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In Brazil, polarization feeds upon itself

Marina Silva and José Gustavo, Sustainability Network Party (REDE) spokespersons, speak about the difficulties currently facing democracy in Brazil, but they argue that institutions are still working. Interview. Español. Português

Marina Silva and José Gustavo, Sustainability Network Party (REDE) spokespersons. Rede Sustentabilidade. All rights reserved.

Francesc Badia: We are in São Paulo with Marina Silva and José Gustavo, national spokespersons for the Sustainability Network Party (REDE). Brazil is experiencing a complex political moment which, despite its apparent legality, presents a legitimacy deficit. This produces high additional political tension but is likely to end up consolidating a series of regressions which were already in operation under the previous government, but which seem to be accelerating under the current one. What do you think of this situation?

Marina Silva: We are living through a very difficult time in Brazil. In my view, the current economic crisis is based on a political one. Brazil chose the wrong politicians and did not take the necessary economic measures to face the crisis of 2008. Dilma made the same mistakes so as to maintain her popularity and win the elections in 2014. Until recently, Brazil was close to full employment. Today, we have 12 million unemployed. Brazil kept low interest rates, but now they run at double digits. We barely managed to achieve a fiscal balance, and now we are faced with a deficit that jeopardizes any investment capacity, even in the key sectors of the economy, which are now also in crisis.

All this has happened because of the wrong policy decisions made by a government that, in my opinion, was nothing but the other side of the coin of Michel Temer’s. The Workers Party (PT) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) won the elections together and governed together. At the time, Temer did not raise one single criticism of Dilma’s government problems. Now, it is as if the coin had simply been turned around. Dilma’s attempt to appoint Lula as her chief of staff, seeking a strong political leadership which would allow her to resolve the political crisis, only comes to prove it. Lula himself said that his chosen Minister of Finance, with full autonomy to set up his team, would have been Henrique Meireles – the very same person Temer has appointed for the job. The same regressions we are currently witnessing would have happened if Dilma was in power.

In my opinion, we are living through a dramatic moment. The impeachment was not a coup, since it is a procedure provided for in the Constitution which therefore complies with the law. However, this does not clean Brazil’s face. This government, which is now led by Temer, lacks credibility and popular approval for carrying out a transition in the next two years and solve Brazil’s very serious problems. The Dilma/Temer duo won the elections without a proper government programme and lied to Brazilian society, imposing measures that were not legitimized in political debate - on the contrary, they were strongly denied during the election campaign. This government does not have any credibility either as regards corruption, which is something it shares with the PT. How can this government carry out reforms? With Temer in government and the PT in the opposition, the crisis is probably set to grow in the future.

José Gustavo: My impression is that the idea that there is a new tension in Brazil today is part of a narrative that tries to convince citizens that the problems are beginning just now, when in fact this is a critical situation that comes from long ago. An investigation was carried out on the possibility that Dilma, in the 2014 elections, had financed her campaign by diverting funds from public enterprises, which is a crime in Brazil. If it was indeed a crime, then Dilma/Temer’s mandate is not a legitimate one. The narrative that is being circulated today pretends to obviate the mistakes of the past, forgetting the logic of what has been happening in recent years. My feeling is that this tension is linked to the fact that politics in Brazil is increasingly removed from civil society, regardless of who is in power. We are losing the closeness we used to have between political institutions and society. A proof of this is the recently attempted amnesty for politicians who led Caixa dois (Mensalao), which is something totally contrary to what society is demanding: namely, fighting corruption, illegal fundraising and politicians’ impunity. Only new elections could bring back Brazilian society closer to political institutions.

MS: Moreover, some studies show that 32% of Brazilians believe that the country’s most serious problem is corruption; 16% believe that the main problems are healthcare and unemployment. Also, there are constant maneuvers to try to inhibit the Lava Jato operation and to grant amnesty to those who have committed electoral crimes. Therefore, in my opinion, the ideal solution would have been to dismiss both Temer and Dilma and call new elections, which would have forced the parties and their leaderships to explicit what they were planning to do with the crisis. If society wants to take the path of populism, either to the left or to the right, that is its decision. If society wants a new synthesis, that is its responsibility. But this could only happen with new elections, on the basis of a decision by the Electoral High Court and not, in my opinion, through a proposed constitutional amendment to hold elections, the aim of which is amnesty for those involved in corruption, which is nothing more than political opportunism.

