Rising Political Dynamism in Brazil

4 MINS READOct 9, 2013 | 10:35 GMT
Brazilian politician Marina Silva.

Political shifts catalyzed by Brazil's recent wave of protests are beginning to be seen, with the country's two long-dominant parties facing increasing pressure from anti-establishment political movements. One such group, Marina Silva's upstart Sustainability Network, has joined forces with the minority Socialist Party to pose a direct threat to the Workers' Party's 12-year hold on power. Meanwhile the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party is also at risk of falling behind Silva's alliance. Regardless of which party or coalition emerges on top in the 2014 elections, Brazil has likely entered a new era of vigorous political competition, marked by small independent parties harnessing popular discontentment to disrupt the country's political status quo.

Brazil is entering a new era, both economically and politically. In 2011, economic growth began to slow after a decade-long boom, and by the 2014 elections, two parties will have alternated power for nearly 20 years. This economic stagnation and lack of political dynamism helped spark the widespread protests that roiled Brazil in June and July. While proximate issues such as public transportation fare increases, spending related to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, and the government's security response to the demonstrations, were blamed for the turmoil, the main grievances were economic — namely, increasing costs of living — and a lack of political alternatives. The unrest created an opening for more independent politicians to challenge the political establishment.

One such figure is Marina Silva, an environmental activist and former minister of the environment in former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's administration. Silva resigned from the administration in 2008 over disagreements with the ruling party's environmental policies. She then formed the Sustainability Network, a non-aligned political movement focused on green issues, and began considering a challenge for the presidency in 2014. In July, shortly after the protests, support for Silva surged to around 22 percent in polls — roughly 8 points behind current President Dilma Rousseff.

But on Oct. 4, Brazil's electoral court announced that Marina Silva would not be able to register the Sustainability Network in time for the 2014 elections. Silva officially fell some 50,000 signatures short of the 492,000 needed to register the party, even though it submitted around 1 million signatures. More than half were apparently invalidated without cause, and a subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court to reconsider the disallowed signatures was turned down. Whether the rejections were due to bureaucratic mishandling or political interference, the decision reinforced the image of the Workers' Party as a meddling, overly powerful force in Brazilian politics.

In Brazil, politicians must be affiliated with a political party at least one year before elections to be eligible for candidacy. Facing a hard deadline on Oct. 5 and unable to run as a Sustainability Network candidate, Silva had two options: She could either join forces with one of the country's existing political parties, possibly weakening her anti-establishment credentials, or she could shelve her presidential aspirations for the 2014 elections. Silva chose the latter course. Silva formed a political alliance with the Brazilian Socialist Party and endorsed its presidential candidate, popular Pernambuco state Gov. Eduardo Campos.

As a precondition for joining forces with the Socialist Party, Silva insisted that the party focus more on environmental issues and on deepening democracy. Campos apparently complied, and the coalition appears to be mutually beneficial. It allows Silva to participate in the elections independent of the two dominant parties while continuing to cultivate her Sustainability Network, and it allows Campos to leverage Silva's popular support and environmental credentials. It is still unclear which office, if any, Silva will seek but any decision will likely be made closer to the elections.

Effects on Brazil's Political Establishment

Most affected by this alignment could be Rousseff's center-left Workers' Party, which has been in power for nearly 12 years — eight under da Silva and four under Rousseff. Marina Silva's environmentalist and anti-establishment background and support in the south and southeast, combined with Campos' business-friendly credentials and support in the northeast, could effectively target the ruling party's base. Meanwhile, the largest opposition party — the center-right Social Democracy Party led by Sen. Aecio Neves — is also at risk of falling behind the Silva-Campos coalition, and a third-place finish would result in a runoff between the two more left-leaning parties. However, the Social Democrats are eager to force the Workers' Party from power, and siding with Silva and Campos may be the most effective way to do so. If the Social Democracy Party can avoid alienating the Socialist Party during the campaign, Brazil's historically fragmented opposition could finally unite to oust the ruling party.

It is easy to forget that Brazil's experience with democracy is relatively young and still evolving. A system dominated by two parties may have been expeditious in the years after transitioning from a military government in 1985, but it now appears to be running into issues of legitimacy and losing popular support. These developments portend a more dynamic political environment in Brazil — one in which the traditional parties are challenged by smaller alternatives focused more narrowly on specific issues such as the environment or the economy.

Nonetheless, these independent blocs will not be able to take the country in a radically different direction, and their challenge will be to find ways to engage mainstream voters, interests and institutions. Over the next year, the ability of the joint Socialist Party-Sustainability Network to transform itself from a marginal, single-issue entity to a more comprehensive and legitimate political alternative will be telling.

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