The problem is not Marina. It’s Dilma

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 2, 2014


The rapid rise of Marina Silva is not the reason why the Brazilian presidential election is an open race. After leading a disappointing four-year term, incumbent President Dilma Rousseff has been such a lame campaigner that there is now a huge void that Marina is filling. Though she is a skillful and charismatic campaigner, if Marina wins, it will be the result of a resounding protest vote against Dilma.


Since she was accidentally thrust into the race after the untimely death of her presidential candidate running-mate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash on August 13, Marina has become the centre of attention. This is not the first time the formerly illiterate housemaid, who became environment minister (2003-2008) under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has stolen the attention in a presidential race. In 2010, running under the Green Party umbrella, Marina finished third with 19.3 percent of the vote. Her charismatic style and her unique life experience — which in addition to being raised in extreme poverty would make her the first evangelical president in an overwhelmingly Catholic country—made Marina the favourite candidate for protest voters.


Many of those who were discontented with the ruling Worker’s Party’s (PT) eight years in power but also disliked José Serra, the candidate of the centre-right PSDB, supported Marina in the first-round vote. According to polls, in the runoff held on October 31, 2010, Marina’s first-round voters were almost equally split over whether to support Serra or the PT’s candidate, Rousseff. Despite her lack of charisma, Dilma was able to benefit from the popularity of outgoing president Lula and win the election.


Four years later, Marina and Dilma face each other again, under different circumstances. The incumbent president has presided over a weak economy. Though her government has increased the fund allocated to poverty-alleviating programmes, the general perception is that Dilma focused more on building the infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Since the Brazilian football team put in a dismal performance during the World Cup, many Brazilians feel the ordeal was a waste of money. To make matters worse, the economy has now formally entered into a recession. For any incumbent president, the current social and economic mood would make for gloomy re-election chances. For Dilma, who lacks charisma and fails to connect with people on a personal level or on television, the prospects are even gloomier.


Marina, on the other hand, is charismatic and quickly connects with people. True, Silva has many other weaknesses. Because she recently entered the race, Marina does not have a formal team of experts in place to govern with in case she wins. Her party — which she joined only a few months ago — will have just a handful of seats in Congress. As a pragmatist, she has sought the support of market-friendly economists, but she has also said some confusing things on the environment and concerning her economic policies. Her conservative religious moral views have alienated left-wing liberals too. Because she was just a protest candidate in 2010 and considering now she has only been a presidential candidate for less than a month, there are questions about Silva’s true beliefs and what policies she would implement to foster economic growth, improve competitiveness and strengthen the social safety net.


Recent polls show that Marina is likely to make it to the runoff and she would be increasingly competitive against Dilma in a one-on-one race. Not surprisingly, the Dilma camp has launched a ferocious attack campaign, highlighting the contradictions, inconsistencies, lack of experience and insufficiencies that plague Silva’s evolving campaign platform. The coorinated campaign will inevitably damage Marina’s chances in the runoff.


However, the ruling PT’s real problem is not Silva. It is that Rousseff has disappointed as a president and has been a miserably bad candidate. In the coming weeks, the PT can do nothing about the dismal four years Brazil has experienced under Dilma. Now aged 66, she will not change her personality in order to become more charismatic. Thus, since Dilma cannot win on her own merits, the PT has set out to expose their opponents weaknesses. The old “lesser of two evils” argument is the chosen strategy to win the race in October.


Because Brazilians are truly disappointed with Dilma, the only question that remains is whether the PT attack campaign will succeed, or whether Marina will be able to recast herself as an experienced, reasonable and common-sense person who can build broad coalitions to lead the country in the right direction — kind of a female, younger and dark-skinned version of what Lula represented when he won in 2002.


Whatever the end result (and Marina is looking stronger by the day), the PT strategy is a tacit recognition that they cannot win on Dilma’s record alone. Even worse, the strategy seems to say that if Dilma avoids becoming the first sitting president in a major Latin American country to lose re-election, four more years under an administration led by her will not be any better for Brazil than what they lived though from 2010 to 2014.