On June 10, Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, took to Twitter and showed disbelief about how dismissively political analysts have treated environmentalist presidential candidate Marina Silva, despite her solid poll results. “Is it group-think? Sexism? Her last-minute 2014 collapse?,” asked Mr. Winter.
I don’t know any Brazilian political analysts who think Marina can win in October. But she keeps polling well and would easily beat Bolsonaro & Alckmin in 2nd round. So why not take her seriously? Is it group-think? Sexism? Her last-minute 2014 collapse? pic.twitter.com/kXEFqxReS5
— Brian Winter (@BrazilBrian) June 10, 2018
As a Marina Silva doubter myself, I humbly take upon the task of trying to answer his question.
If you look at the polls as if they were a still photograph, then yes, Ms. Silva could be considered the contender to beat far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro come the October presidential election (assuming that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is in jail, will not be able to run). But look at them instead as a moving image, and the picture becomes much bleaker for her – showing a decaying candidacy.
In April 2016, Ms. Silva was polling between 17 and 24 percent in scenarios that included Lula. Now, in scenarios where the former president is on the ballot, she is stuck with 10 percent. Until June 2017, Ms. Silva appeared on polls beating Lula in a potential runoff election – and comfortably so. Flash forward to June 2018, and she has lost 21 points, and would lose against the incarcerated politician in a head-to-head contest.
Her electorate is increasingly becoming more concentrated, mainly women of lower income and education levels, with an evangelical background and conservative tendencies. That demographic imposes a low ceiling to her candidacy, and is a red ocean scenario – as Jair Bolsonaro is also targeting this demographic.
Ms. Silva appears to have lost the support of those who propelled her to the third position in the two previous elections: middle-class, educated voters.
Those trends, of course, don’t mean that Ms. Silva’s presidential bid is necessarily doomed. With up to 41 percent of voters undecided, she could be the “neither-nor” vote: neither for Mr. Bolsonaro, nor for the remaining options available. After all, Ms. Silva has a compelling life story, overcoming poverty, illiteracy, and severe health issues to become a figure known – and respected – in international political circles. She is also not targeted by corruption investigations, which has proven to be a feat in today’s Brazil.
But there are more serious problems.
Lack of party structure
Ms. Silva has always made it clear that she is against the way politics is done in Brazil. That’s why she decided to go about creating her own party, the Sustainability Network party (known in Brazil as “Rede”), after the 2010 election. But due to amateurism on behalf of herself and her allies, it took five years for the party to be formally registered. Brazil does have a lengthy and complicated process to open a party – but still …
Even after Rede was fully functioning, it never really operated as a true party. It failed to spark loyal supporters and to get competitive candidates onboard. As a matter of fact, the party has managed to shrink since its foundation – and now has only two congressmen. In the 2016 municipal election, it managed to win only one mayoral race in a state capital – and that was in Macapá, a politically irrelevant city in Brazil’s extreme North.
When the real campaign starts, with radio and TV ads, Ms. Silva’s face and her ideas will be nowhere to be seen or heard. On every campaigning day, parties split 70 minutes among them, based on how many seats each party holds in Parliament (for states and municipalities, it’s about the seats in local legislatures). Her dwarf party has earned Ms. Silva roughly 10 seconds per ad – which might only give her time to ask voters to visit her homepage and check out her proposals. In a country where half of the people don’t have access to the internet, TV and radio ads can be crucial.
Ms. Silva and her party seem averse to any sort of professionalization in their way of doing politics. Several parties have declared to the press their willingness to negotiate a coalition with Rede – but the party has not reached out to any.
One episode illustrates how politically impotent Rede actually is. Over the past few weeks, a group of parties known as the Centrão, or the “big center,” has held meetings with presidential candidates.
This group of parties has, combined, 174 congressmen, BRL 650 million in campaign funds, and almost one-third of the ad time. They agree on coalitions not according to ideology, but are guided by their desire of occupying spaces of power. In their meetings with presidential hopefuls, the Centrão conditioned its legislative support to the president-elect if he or she supports the reelection of Congressman Rodrigo Maia for the Speaker position.
Besides the big candidates, the Centrão met with former Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles and retail mogul Flávio Rocha, both of whom have paltry polling numbers. But they didn’t meet with Ms. Silva. Was it “group-think? Sexism? Her last-minute 2014 collapse?” Maybe it’s just because, with two congressmen, Ms. Silva will have no choice but to comply with demands from Congress. If Dilma Rousseff taught us anything, is that you don’t want to lose congressional support.
Marina Silva’s lack of clear ideas
“Neither to the left, nor to the right,” said Marina Silva in 2013, during an event held by Rede. Her campaign platform brings elements of both sides of the aisle, under the argument that she wants to unite the best of the left and the best of the right. Her economic advisors are respected by markets and believe in the need of fiscal responsibility. At the same time, she lauds social programs.
While this approach seems mature – and necessary in a polarized Brazil – it doesn’t seem to be electorally appealing, precisely because of the polarization.
The left resents her for backing social-democratic candidate Aécio Neves in 2014, against Dilma Rousseff, and not calling Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment a “coup,” as the left sees the process. On the other hand, Ms. Silva may seem soft for right-wing voters, who are expected to choose between Mr. Bolsonaro and Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo.
Moreover, neither Ms. Silva nor her party seems capable of transmitting their ideas in a simple, straightforward way. To the BBC, one of her campaign managers said that the party defends a “socially fair, economically balanced, sustainable, democratic, and diverse Brazil.” Great, but how, specifically, will the party help the country get there?
By wanting to pander to everyone and not taking a stand, Ms. Silva ends up not pleasing anyone. In 2014, her program included a section supporting same-sex marriage. To avoid losing the evangelical vote, she backpedaled and deleted the item from the program – and lost both the leftists and the religious vote.
All of that being said, we can’t completely rule out Marina Silva of the election. Fighting her for a second spot in the runoff stage against Mr. Bolsonaro are Ciro Gomes, a short-tempered candidate who can implode his own candidacy at a moment’s notice, and Mr. Alckmin, who is an insipid candidate (but with a robust party structure behind him).
As one political analyst told me recently: “in today’s Brazil, anything is possible.” But I wouldn’t bet on Marina Silva right now.