Brazil’s elections are a wake-up call for its business community
The face of power in Brazil is becoming ever more diverse. The top two candidates in Brazil’s presidential race on Sunday are both leftists and women, one of whom is black. They are President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party and Afro-Brazilian environmentalist Marina Silva. The private sector’s preferred candidate, a white man from Brazil’s once-dominant center-right party, trails in the polls.
If Rousseff and Silva go head-to-head in a run-off, as expected, voters will choose between competing progressive agendas. This would leave the country’s business community without a serious contender for the first time since the country’s transition to democracy in 1985.
To a large extent, this is the business community’s own doing — the result of its continuing refusal to accept the country’s redistributive social policies and the expansion of rights that has transformed the country and lifted tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
By now, business leaders should have formulated a more forward-looking strategy for political engagement. It has been more than a decade since leftist Luis Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidency, overcoming opposition from domestic and international investors. He went on to improve the lives of the poor through cash grants and economic growth.
Yet, the business elite still has no political strategy to deal with mass protests and fair elections at a time when Brazilians have gained increasing confidence in their power. Last year, they took to the streets in large numbers to demand better public services and more accountable government.
This does not have to be the case. One need not look far for alternative models. As part of a transnational research project called Enduring Reform, my colleagues and I interviewed business leaders in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico about progressive reforms in their cities. We wanted to know how they responded to reforms that improved the lives of marginalized citizens, a key index of the vitality of democracy.
We found a surprising and new accommodation to progressive projects in Argentina and Mexico. For example, Argentine business owners who had commercial relationships with worker-run factories changed their previously harsh view of workers. New experiences led them to value the skill and trustworthiness of workers who had illegally seized factories and ran them without bosses.
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, elites who several decades ago refused to countenance the presence of indigenous persons even overnight in their city now tolerate and at times promote the inclusion of indigenous people in commerce, politics and urban planning The migration of tens of thousands of indigenous Mexicans to San Cristóbal’s periphery, together with an armed indigenous rebellion in the city and surrounding towns, convinced elites to reconsider fundamentally their past racism and exclusionary practices.
This contrasts with attitudes in Brazil, where the business community still acts to oppose or limit progressive reform in its cities, according to our study. In Porto Alegre, business leaders steadfastly opposed participatory budgeting, a landmark program that turned over decision-making about municipal infrastructure to ordinary citizens. Their reasons for doing so sound undemocratic.
“There are 10 of them and one of us,” one businessman said, referring to the relative numbers of poor and well-off citizens at one participatory-budgeting neighborhood meeting. “We can be outvoted.”
Such attitudes fly in the face of Brazil’s changing times. The country’s politics is moving forward at a dizzying pace, with formerly marginalized groups such as women and blacks participating in ways that were unthinkable under military dictatorship. Through this democratic participation, Brazil is seeking to foster inclusion, lessen the income gap, and promote environmental sustainability.
Brazilian business leaders can’t stop this progress. If they use their economic clout and disproportionate political voice to limit it, they will remain politically marginalized and scrambling to have a say, as they look to be in the presidential election.
Alternatively, they can listen, learn, present their own innovative proposals to be debated and voted on, and move forward with their fellow citizens to create a new model of democracy and growth for the 21st century.
PHOTO: Brazil’s presidential candidates Dilma Rousseff (L) of Workers Party (PT) and Marina Silva of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) take part in a TV debate in Rio de Janeiro October 2, 2014. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes