This Sunday, Brazilians decide between two progressive women presidents. How do they compare?

Oxfam’s  country director, Simon Ticehurst (right), fills in the simon ticehurstbackground ahead of this weekend’s election

Some colleagues asked me this week, what is going to happen in the elections and who should I vote for?

First up, prediction is not my forte. Last year in June I sent an optimistic briefing on Brazil to Oxfam´s CEO, saying that poverty was coming down, inequality was coming down, hunger had been largely dealt with, Brazil had full-employment, the happiness index was on the increase, and the Brazilians were generally happy with their lot. A week later 1.5 million people were on the streets across 15 cities in the biggest protests for decades.  In my defence, no-one predicted that, just as no-one can predict the outcome of next week´s elections (with a second round toward the end of October). It is too close to call.

Brazil is going through a most unusual electoral process. Not least, because we have two women from humble origins and a leftist background as the frontrunners, the incumbent Dilma Rousseff  and former environment minister Marina Silva. I don’t think I have seen that anywhere. For Brazil and  Latin American this is an important symbolic moment for women’s political leadership.

What Simon missed
What Simon missed

What was a done deal a couple of months ago with Dilma Rousseff´s victory a matter of course -despite the debacle of Brazil losing 7-1 to Germany (football was never going to be the determining factor) now looks like a technical draw. Since presidential candidate Eduardo Campos died in August, Marina Silva, who was running as vice-president, has ridden a wave of emotional support and captured much of the anti-PT vote. Eduardo Campos was the new generation of the left, allied to Lula, he split when Lula favoured Dilma Rousseff in the last elections. His tragic death in an air crash has generated a wave of emotion, which, combined with Marina Silva´s own appeal, has catapulted her to her current position.

Polls have swung back a little this week toward Dilma who looks like she might win  the first round, but it is not clear who would win in a second- round run-off. Up until this week, polls had Marina winning that. Now it is has swung back toward Dilma. But it is too close to call.

So who to vote for? One of the legacies of last year´s protests is that people are talking about change and a new political cycle of reform. Things cannot carry on as they are and it is clear that the economic model is running out of steam (Brazil has slipped into recession) and Brazil´s democracy needs overhauling. Everyone wants change. But I don´t think either candidate will be able to deliver on the changes needed.

Marina has the advantage and disadvantage of having published her proposed government programme, a lengthy document which has some good and

Dilma left; Marina right
Dilma left; Marina right

bad stuff and some inconsistencies. The PT has a shorter call to action building on the positive changes of the past 12 years and promising  “More Change – More Future.”

Marina is pushing a more liberal economic programme, stimulating private investment and trade liberalization, and free-trade agreements with the US and Europe and closer association with the Pacific Alliance.  For those of us that worked on the Make Trade Fair campaign  this is a step backwards, and she clearly has private sector backing for this agenda. We know who would benefit from this agenda, and it won´t be the poor. Marina´s strengths lie in a push for political reform and how she is challenging the political corruption that has corroded the PT in power. Obviously her environmental credentials are second to none and this appeals to youth. However she will also have to make unholy alliances in order to survive and get anything through Congress. And the fact that she entered the fray with a party that until recently was a PT ally, dilutes the newness of the idea of a citizens “network” as a new political expression for the democratic process.

One contentious issue is Marina Silva´s evangelical background, for which she is sometimes attacked. In addition to backing a neo-liberal economic agenda, this enables her to bring a neo-conservative, anti-abortion and traditional family caucus into her “unholy” alliance (which the PT also has to do to govern). But I am not sure that this is the defining feature of Marina Silva (after all she does come from a PT background).

Brazil v EuropePart of Marina´s appeal comes from her almost spiritual aura. She can move an audience, she has charisma and stage presence. My daughter Sarah had to translate for her at a civil society event at Rio+20 and struggled to control the emotion enough to translate. For young, intellectual, urban middle classes, less groomed in the class struggle and who want to save the Amazon, Marina is a hero. And her humble origins may also bring support from the poor northeast (which is where Eduardo Campos was from). Marina´s government would also continue the PT’s much-praised social programmes .

Dilma is the incumbent and offers the continuity of the PT’s gradual reformism. Her programme centres around maintaining a stronger role for the State in economic and development management, with substantial social programmes funded by a neo-developmentalist agenda  that pursues economic growth through big infrastructure projects, agribusiness, energy and mining (until recently, quite successfully).  It is this reliance that is challenged by the environmentalists. A second term in office for Dilma would probably mean some political reform and attempts to lighten the bureaucratic burden of the state through greater decentralization. Corruption is a big issue that seems to galvanize the anti-PT vote and is swaying middle-class opinion. Certainly more needs to be done. But I actually think Dilma has been good in tackling corruption – the fact that it is so high on the agenda is because finally someone is doing something about it. Corruption is not the problem, it is what you do about it that matters. Despite everything the PT has done, much more is needed. Politics can be a thankless task –  it is the same emerging middle class millions that the PT has helped move up and out of poverty that are demanding political change, quality public services, and less state intervention.

