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Neither Rousseff nor Silva will do what’s right for Brazil

A shared past and an uninspiring future. Sebastiao Moreira/EPA

The most positive aspect of the Brazilian election is not just that the two front-runners are are women, but that gender issues are not the major focus of this campaign in the media. Still, the likely presence of two women in the second round of the presidential election is highly significant. It reflects a considerable change to the place of women in Brazilian society.

According to latest polling, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), who is running for re-election, has an advantage in the first round and is on an upward trajectory.

Marina Silva, the candidate for the Socialist Party (PSB), had a slight advantage in the polls for the second round until a few days ago, but now she will probably lose.

Though the third candidate, Aécio Neves, has improved his standing in the polls, his 17-19% does not appear sufficient to avoid a second round run-off between Rousseff and Silva.

From rebels to moderates

Rousseff and Silva are connected by the struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil. As is well known, Rousseff belonged to an organization of armed struggle in the late 1960s and she became a political prisoner for three years. Silva was a rural worker from the Amazon who took part in popular movements linked to the Catholic Church. She became a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1980s.

Humble beginnings: a young Silva in Acre, Western Brazil. Marina em Xapuri, CC BY

Both candidates have taken more moderate political positions over the years. Both were ministers in the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, though Marina Silva left the government and the party soon after quitting the environment ministry in 2008.

Silva became an evangelical in the late 1990s. She belongs to the Assemblies of God and can be considered an outstanding example of a broader movement of expansion of evangelical religions in Brazil at the expense of Catholicism. In 2010, there were more than 42 million evangelicals compared to 123 million Catholics among a national population of around 194 million.

Both candidates tend to mobilize different sectors of society, making broad alliances from the left to the right all over the country. Rousseff is especially strong in the poorest states of the north and northeast regions. Silva is the favorite in the richest states of the southeast.

Rousseff continues to represent the approach to economic and social development established during Lula’s presidential terms from 2003-2011. This is based on an alliance between the industrial and agrarian sectors, associated with workers organized in trade unions, and especially the contingent of the extremely poor who are assisted by the bolsa família, a welfare program that pays about US$33 a month per child to poor families who keep their children in public schools.

In 2013 there were almost 46 million beneficiaries of bolsa família (about one in four Brazilians). They constitute the main electoral base of so-called “lulism”.


Lulism is a political phenomenon based on the set of policies implemented during president Lula’s administration. It involves moderate, gradual social reform and a conservative pact that preserves the interests of conservative sectors of rural and urban elites. It no longer emphasizes the need for organization and mobilization of the working class. The main social objective of lulism is to abolish extreme poverty.

Another example of lulism is increased access to higher education for poor students. This is supposed to meet the demands of families who manage to send their sons and daughters to university and the businessmen who profit from private education subsidized by government funds. There has been an increase in the number of students in public universities, but the amount was much higher in private colleges, many of them of questionable quality.

Lula passes on the presidential sash, and anoints his political heir. Agência Brasil, CC BY

Lulism involves social integration through consumerism. The pact between the richest and the poorest that lulism represents has a precondition: the growth of the economy.

The problem now is that the economy has stopped growing. There also seems to be a kind of existential dissatisfaction with overconsumerism among Brazilians, as well as frustration at the lack of real political participation and the corruption widespread in public power.

Silva’s support base

Silva’s supporters include environmentalists, some democratic socialists and a team of economists linked to the banks, such as Giannetti da Fonseca and André Lara Rezende. That’s why some consider her the candidate of financial capital.

On the other hand, due to her life history, her religion, and the fact she was Lula’s environment minister, Silva is the only candidate who can compete with Rousseff among the huge electorate of poor people assisted by the bolsa família. Silva also has a charisma that Rousseff lacks.

Many Brazilians want structural change, not more consumerism. Jo Lorib, CC BY-SA

There is an important segment of the middle class that Silva has achieved significant support from, and that was the main contingent occupying the streets in June 2013. The number of university students enrolled has increased over the past 12 years of the PT governments, as has the employment level, but wages have not matched aspirations for social mobility.

For instance, half of university educated people earn up to four times the minimum wage (around US$1,200 a month), according to recent research.

This population has demands, mainly for equality and social justice. But these demands cannot be met without structural changes in the Brazilian society, including a deeper redistribution of wealth and advances in political participation. Sadly, neither Silva nor Rousseff will achieve this.

More of the same

In spite of their origins, both candidates will be tied to political coalitions in Congress to ensure they can govern. Rousseff would probably continue her development policies, stressing the necessity of keeping jobs. Silva would probably make some economic adjustments closer to neoliberalism, and she would be more inclined to preserve the environment.

Both have a social sensibility and will keep social programs such as bolsa família. But it will not be easy to face the many other problems Brazil faces, beginning with managing the economy in a period of international crisis.

Brazilian society needs more than the continuity of lulism or the orthodox policies announced by Silva’s team. We may see years of turmoil ahead, regardless of the winner on Saturday.

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