FB: A cross-section issue, which affects Brazil particularly in this period, is the increased polarization between two extremes, a dynamics that does not leave room for third ways to emerge. What about the difficulty of breaking the bipolar dialectic that prevails today in Brazil? Is this simplifying polarization so effective that it does not allow a more nuanced and elaborate speech aimed at addressing the real problems and not at fueling political theatre?

MS: Polarization feeds upon itself. The two major parties who until recently played a leading role in this polarization were the PT and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). We are now at the onset of a turn by the PMDB leadership, and the PSDB is momentarily losing its position as one of the two main poles. This polarization tries to prevent the emergence of any force that could generate an alternative polarization, so that anything political, in order to exist at all, will have to become a satellite of one of the current poles. The PT has its own satellites, and so does the PSDB, which is now, in turn, a PMDB satellite. We are working to break this polarization and look for new political content. Not a new form or a new discourse, but a new political practice that allows us to break the old paradigms of the left and the right which, at any rate in the current reality of Brazil, no longer mean much.

The PT called itself leftist, but he made an alliance with the PMDB. Together they chose Eduardo Cunha and several other political figures close to the right, and they even made alliances with many of them, including Paulo Maluf, the president of the right-wing Progressive Party. The right-and-left story in Brazil has totally lost its factual content. What we have is only one version, created by both poles, by the two social democratic parties. The PT is a social democratic party with a popular base, plus participating intellectuals and some businessmen. The PSDB is a social democratic party formed mainly by the business sectors, plus a few intellectuals and little social support. But they are both social democratic parties.

These parties never created a contact point between them. They built alliances to govern, or reign, on their own. They even conceded causes that are particularly dear to Brazilian society, such as the indigenous question. Dilma’s government was the government that demarcated fewer indigenous lands, the government that changed the forest code and regularized 40 billion hectares of degraded land, besides making the most disastrous investments from an environmental point of view, such as the hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte, without complying with social and environmental obligations. The polarization between the PT and the PSDB is very strong and not easy to break, for the gravitational force of these two poles is such that they can determine reality. This explains why in Brazil one does not operate on the basis of reality, but on the basis of the versions of reality which these two parties produce.

The 2014 campaign clearly mirrored this. It was a highly violent campaign from the point of view of aggressiveness, in which we were slandered and suffered attacks of all kinds. We put 61 requests to the Superior Electoral Tribunal that have not yet been answered, which is a clear violation of the Brazilian electoral legislation.

JG: Polarization conveys a particular image of things. But it is an image which is far from reality. It is intended to expel others, or to create certain images of them, with the aim of allowing only the existence of one party and its opposite pole. These parties choose what to polarize, following a superficial and depoliticizing logic. An aggravating circumstance is the fact that several generations, including my own, did not get any political education at school, excepting from the occasional teacher who gave us some, by his own will. Many people in Brazil do not understand the logic and the basic function of the separation of powers, for example, which means that our society is not sure how institutions and democracy work – it is a society where scarce information or misinformation ends up being a very powerful tool for building up polarization. In Brazil, few mechanisms for dialogue and political participation are available to people. These mechanisms are (I usually say, jokingly): football, with its fanaticism, and police and crime TV shows, which are sensationalist and violent. They promote polarization and harm the development of a more complex view of politics, which could generate other questions, debate and reflection. This, however, far from discouraging us, motivates us to keep up with our educational role in politics.

FB: Do you think that the new forms of running campaigns can determine the capacity for political regeneration?

JG: We should take into account that this is our second impeachment since democratization in 88/89. The previous one was Fernando Collor de Mello’s, in 1992. Obviously, an impeachment is a traumatic event for any democratic regime - a breakdown. But with due respect for the legality of the procedure, the impeachment itself somehow opens the door to social reflection that may become a reality in the future. The previous impeachment mobilized the young to a great extent, but we do not know what effect will the current one have on society and Brazilian politics.