Rather than political adversaries I would rather see Dilma and Marina in alliance. Together neither would have to pander to neo-liberal economic or a neo-conservative social agenda. The options for more radical reform and greater social justice would be greater, while recognizing environmental constraints.  But that is not going to happen, at least not this side of Sunday’s election.

The other day Lula was giving a campaign speech and someone shouted from the audience “I love Marina.” Lula replied. “I love Marina too, but elections are not defined by love, otherwise I would vote for Marisa (his wife).” In case you were wondering, I am (still) with Lula.

Update: Oops, so much for opinion polls

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


6 Responses to “This Sunday, Brazilians decide between two progressive women presidents. How do they compare?”
  1. Claudia Melim-McLeod

    Very good post, thanks for sharing. As a Brazilian who has been following events in Brazil from a democratic governance perspective, I would argue that the 2013 massive protests you mention in the beginning of the article had less to do with a new empowered middle class and more with other circumstantial factors, triggered by a raise in bus fares and high spending on World Cup stadiums.

    In my view, these added to deeper structural causes for dissatisfaction, which are related to an incomplete transition to democracy (evidenced by an opaque and corrupt security sector that is still a legacy or 20+ years of military rule and its reaction to protests, which led to more protests), and widespread corruption (illustrated by the Mensalão scandal of vote-buying in Congress by the PT – incidentally, what allowed the passing of progressive social legislation in a country where Congress has a large conservative majority). This was one way the PT secured some of the unholy alliances you mention. I make these points more extensively in another article, see

    I am not sure that Marina’s alliances will be better. Her back and forth on LGBT rights due to the lobbying of MPs who advocate for ‘gay cures’ and flirting with the private sector (though her PSB Party Manifest still defends “socialization of wealth-creating assets” , see ) make many ‘progressive’ voters nervous. I think either candidate is better than what Brazil had in the past, the question is who will be able to take the country out of recession and whether it will play the role of Southern power that a lot of people have come to expect.

    • Simon Ticehurst

      Thank you Claudia for your comments. I fully agree that the 2013 protests and the underlying incomformity are related to an “incomplete transition to democracy.” One of the demands from the protests was for political reform, and this will surely be on the agenda over the next few years. Although none of the candidates have addressed the security concerns you mention, and Brazil´s cities are among the most violent in the world. You will have seen yesterday that Marina dropped out of the race, somewhat surprisingly. And she maybe was a better hope for democratic reform. Instead Brazilians have opted for more tried and tested choices, with the incompleteness that comes with them.

  2. John Magrath

    Fascinating analysis. Just wondering would Oxfam be able to write a similar analysis about the parties + leaders competing in the forthcoming but still somewhat distant UK elections given the new Lobbying Act?

  3. Josep Ferrer

    So finally Aecio and Dilma are going to the second turn; that’s ok, you already mentioned that prediction was not among your strenghts! Now let’s talk about Aecio, does he has something new to offer, or it’s the new version of the classical PSDB-PMDB stablishemnt?
    And let’s do more predictions, do you think he has any possibility?

  4. Claudia Melim-McLeod

    Simon, I must confess that my prediction powers are on par with yours. I would have never guessed that ‘new politics’ Marina would support ‘old politics’ Aecio, which seems to be confirmed now (as late as June this was an option she categorically denied). So we now have a Brazilian version of Third Way politics.

    I can’t help but think that a PSB-PSDB alliance is an odd kind of hybrid, like one of those GMOs that may look enticing on a supermarket shelf but who knows what it will do to your body if you eat it every day over the long term. Still, I would not be surprised if they end up winning the second round. As the candidate of the traditional middle and upper classes, I am not sure how much progressive change Aecio would bring but what IS surprising is that both he and Marina have publicly committed to maintaining Bolsa Familia, the conditional cash transfer programme that helps 14 million families in extreme poverty keep their children in school, and that is the good news.

    The bad news in my view is that as you point out, all three are silent on security sector reform and on the key issue of human rights. I think this is partly because Brazil is a federation and security policy is decided at the state level, and partly because in a country where the police killed 5 people a day in 2012 (the latest stats I could find, see ) and where so many voters defend capital punishment and lowering the age of criminal responsibility, it is not in their interest to take up that banner, so they let state governors worry about it.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.