Brazilian Elections: Shifting Dynamics and the Green Vote

Lula & Dilma Rousseff

“Something is different.  I don’t know how, but you can tell that things have changed,” said a committed Worker’s Party (PT) supporter on election night in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo.

“Something is different.  I don’t know how, but you can tell that things have changed,” said a committed Worker’s Party (PT) supporter on election night in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo.

She had asked to remain anonymous.  Her voice was shaky, hesitant. Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal—the independent branch of government in charge of the elections—had only just released the first results.  But she had been on the streets all day and she already knew the outcome of the October 3rd presidential race.

“We’re definitely going into the second round,” she said nervously. “We have a long month ahead of us.”

To win in the first round in Brazil, a candidate must receive more than half of the valid votes.  A sure win in the first round for Worker’s Party candidate Dilma Rousseff, had in only a few short weeks turned into a runoff.  She still won the election by far, garnering nearly 47%, 14 points ahead of her closest challenger, right-wing candidate Jose Serra (PSDB).  But what scared this Dilma supporter on election night was the feeling in the streets—or rather, the lack there of.

Eight years ago, when Brazilians took to the polls to elect their working-class hero, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, activists and PT supporters poured out en masse to bring their historic leader into office.  It was a long time coming.  Lula’s fourth and last run at the presidency.  The streets were alive.  The energy—contagious.  Banners waving. Change riding in on a wave that was about to blanket Brazil.

Four years later, in 2006, excitement was still in the air, as Lula was re-elected for his second and last term in office.

“You’ll see.  It’s a great big party.  People dancing in the streets,” said Maria José da Silva, from São Paulo’s Americanópolis favela or slum, only days before last Sunday’s vote.

But on Election Day in São Paulo, the streets were overwhelmingly silent.  Times had changed.  Voting was calm.  Leaders praised Election Day as a sign of the maturity of Brazilian democracy.  But for activists looking for a moment to celebrate, Sunday was a solemn wake-up call that the ground is shifting beneath their feet.  Gone was the street party and in its place, the institution.

It was to be expected.

Outgoing President Lula has an approve rating close to 80%.  He has managed to balance social, welfare and fiscal policies that have pleased both the working poor and international investors.  His social welfare programs like Bolsa Familia—which provides economic support to poor families with their kids in school—have helped to lift more than 20 million Brazilians out of poverty.  Lula has carried his country swiftly into the international arena brokering the Iran-Turkey nuclear deal.  The Brazilian economy is growing at nearly 8% a year, and the country barreled through the world’s recent financial troubles with a currency that strengthens daily.  Nevertheless, the PT has failed to live up to the expectations of many, who dreamt of true transformative change as they cast their ballot eight years ago.

Part of it was inevitable.  The coalition forged—between the PT, the centrist PMBD and several other parties—to win the 2002 election would not allow more radical reforms.  Nor would a hand-tied congress and senate.

On the streets, the PT followed the direction of the more traditional parties who pay “volunteers” to wave banners and flier for their candidates. Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement, the MST, has been critical of the Lula administration’s lack of agrarian reform.  According to the MST, the Lula government has given ten times more subsidies to multinational agribusiness than family farming. The PSOL party, which split from the PT a year into Lula’s first term, has called for true socialist alternatives.

Nevertheless, the party can still move thousands in droves.  The Monday night before the elections, tens of thousands of PT supporters amassed in São Paulo’s samba stadium to support Dilma in her end of campaign rally.  They were also there for their president, who was greeted by voluptuous applause as he took the stage.

“I want to tell you that president Lula, the factory worker, led the best government that this country has ever had,” said Dilma to the crowds cheering in the pouring rain at the rally. “And he has passed to me a legacy to continue this project of Brazilian transformation.”

If elected, Dilma would become the first female president in Brazilian history.  Dilma Rousseff, PT candidate and Lula’s former Chief-of-Staff may represent the continuation of Lula’s policies, but she does not have the charisma nor the history of the former labor-leader.  She is his choice, and the people have faith in Lula.  This had carried her to the front of the polls, and blown her far ahead of the pack for months.

But with the media leaning against her, a complicated abortion debate, and the break of a corruption scandal involving a close Dilma confidant, voters began to defect less than two weeks before the elections.

But those votes did not go to the right-wing candidate Jose Serra. They went to Green Party Candidate, Marina Silva, who now may hold the keys to Brazil’s presidential Alvorada Palace.  The question now is who she will decide to hand them to.

The Green Wave – “A Onda Verde

“Waiting for Marina,” read the headlines of the Elections section of the Estado de São Paulo newspaper on Tuesday, October 5th.  The day before, Marina had announced that within 15 days she would decide which presidential candidate, Dilma Rousseff or Jose Serra, she would officially endorse.  Her decision could make or break the second round of the presidential elections, on October 31.

