Published On: September 19, 2014

Presidential Women in Brazil

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iPresidential candidate Silva of the PSB speaks during a ceremony to launch her campaign platform in Sao Paulo

By B. Michael Rubin

With the presidential election only two weeks away, debate on the streets has reached fever pitch. This year’s election has defied all earlier predictions when it took a sharp detour on August 13 with the death of one of the three major candidates, Eduardo Campos, who was replaced by his vice-presidential choice, Marina Silva.

In addition to the unexpected loss of one candidate, the debate volume has been turned up thanks to two other factors. First, the campaign in Brazil only lasts a few months, as opposed to presidential elections in the US, which seem to start almost immediately after the new president takes office. Second, debate is rampant because of mandatory voting in Brazil, which applies to all citizens between the ages of 18-70.

According to current polling, none of the three major candidates – President Dilma Rousseff, Marina Silva, or Aécio Neves – will receive a 50 percent majority in the first round of voting on October 5, and thus there will be a second round of voting, as is the law in Brazil. Certainly a few months ago, no one would have predicted that in the final voting on October 26, Brazilians will very likely be choosing between two women. As of today, Brazil is almost guaranteed to have another four years of a woman running the largest nation in Latin America.

Marina and Dilma meet at their first TV debate

Marina and Dilma meet at their first TV debate

Street opinion is about evenly split between Dilma and Marina. (The two presidential candidates are customarily referred to by their first names, as is everyone in Brazil.) Half the population is hoping for a change in leadership from the domination of two political parties – PT (Dilma) and PSDB (Aécio) – that has controlled the federal government in Brasília for decades, and therefore they will vote for Marina.

The other half of the population fear that Marina isn’t experienced enough to lead the country and her party’s lack of power will prevent it from forming a governing coalition in Congress. With Brazil’s multi-party political system, forming a strong coalition is critical to passing legislation.

The need to form a governing coalition is exactly what led to Brazil’s biggest political scandal, known as Mensalão. This in a country rife with scandals. When Dilma’s PT predecessor, Lula, one of Brazil’s most popular presidents, first became president in January 2003, his party also lacked power in Brasília. So PT set about creating a coalition by buying votes from congressmen through monthly (mensalão) illegal payments. The Mensalão scandal is certainly on the minds of voters considering Marina Silva’s tactics to create a governing coalition should she win the election.

Aécio Neves

Aécio Neves

Along with questions about Marina’s potential effectiveness in Brasília, there is a segment of the population, particularly those outside Brazil, who don’t trust her views. They worry she may be too far left. Her party, PSB, translates into English as the Socialist Party, and is situated to the left of Dilma’s PT (Workers Party). The general consensus in Brazil is the leftist approach to the economy taken during Dilma’s administration, while favoring social programs, has hurt economic growth in Brazil. However, many factors, not all of them inside Brazil, affect a country’s growth. Brazil’s GDP growth was soaring under Lula, whose PT economic policies varied little from Dilma’s.

With the economy in Brazil currently on the edge of a recession, Marina is receiving unexpected support from Big Business and other centrist interests, those segments of the country who would have been expected to support Aécio, whose party is to the right of Dilma and Marina. Despite Marina now representing the Socialist Party, many elements of the business community have come out in support of her, believing that, like Lula, she will not sacrifice the growth of the economy for her party’s socialist principles. Marina is keenly aware that the current lackluster economy could be the biggest factor in a one-term Dilma presidency.

The leading US business magazine Forbes reports: “Investors [like Deutsche Bank] don’t fear the socialist party or other left wing parties with a chance in Brazil. That’s mostly thanks to the rather orthodox political-economic policies of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party, then seen as a left wing threat to the status quo . . . . Deutsche Bank is not afraid of socialism. What DB and others like most about Marina is that she represents a change in economic policy.”

Marina campaigns for president

Marina takes to the streets

A sticky question that has surfaced around Marina’s candidacy is whether she played a role in the death of Eduardo Campos. While no evidence has surfaced that the plane crash was anything other than an accident, Brazilians are so accustomed to corruption on a grand scale that the rumors still circulate. Certainly, no one profited more by the demise of Campos than Marina.

The fact that the small plane carrying Campos and some of his closest aides went down in inclement weather points to an accident. Additionally, if there were any evidence of foul play by Marina, certainly operatives within Dilma’s government would be eager to bring such evidence to the media. With only rumors and no facts to support a murder, the evidence points to an accident. Additionally, if Brazilians believe that Marina played a role in a murder, there’s no reason not to believe that Dilma or Aécio could have been involved.

Marina, at least for the moment, has the appearance of an incorruptible official, an image her campaign is capitalizing on, as a welcome relief from the political scandals endemic to Brazil. She is best known for her honorable departure from PT during the Lula presidency, when she was the Minister of the Environment, the equivalent of a Cabinet member in the US administration. She quit PT and her job because she believed PT wasn’t doing enough to protect the environment.

