Marina Silva, the alternative for a new Latin American Left

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 9, 2014


Marina Silva, who looks set to challenge President Dilma Rousseff in a second round runoff, is considered a leftist. Yet, her prior political career and her positions on many issues that are important to the left show a more nuanced reality.


Ever since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2002-2010) brought the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) to power, some of the left in Latin America have looked at the PT for regional leadership. Because Brazil is the largest country in the region and because Lula was such a charismatic leader who ruled over a period of economic growth and poverty reduction through innovative social programmes, the PT emerged as an attractive alternative for the Latin American left to the economic and political model championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. For many analysts, while Lula represented a social democratic and market-friendly left, Chávez championed a populist and nationalist approach. Naturally, that logic led many to see the Lula left as the good left while the Chávez left was the bad and ineffective left.


When Dilma Rousseff was elected in 2010, Lula’s leadership position of the social democratic left was unfilled. The first woman to become president of Brazil did not seem interested, nor did she have the necessary regional leadership, to lead the market-friendly regional left. In her four years in office, Dilma did not follow up on Lula’s regional integration initiatives nor did she attempt to bring together other Latin American leftwing leaders. In 2014, though she was again the candidate of the PT, the largest leftwing party in Brazil, Dilma seemed determined to run her re-election campaign as a pragmatic moderate. As she faced two popular opponents — whose campaign styles also gave them a populist flavourDilma’s strategy was to run as an experienced and responsible incumbent.


The untimely death of Eduardo Campos opened the way for Marina Silva to become the candidate of the Socialist Party. Formally to the left of the PT, the Socialist Party used to be a member of the coalition that brought Lula to power in 2002. In 2010, it supported Dilma. Marina, who ran as the Green Party presidential candidate, joined the Socialist Party in 2013 and became its vice-presidential candidate in 2014. As her support quickly increased and she took the second place in polls from the centre-right candidate of the Social Democratic party Aécio Neves, Marina Silva ended up forcing Dilma Rousseff further to the right. If Dilma and Marina make it to the runoff, the PT candidate will run in a runoff against a candidate further to the left for the first time since democracy was restored in Brazil.


Yet, is Marina really a leftist? As an environmental activist, she embraced some issues that are dear to the left, but she is not the traditional stereotype of the leftwing politician. As a born-again evangelical, Marina abandoned some liberal beliefs that are common to leftwing parties in Latin America. Though she supports civil unions for gay couples, she believes that marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples. As a presidential candidate in 2010, she embraced some anti-corruption positions that would undermine the traditional party structure in Brazil and would damage the patronage that all Brazilian parties, including leftwing groups, have benefitted from.


Since the PT remains the dominant leftwing party in Brazil, most other leftwing parties in Latin America have formal alliances with it and are automatically assumed to be supportive of Dilma’s re-election bid. After all, since Lula remains strongly behind Dilma, most leftwing parties in Latin America will be careful not to take a position against the highly influential former president.


So far, Marina has not attempted to strengthen her leftwing credentials by reaching out to other leftwing leaders in the region. Her rapid rise as a candidate has been built on the sympathy vote after Campos’ death and on the growing dissatisfaction with Dilma. Moreover, precisely because Rousseff has attempted to portray her as a leftwing radical, Marina has focused on strengthening her credentials as a pragmatist who is able to build wide coalitions.


If she does become the next president of Brazil, Marina will have a unique opportunity to position herself as a new leftwing leader in Latin America. Because her political record is mostly limited to her past as an environmental activist and minister — and her 2010 campaign was filled with symbolic gestures but few specifics on policy positions — her views on many issues that are dear to the left in Latin America remain unknown. However, precisely because Lula was so successful both at home and abroad taking on the role of the moderate leftwing leader in the region — and because Dilma failed to do the same — Marina is likely to follow in the footsteps of the first PT president if she becomes the next president of Brazil.


Mirroring what Lula did when he was first elected in 2002, Marina Silva will also likely embrace the more moderate version of the Latin American left.