What the Green Breakthrough in Brazil Means

The full results of Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil are now in and they make very interesting reading. Two interconnected facts dominate the coverage:

  1. Current president Lula‘s enormous popularity was insufficient to get his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, over the 50% threshold needed for a firsthand win.
  2. Marina da Silva, the Green Party candidate, won an extraordinary and unprecedented 20% of the vote, making her the overnight queen or kingmaker as the top two candidates, Rousseff and José Serra, dispute a run-off later this month.

Whoever wins, and Rousseff is still the hot favorite, Marina’s extraordinary vote changes a number of political calculations in Brazil, and also reveals a lot about where Brazil is as a country.

First, the context: Marina, like Lula, has an extraordinary background a million miles from the charmed elite circles which have historically supplied most of Brazil’s leaders. Born into poverty in rural Acre, a remote state in the western Amazon, she was illiterate until late adolescence, came to politics via the rubbertapper movement led by assassinated union leader Chico Mendes in the 1980s, and rose to be Lula’s environment minister for six years, until resigning over differences on development policy in the Amazon.

The place to start in interpreting what Marina means is the geography of her vote. We’d expect her vote to be especially strong in the Amazon but was that the case? Yes and no – she did very well in the big Amazon cities of Belém and Manaus, but her lowest vote anywhere was in the rural Amazon, where old-style patron-client politics still rules. She did particularly badly in her home state.  Yet she did spectacularly well in the most urbanized and developed parts of the country, winning the richest and best educated state of all, the Federal District, where the capital Brasília is located, in a particularly annoying defeat for Rousseff. She also finished a strong second in the city of Rio de Janeiro, and won a belt of coastal counties to the east of Rio where, of all things, the oil industry is particularly important. Astonishingly, she also won the union stronghold of Volta Redonda, home of Brazil’s biggest steel mill.

So what does this mean?

  • Marina’s vote is overwhelmingly urban and middle class – the complete opposite of her own background, paradoxically but in some ways unsurprisingly – she has a great backstory for a middle class voter looking for a home. It is particularly ironic that the oil boom in coastal Rio has worked to her benefit, by expanding the middle class there in leaps and bounds since the last election.
  • As a practising Pentacostalist, she was helped by lower-income support from evangelical Protestants, a heavily urban religion in Brazil for whom religious affiliation counts.
  • She also ended up being the repository of protest votes from those disgusted by the endemic corruption in Lula’s PT, the Workers’ Party.

To complete the picture, however, one also needs to look at where she did badly. In rural areas in general she was weak, but her vote reached derisory levels precisely where Brazil’s environmental problems are sharpest – in the deforestation arc that wends its way through the interior of the northeast, the southern Amazon and the northern Cerrado savannas, currently the world’s largest and most active agricultural frontier. Here the hostility towards the green agenda was reflected in votes well below 5%, compared to between 20% and 30% in the big cities.

There are two kinds of conclusion to be drawn, a short-term electoral/political one, and a longer term, more cultural one. In a way, the electoral and political dimension is trivial compared to the deeper meaning, which speaks to where Brazil is moving as a country.

In the short term, more of Marina’s votes will go to Rousseff than Serra, as disillusioned PT voters come grumpily back to their natural home, and the math is against Serra – Rousseff only needs another couple of percentage points to win the second round. But Marina will extract a price for her support. She could well name the next environment minister, and she will certainly extract commitments to uphold most of the current Forest Code, a set of environmental laws governing agriculture and ranching that rural lobbies in Brazil have recently been moving against.

Marina’s vote represents a major political defeat for those rural lobbies, and for environmentalists everywhere that is the critical but so far largely unreported meaning of this election. Had those changes to the Forest Code gone through, deforestation would have leapt upwards from its current low level, and there would have been no chance of Brazil delivering on the climate change commitments it made in Copenhagen last year. While the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon will still probably go ahead, a question mark now hangs over similar large development projects in the Amazon in the future.

All this is less important than what Marina means as a window into where Brazil is now as a society. In some ways more advanced politically than western Europe and the United States, it could be argued, since even in Germany and Scandinavia green parties get nowhere near 20% of the vote. Dismissing her achievement as a protest vote is also to miss the point; the significant fact is that when the protest vote had no shortage of alternatives on the ballot, it still went to Marina and her detailed and explicit platform, which emphasized the links between poverty reduction, development and the environment instead of being a single issue campaign.

Most of all, what Marina means is that there is a large and growing constituency in Brazil, mainly but not exclusively middle class, that stands for a different model of development than the one  Brazil has largely followed up to now. This electorate wants something other than a blind rush to development and has a more critical vision of what development means. It is an electorate that will grow by leaps and bounds in the coming decades along with the Brazilian economy, as tens of millions of people make the transition into the middle class, along with their peers in China and India.

Brazil appears to be further along in the transition towards a newer and more advanced politics that must eventually accompany the dramatic expansion of the middle classes in the BRIC countries that we are already seeing. Democracies are likely to be more effective in handling that transition than non-democracies. That, the real meaning of this election, is something for all Brazilians to be proud of as Marina da Silva, the most successful loser in Brazilian political history, ponders her next move.

(Image 1: Sunset over the Amazon rainforest, Acre, Brazil. Photo credit: ©Haroldo Palo, Jr.  Image 2: Marina da Silva. Photo credit: Caca Meireles)

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