Marina as Minster of Environment in Lula administration

Marina as Minster of Environment in Lula administration

Guarding the environment has always been Marina’s top concern, She is one of eleven children from a community of rubber tappers on the Bagaço rubber tree plantation in the state of Acre. Growing up, she survived five bouts of malaria in addition to hepatitis and metal poisoning, and she was illiterate until her teens. Later, she was a colleague of the late Chico Mendes, Brazil’s greatest environmental hero. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program named her one of the Champions of the Earth. Running in 2010 for president from the Green Party, she earned 19.33 percent of the popular vote.

Despite Marina’s lack of formal political support in Brazil’s Congress, which could make her a very weak president, others question her messianic character and her links to evangelicals. She lost one key aide over her announcement last week that she was not in support of gay marriage because of her evangelical beliefs, despite the reality that de facto gay marriage exists in Brazil. While her religious beliefs are expected to raise her popularity in the less affluent north of Brazil, her strongest support until now has come from the more populous south among middle-class youth, who support gay marriage and other progressive social reforms.

Nevertheless, since the death of Campos, Marina’s standings in the polls have continued to rise, defying all predictions. The first polls to come out, just two days after the death of Campos, showed a huge spike in her popularity, but observers labeled this a sympathy vote, with people supporting Marina more from an emotional standpoint than a political one.

The late Eduardo Campos

The late Eduardo Campos

Rather than Marina’s poll numbers subsiding in the following weeks, her numbers have grown. Should an election be held tomorrow between her and Dilma, Marina would be the victor. One reason for her continued popularity, besides the general malaise surrounding the political status quo in Brasília, and the weak economy, is that Marina has recruited respected figures to her staff, such as Mauricio Rands and André Lara Resende, a co-creator of the Plano Real. Marina has promised to turn the central bank into an independent institution while keeping inflation close to the 4.5% target. These political maneuverings, while meant to garner votes, specifically point to a distinct departure from a socialist agenda.

Lara Resende was Special Advisor to former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and later head of the BNDES. Rands is a lawyer who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. In 2001, Rands was named head of legal affairs of the city of Recife, where he created City-Justice, which decentralized courts and took legal aid to the poor neighborhoods of the city. In 2002, Rands was elected to Congress, and in 2008, and for the fifth time running, he was chosen by his colleagues as one of the most influential members of Congress.

Another close advisor currently working with Marina is Eduardo Giannetti. Giannetti received his doctorate in economics from the University of Cambridge, England, and he is currently a full-time professor at Insper, the Teaching and Research Institute of São Paulo.

 Marina  Photo AP

Perhaps most important, one of Marina’s biggest backers is banking heir and philanthropist Maria Alice Setubal, known as Neca, who is also acting as a campaign coordinator for Marina. Neca is a member of one of Brazil’s most distinguished banking dynasties, and she is a shareholder of the São Paulo-based conglomerate Itausa, which has interests in finance, real estate, and a range of industries. Itausa also controls Itaú Unibanco, the largest bank in Brazil with total assets of U$500 billion. Neca’s presence within Marina’s inner circle is essential in calming the capitalist business interests in Brazil and convincing them to vote for the Socialist Party.

It’s worth noting here that all three of the major candidates’ parties — Dilma’s Workers Party, Marina’s Socialist Party, and Aécio’s centrist PSDB — would fit under the rubric of the Democratic party in the US. None of these three parties are as conservative as the GOP.

While surrounding herself with intelligent advisors may provide Marina with an excellent groundwork for guiding Brazil for the next four years, her first hurdle will be to get elected. As happens in presidential elections, and not only in Brazil, Marina could end up being elected as Brazil’s next president not because she is so well-liked or trusted but because the majority of the population wishes to vote against Dilma and PT, to vote for change.

Some political observers believe this year’s corruption scandal involving Petrobras could be the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for PT’s control of the federal government. Over this past holiday weekend, the Petrobras scandal again exploded across international media outlets: The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Reuters. On September 6, Folha de São Paulo reported that a jailed former director of Petrobras had named 61 deputados and senators as having received illegal payments through the Petrobras network.

Paulo Roberto Costa

Paulo Roberto Costa

On the same day, newspaper Estado de São Paulo said on its online edition that 32 lawmakers had been named in the scandal by Paulo Roberto Costa, the former head of Petrobras’s refining and supply unit. Costa was arrested on March 20 in a police investigation into money laundering called “Operation Car Wash.” Brazilian prosecutors said they discovered that Costa had kept about U$23 million in Swiss bank accounts after profiting from the scheme.