Dilma’s impeachment, which began in February and has ended just now, has left young people with no time to mobilize and contest the municipal elections. My view is that, on the one hand, we have polarization, and on the other hand, an attempt to use political marketing in a negative way, to sell a product and to strengthen particular candidates - as described in the film "Architects of Power", which tells the story of political marketing in Brazil since the impeachment of Collor de Mello. Political marketing has made the debate even shallower. Its increasing use of images has imposed a logic that puts aesthetics before content. I think we are living a reflection of this logic, which will be hard to overcome without investing heavily in education and, specifically, in political education.

FB: One last question. After a decade of progressive, leftist governments in Latin America – which have tried to bring about some deep changes in the classical political discourse in the region, resulting from decades of dictatorships – the current change of the regional cycle towards the right is a stress test for democracy in general. Do you think that, in the case of Brazil, this could consolidate a system of political alternation? Or, on the contrary, do you think it can diminish the country’s democratic quality and thus be a regression to a time when force was more important than the polls?

MS: The institutions that guarantee democracy in Brazil are operating normally. Even after two impeachments in such a short time, democratic institutions have been able to secure, each time, the rule of law in Brazil. We are now in a situation where the leading characters alternate, but the standing political arrangement remains. Even though the PT keeps on complaining, it was the PT who put Temer in Dilma’s line of succession. It was Dilma, Lula and ultimately the PT who chose him for vice president.

There is, in my opinion, a previous problem, which worries me even more: the fact that the 2014 elections were won on the basis of an abuse of economic power - according to information coming out of the investigations that have been carried out -, such as the use of public resources diverted through corruption schemes. This really alters democracy and the rules of the democratic game. When a political group makes an alliance with an economic group to unlawfully and illegally influence the sovereign decision of citizens, when it tries to artificially and economically manipulate the sovereign will of the citizens, this is accessing power in an anti-democratic way. And there is no doubt that this is what happened in the 2014 elections.

Another equally important aspect is the absence of rules. Elections in Brazil have lost any ethical sense. Politicians do not care if they tell the truth or if they slander a person in order to win votes. You cannot say nor do anything you fancy in order to win an election. At any rate, that is my view of democracy.

Democracy presupposes the alternation of power. In a democracy, I cannot come up with a wonderful project for the country that only works if I and my political group are in charge. If the project only works this way, then this is no longer a democracy. Democracy has to sustain and ensure the alternation of power. Ensuring the conquests implies institutionalizing them.

In Latin America, in particular, but also in some countries in Africa and Asia, the conquests are attributed to the individuals or parties in power. In a true democracy, the conquests belong to society, regardless of which party or group is in power. Conquests must be maintained because they are gains of the whole of society. The plan real was a victory for Brazilian society, as was the family bag and social inclusion. Brazilian society does not have to be held hostage by the PSDB to enjoy economic stability, in the same way that it needs not to be held hostage ad infinitum by the PT to keep its social policies.

A democracy presupposes the strengthening and consolidation of the conquests, even in a alternation of power dynamics

About the authors

Marina Silva es portavoz nacional de la Red Sustentabilidad y antigua candidata a la presidencia de Brasil. 

Marina Silva é porta-voz nacional da Rede Sustentabilidade e antiga candidata à presidência do Brasil. 

José Gustavo es portavoz nacional de la Red Sustentabilidad (Brasil). 

José Gustavo é porta-voz nacional da Rede Sustentabilidade (Brasil). 


Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Editor of DemocraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, author and political analyst. His most recent book, "Order and disorder in the 21st century", has been published in 2016. He Tweets @fbadiad 

Francesc Badia i Dalmases es Director   y editor de DemocraciaAbierta.    Ensayista y analista político, es experto en asuntos internacionales.  Su libro más reciente, "Orden y desorden en el siglo XXI", ha sido publicado en 2016. Twitter @fbadiad

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