from PSDB and the state-led developmental agenda with social inclusion from PT. While analysts had speculated that both Dilma and Aecio could be willing to make stronger commitments on climate and environmental agendas in case of a potential Marina offensive, this unfortunately did not happen. As in 2010, Marina focused more on political reform and economic policy issues, rather than pushing the debates to address environmental issues.

Ugly conversations are now taking place within Brazilian society – accusations about corruption scandals from both sides, and disputes about the weight of previous PT and PSDB government legacies on the current economic and social conditions are polarizing debates in Facebook and other social media. Programmatic discussions about the future of the country and its development model have grown quiet.

The awful results of October’s Brazilian National Congress elections – with the powerful conservative benches of ruralists, military, and evangelicals gaining even more seats – complement the scenario to suggest that powerful hindrances and setbacks will be the norm against progressive and ambitious climate agendas in Brazil for the coming years.

By 27 October we will know who the next Brazilian president will be. As the first round showed, any guess at this time about the final result is pure speculation. Upon Aecio’s official declaration to address some of Marina’s proposals, Marina announced her official support for Aecio’s candidacy. The impact of this on the final results is still uncertain. However, and unfortunately, it is clear that the likelihood of a substantial debate between Dilma and Aecio on challenging the current national development model and confronting climate concerns is remarkably low.

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