Neither of the two Brazilian newspapers released any of the politicians’ names, and they did not explain how they obtained the information. Veja magazine, however, placed the Petrobras scandal on its cover this weekend, and it named the accused politicians and revealed that the scandal involves Dilma’s energy minister, Edison Lobão, and the leaders of both houses of Congress, Henrique Eduardo Alves and Renan Calheiros.

In a deal for a reduction in his prison time, Costa provided details about the illegal operation, which he said involved the billing of contracts for oil projects. Political figures — including three governors – benefited by receiving 3 percent of the value of the contracts. Costa’s testimony could also complicate the presidential campaign of Marina because Costa tied Eduardo Campos to the scheme.


As Dilma and her PT party were elected on a platform of cleaning up corruption in the federal government, these most recent revelations concerning federal politicians are a devastating blow to PT. While Lula was able to distance himself from the Mensalão scandal that crippled the first term of his presidency, Dilma will not escape so easily. With Petrobras as the largest company in Brazil, economic growth for the country is tied to the future prospects of Petrobras and its large oil reserves. While Brazil’s energy future has bright prospects thanks to recent investments in alternative energy and vast pre-salt oil discoveries, Petrobras stock has lost half of its market value in Dilma’s three years in office. Today, Petrobras is the world’s most indebted oil company.

Proof of widespread corruption at Petrobras would damage Dilma’s reputation as a competent manager with zero tolerance for unethical behavior. While another political corruption trial like Mensalão, thanks to the revelations of Paulo Costa, will not take place before the October elections, Veja, Brazil’s most popular weekly news magazine, will not lose any opportunity to criticize Dilma and PT in the next four weeks leading up to the election.

Looking ahead, should Dilma lose the election to Marina and a corruption trial surrounding Petrobras and Costa begin next year, the prospects for a return to power by PT in four years’ time, with Lula running again for president in 2018, are in doubt.

President Dilma Rousseff visits Petrobras

President Dilma Rousseff visits Petrobras

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.


Displaying 9 Comments
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  1. Eva Bueno says:

    Michael: excellent article, as usual. Only one correction: Lula’s first term started in January 2002, not 2007. I remember that day very well, because half my family was crying with joy while the other half was crying in anger. Fortunately for us, as well as for many other Brazilians, we know that there are very few things that cannot be cured with a good feijoada with some caipirinhas, followed by a lively forro’. Hopefully, the next president–whoever she, she or he may be–will not try to reinvent the wheel and will not get rid of the good things that the previous administrations did.

  2. Michael Rubin says:

    Thank you, Eva, for your kind words. And thank you for the correction on Lula’s first term. He won his first election in October 2002 and took office on January 1, 2003.

  3. Good article. Rubin, in spite of being in Brasil for a few years, has learned a lot of his “host” country, its political structure, etc;

    btw, I wonder to whom Luiza (Mike’s niece) is going to vote for in the Presidential elections!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Michael Rubin says:

    Thanks, João.

    Good question: I’ll have to interview my niece now!

  5. Simpleton says:

    “The two presidential candidates are customarily referred to by their first names, as is everyone in Brazil.” – not to wish I am in anyway qualified to begin to “fact check” you Sr Michael but what I had noticed was that many people tend to take on an apelido that was typically the name of their street, what they do, or the name of the burg, village, region, city or sometimes even just the name of the state they were originally from. “Nome de rua” as it were. Thanks for the informative article, until now I thought “Mensalão” was nothing more than the name of one more bandido brasileiro, now I see it encompasses everyone.

    • Long time, no hear, Seu Simpleton. It is so good of ya to come down your high pedestal and mingle with commoners like me! How did you find out I started commenting in this magazine?

      Since our last contact, lots of things have happened but…but…but… the important event (after the CUP) here is the looming elections. Nobody knows how things are going to turn out. Seu Michael has written some interesting facts about the candidates and the scandals associated with them!!

      It would be interesting to find out who the “preferred” candidate of your “upper class” Brasilian friends in Rio!!!

  6. Simpleton says:

    And now, as it would appear, the PBs have made their wishes known. Firmly united to give themselves one more extra holiday this year for the 2nd turno. I was surprised by the 14 year old who answered the phone today when I called. He was so up and into the goings on. Knew the names, etc.. But then again maybe he wasn’t left to his own devices (and video games) / nor had any real opinion. Obviously neither of our opinions counted. Still I have to wonder about the future, was it just the nuisance TV media blast that made such a profound impact on him? All to be forgotten tomorrow I am sure . . .

  7. What say you about the outcome of the elections, old chap? I bet young Luiza voted for A.N.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Michael Rubin says:

    Young Luiza voted for Marina, but obviously a lot of people didn’t.
    I’ll be posting a new Elections piece today or tomorrow.

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