Lab Report

The Subtle Art of the Brazilian Majority

Brazilians want change. But they'll only get it if their new president can combine the urge to reform with the will to govern. The second in our series of Lab Reports on Brazil.


Brazilian politics stands on the cusp of potentially far-reaching change. In June 2013, widespread protests against corruption and poor government services demonstrated a deep discontent among the Brazilian public. That anger has aided the dramatic rise of Marina Silva as the leading opposition candidate in the campaign leading up to the presidential election on Oct. 5. Although President Dilma Rousseff has since succeeded in reversing the nine-point lead Silva had over her in polls a month ago (the latest survey gives the incumbent an 8 percent margin in a putative runoff), Silva has enjoyed remarkable momentum. The third-place candidate, Aécio Neves, however, has rapidly closed the gap, helped by Rousseff’s negative ad campaign against Silva. According to the latest polls, Silva has 25 points in second place, with Neves reaching 20 points in third place.

Democracy Lab’s In-Depth Reports on Brazil

  • LAB REPORT 1: Do Brazilian Women Really Reign Supreme?, by Anna Petherick
  • LAB REPORT 2: The Subtle Art of the Brazilian Majority, by Gregory Michener and Carlos Pereira
  • LAB REPORT 3: How to Bring Brazil’s Economy Back to Life, by Rob Dwyer

Whoever wins, the closeness of the race and the strong challenge from Silva — an Afro-indigenous environmentalist from a poor background — are emblematic of where Brazil now finds itself. Once the most unequal country in the Americas, Brazil has seen inequality and poverty plummet steadily since 2003. Affirmative action policies govern the university system and public services. A woman became president in 2011 and, barring a late leap forward by Neves, a woman is likely to assume the presidency again from 2015 to 2019. Leaders can no longer expect deference from citizens. Millions of Brazilians took to the streets in protest last year, and dozens of powerful politicians, including a former presidential chief of staff, have received lengthy prison sentences for their role in the paradigm-changing mensalão corruption scandal. In short, neither Brazil nor Brazilian politics is what it used to be.

Given these advances, then, why has there been such dissatisfaction with the current administration that Silva, a candidate who came in third with 19 percent in the last presidential elections, has managed to come so close to victory? Some believe that Brazilians are fed up after three consecutive terms of rule by Workers’ Party (PT) presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff. Others believe that widespread malaise in Brazil is not necessarily due to the PT, but rather to a long-standing desire for systemic political reform. (The country’s political institutions appear to be safe. In a poll commissioned by the Perseu Abramo Institute, respondents did not cite them at all when asked about proposals for reform, pointing instead to issues such as improving service delivery and reducing corruption.)

Public frustration with a president who is widely viewed to have accomplished too little and spent too much, along with the recent surge in inflation and the slowdown of growth, may be at the root of Rousseff’s problems. Many were also unhappy at the drain on the public purse by the World Cup — a glitzy event that cost taxpayers dearly in terms of contract-based corruption and useless infrastructure (e.g., soccer stadiums in Manaus and Brasilia).

An ever-increasing tax burden — 37 percent of GDP, compared to 20 percent in China and only 13 percent in India — is another major source of discontent. According to a survey of Latin American countries by Latinobarometro, Brazilians are the people least satisfied not only with the provision and quality of public services, but also with the amount of taxes they pay. In fact it was the only country surveyed in which satisfaction worsened in both dimensions from 2007 to 2011.

These factors have clearly helped Marina Silva. Demographic analysis shows a strong correlation between the profiles of the 2013 protesters and those likely to vote for her on Sunday, particularly among 16-to-24-year-olds and the college-educated. The markets, too, are in the opposition’s favor. In fact they have become so sensitive to a possible Rousseff victory that Sao Paulo’s Bovespa stock index dropped by more than 1 percent when polls showed a surge in support for her. There was also a dramatic weakening of Brazil’s currency, which fell past the $2.40 mark for the first time in seven months. Investors are hoping the election will bring pro-market reforms that many economists argue are long overdue and which Silva, a strong supporter of Central Bank independence who has promised to reduce subsidies to industry, is seen as likely to implement.

If Rousseff is re-elected, her challenges will include restoring confidence in Brazil’s economic fundamentals, its regulatory policy stability, and working with Congress in order to undertake the reforms being demanded by a significant section of the population. (The photo above shows Rousseff’s supporters protesting against corruption in the oil industry on Sept. 15.) The general consensus, however, is that Rousseff is uninterested in serious change and may, in any case, lack the capability to generate it after poor power-sharing and coalition management has left her in dire standing with critical allies. All of this suggests that she is unlikely to embark on any sort of fundamental challenge to the status quo.

The more interesting question is how Silva, as the candidate of change, will govern if she manages to win the election. A former city councilor, senator, minister of the environment, and co-founder of the Workers’ Party, Silva trailed in the 2010 presidential election, and efforts to build a platform for her ambitions this year fell short after her own political party, the Rede de Sustentabilidade (Sustainability Network), failed to obtain the required number of voters’ signatures. She then made an unexpected move. She agreed to be the vice-presidential running mate of the late Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).

Campos’s choice made a splash, but the ripples did not reach the opinion polls. On Aug. 13, however, Campos was killed in a plane crash, and Silva’s assumption of the candidacy turned the election on its head. Partly this was due to the immense publicity surrounding the events, but Silva was also able to make much of her own “outsider” status, with a backstory strong enough for her to downplay the reality of her long involvement in mainstream politics. Her parents were rubber tappers in the Amazon, and she only learned to read and write in her teens. She made her name working with the murdered environmental activist Chico Mendes, and would be, if elected, the first president to represent the 60 percent of Brazilians of African or mixed-race heritage.

An evangelical Christian, she has come under attack from those suspicious that her real views on same-sex couples and abortion are far more conservative than her message of a “socially just country” suggest. But her emphases on macroeconomic stability, inflation control, transparency, the environment, and strengthening social policies have reverberated with Brazilians, especially urbanites, the upper middle classes, and young voters.

The most crucial question, however, turns on whether she will be in a position to translate that support into action in Congress. However bitter her relationship with Congress, Rousseff did benefit from a large, effective party organization and legacy alliances with other parties and the industrial sector. By contrast, a victorious Silva will possess little in the way of such organizational resources. Analysts predict that Silva’s hollow institutional base of support — including her small party and fragile alliances — will make her a minority president; and history has shown that minority governments do not govern well or sustainably in Brazil. Several ended in fateful institutional crises. A series of stalemates partly triggered by minority governments ultimately ended in a 1964 coup d’état, which was followed by more than 20 years of dictatorship. Later, the first president democratically elected to take office after the return to democracy, Fernando Collor, resigned in 1992 after widespread corruption and minority support in Congress left him vulnerable to impeachment.

Should Silva win, however, the real question is not whether she will be able to sustain majority support in Congress, but rather whether she will do what it takes to achieve this goal. She faces an electoral dilemma not dissimilar to other leaders recently brought to power in the wake of large-scale political protests: Change must come by working within the system, yet those leaders were elected partly on an anti-system ticket. They are damned for “caving” or “selling out” when they try to work within existing institutional limits but, if they choose to remain loyal to protesters, they are damned by their incapacity to govern parliament through adequate coalition management.

Negotiating governing majorities in the Brazilian Congress has long been considered the primary challenge of any incoming president. No executive head in Brazil comes to power with an outright partisan majority. Exchange-based coalition building is the only way forward. Brazil’s last three presidents had reasonable success in governing through an institutionalized and legal “gains-by-exchange” system. They deployed the formidable constitutional prerogatives of one of the world’s most powerful chief executives to cajole and coax majority coalitions out of a fragmented and ideologically splintered congress. In a multiparty presidential system like Brazil’s, pork, ministerial positions, and policies are more critical than ideology in cementing alliances and ensuring governability.

Brazil’s exchange-based politics presents as many risks as rewards. Some presidents fall into the trap of treating resource distribution as an end unto itself, thus opening the door to political corruption. Other executives use coalition-building tools as the means to an end, to implement the policy promises that brought them to office. For these presidents, coalition management is an ongoing and complicated administrative process. And Brazil is a large, regionally heterogeneous developing country where approximately two dozen parties are represented in Congress, and partisan fragmentation is expected to increase.

Silva will face several important tradeoffs if she is to be an effective leader — and each of them will require a degree of ideological flexibility as well as an astute sense of possibilities for accommodation and negotiation. Currently, her ideological positions alienate her from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a large centrist and ideologically amorphous party that has played a pivotal role in all coalition governments since re-democratization. Her environmental views pit her against some of the most powerful politicians in Congress, many within the PMDB. Silva’s candidate for vice president, Beto Albuquerque, recently admitted that “no party governs without the PMDB.” But the latter is widely viewed as a party-for-sale, having allied itself with every government — of the right and the left — since the return to democracy in 1985. Given perceptions that Silva will not yield to business-as-usual exchange-based politics, prospects for a PMDB alliance are dim, and the party will certainly demand positions if it is to be counted on.

Accommodation and negotiation, then, will be key. And if Silva is open to that course, the new president should be able to look elsewhere: to the Social Democratic PSDB, the party of the current third-runner candidate for the presidency, Aécio Neves. Historically dominating the center-right side of the spectrum (despite its leftist name), PSDB leaders have already placed calls to Silva’s campaign and her husband, Fabio Vaz, a political operator in his own right, is ostensibly working behind the scenes to cement an alliance. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the most influential leader of the PSDB, has also made public statements in favor of supporting Silva in the second round of the election if Neves comes in third. If conditions are met, an alliance is all but assured.

Accommodation will also be required to corral support in an increasingly fragmented Congress. The number of political parties that hold seats in Congress’s Chamber of Deputies should rise from 22 to 28 and very few will occupy more than 50 seats out of a total number of 513. Thus, small and mid-size parties will increase in importance. If Silva decides to play by the rules of exchange-based politics, she could foreseeably build a piecemeal coalition out of smaller parties; the advantage of this is that individual parties are relatively easy to substitute if they break away, which is not the case with larger coalition partners.

These tradeoffs will become increasingly important as her term goes on. If Silva does indeed win Brazil’s highly competitive presidential race, her extraordinary symbolic capital should furnish her considerable partisan support. Failing stable congressional coalitions, the option of appealing directly to the public over the heads of elected representatives may strengthen her hand, at least for a short period of time.

Overall, Brazilian democracy has been remarkably stable, especially in the context of a volatile region and Brazil’s patchwork democratic history. Parties have lost elections and power has repeatedly changed hands, both unambiguous signs of democracy. The political system has visibly increased commitments to safeguard citizens’ civil and individual rights. Checks and balances have waxed rather than waned over time, and Brazil is one of very few countries in the region to have resisted the lure of illiberal solutions to entrenched historical problems. Serious challenges remain, especially in terms poverty, inequality, and the poor quality of policing and other social services. Moreover, as mentioned before, a President Silva would have to rebuild Brazil’s economic and regulatory credibility.

No matter who wins, however, it is clear that Brazilian citizens are demanding far more of their leaders than anyone might have imagined just a few years ago — and politicians will have to adjust accordingly. Otherwise — and especially given the country’s current economic slowdown — they are almost certain to face fresh turmoil ahead.

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