As a former member of the Worker’s Party, it might at first appear obvious that she would throw her weight behind Dilma.  But as is the case in Brazilian politics, nothing is that obvious.

Marina Silva is Lula’s former Environmental Minister, who stepped down roughly two years ago because of the roadblocks towards environmental protection, she said were thrown in her way by the Lula administration.

She jumped on board as presidential candidate of the Green Party over the last year.  With a platform in favor of environmental protection and sustainability, and a grassroots “movement” in support of her candidacy, Marina at first appeared to offer an exciting third party choice.

But in many ways, Marina is not your typical “green”.  She has criticized President Lula for his close relationship with the Presidents of Venezuela and Cuba, saying that those countries should open up their “freedom of expression” and “democracy.” An Evangelist, she is against abortion, an issue that rose in importance late in the presidential campaign.  Both she and Serra have criticized Dilma’s more lenient stance.  Dilma, a Catholic, is in favor of abortion in extreme circumstances, and she has called for the Brazilian people to decide the issue in a national referendum.

By straddling the grey area between the left-wing and the right—the environment, abortion, politics—Marina offered a safe choice for 20 million, largely middle-class Brazilian voters who didn’t feel represented by Lula, aren’t confident in Dilma and are concerned with the corruption in Brasilia (be it with the PT or in the previous governments).

In two weeks, Marina may decide to stay neutral, which would bode well for Dilma who was only a few points from fifty percent majority in the first round.  But in the meantime, lesser members of the Green Party have already come out in support of Jose Serra.  Among them is Fernando Gabeira, the PV candidate for Rio de Janeiro state governor, who lost on Sunday but acquired over a million votes.

Legislative Elections

Gabeira was just one of more than 22,000 candidates who competed last Sunday for Brazil’s state governorships and seats on the Brazilian Congress, the Senate, and State Legislatures.  While these elections may seem of lesser importance, for a country the size of Brazil—with a population just shy of all the South American Spanish-speaking countries combined—such local elections can set the pace for the direction of the country.

In the Senate, the PT picked up 5 seats and now has the second largest voting block after their coalition partner, PMDB.  The PT and their allies picked up governorships in 11 states, compared with Serra’s allies in 7 states.  The other nine states are still up in the air or will have a second round runoff on October 31st.  Probably the biggest PT win for governor was in Brazil’s Southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the former Justice Minister, Tarso Genro, took back the state from the conservative governor, Yeda Crusius (PSDB).

In the Congress, the PT picked up five seats, becoming the largest voting block with a total of 88 representatives.  The PT and its allies now hold 309 of the 513 seats in the congress.  The opposition parties, PSDB and DEM lost 34 seats, acquiring a total of 111 seats.  Among the candidates with the largest numbers of votes for the national congress were 29-year-old Manuela D’Avila from the Rio Grande do Sul Communist Party and Anthony Garotinho of the Party of the Republic in Rio de Janeiro.  A clown from São Paulo, named Tiririca, “Grumpy”, took the cake, winning more votes than any other congressional representative in the country.

With these votes, and a potential Dilma win, the PT is well positioned to continue to carry out the policies of the Lula government.  However, this will continue to have to come in collaboration with the allies that have made up the PT coalition under Lula.

Second Round

In the meantime, the second round of the presidential electoral campaign has already begun, with both Dilma and Serra on the road to entice Marina supporters in their direction.

Despite the Green Party positioning, with 47% of the votes in the first round, a Dilma victory looks likely.  Even Lula had to wait for the second round in both of his successful presidential victories.  And with the high approval rating of the Lula government, especially in the poorest communities, Dilma seems poised to still ride in on this wave of support.

On Monday, October 4th, community organizer Maria José da Silva broke down while walking through the poor Anjos de Jardim Miriam community in Southern São Paulo, where she has been helping to fight for infrastructure improvements.

“It’s just too much,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “Our local candidate didn’t win, and I know that we aren’t going to get any improvements in this community for at least the next four years.”

Maria had been out promoting the PT candidates for months in the hopes that they could improve the reality for the hundreds of residents that precariously live here, without public infrastructure, alongside open sewers that which flow like tiny rivers, flooding their homes when it rains.

Most of the local PT candidates lost in São Paulo, but Maria is banking on a Dilma presidency that can continue the social policies of the Lula government.  They may not be as radical as some would hope for, but under Lula these communities have had hope and change.  Maria was able to go back and finish school.  Now she is going to college to be at teacher, with the goal of continuing to organize to improve her community.

“This would never have been possible when I was younger.  Never,” she said with tears in her eyes this week in front of her family’s homes a few kilometers away, a maze of cinderblock rooms piled one on top of the next winding up into the hills.  These are the people who will likely put Dilma Rousseff on top on October 31st, regardless of the political positioning that takes place between now and then.

Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, and co-editor of the book Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots.  You can visit his website at