Death of Eduardo Campos a blow to Brazil’s politically disenchanted youth

Eduardo Campos

Michel Filho / O Globo via AP Images

BRASILIA -- The death of Brazilian presidential hopeful Eduardo Campos in a plane crash Wednesday has struck a nerve with a generation of young, politically aware and disenchanted Brazilians who saw the leftist, economically pragmatic candidate as a needed change from the dirty politics and scandals that have characterized Brazilian politics for the past 10 years.

“He represented us, as no one else did. He was breathing new life into politics,” said Andre Dutra, who works for Brasilia’s subway system and is the former president of the youth division of the Brazil Socialist Party, or PSB, Campos’ party.

With Brazil’s elections just two months away, speculation as to what the crash, which also claimed six other lives, could mean for Brazil’s complex political scene was rampant, amid heartfelt tributes for the energetic 49-year-old family man who many felt had a shining political future ahead.

“Now, the candidates we have, they don’t represent any real change in Brazil politics,” Dutra said. “[Campos] was the only politician that had actually listened to the indignation on the streets in June.”

Last June saw a wave of political protests spread through Brazil, bringing at their peak more than a million people – mostly young – onto the streets.

The protests began over a 10-cent rise in Sao Paulo’s bus fares, but a public dissatisfaction with a stagnating economy, high taxes, and poor services precipitated widespread demonstrations.

President Dilma Rousseff was forced to scramble, eventually responding with pledges to reform political processes and direct royalties from Brazil’s vast pre-salt oil reserves to education.

But facing a stagnate economy, a series of corruption scandals and a lack of charisma, Dilma, as she is known here, has struggled to regain youth's trust. In a recent survey by Brazilian polling institute Datafolha, 45 percent of people aged between 16 and 24 said that they would not vote for her during the first round of elections.

By contrast, Campos announced programs that directly addressed complaints of protesters. His platform included a plan to provide free bus passes to students, costing the government R$12 billion ($5.3 billion) per year.

Campos also had a more detailed plan to improve Brazil’s education system - another focus of the protest movement.

Campos and his running mate Marina Silva had proposed to create a nationwide “integral” education system that would provide students a full day of school--including lunches and classes in art, sports and music--to replace the current half-day system in most public schools.

“Comprehensive education in public education would encourage and give opportunities to students who aspire to grow in life with a decent education,” said Gabriel Lepletier, a 19-year-old student from Cuiaba. “Campos believed that youth is the future of the country.”

For many, Campos’ appeal was simply that he offered a third way. Dilma’s party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT, has been in power for 12 years; before that the Partido de Social Democracia Brasileira, or PSDB, had held power for eight years. The PSDB candidate, Aecio Neves, is currently second in the polls.

“Campos represented a challenge to two comfortable parties who already seem to be sharing the spoils of power between them,” said Francois Le Grand, a 25-year-old legal researcher originally from Salvador. “A young politician always brings with him the hope that politics can be done differently, and Eduardo Campos seemed to represent that; he was a possibility.”

Many of today’s young voters came to political consciousness with the PT in power, and at the time when the party was rocked by scandals.

“It's disheartening to read about corruption, not once, but repeatedly every month, every year,” Le Grand said. “So Eduardo Campos represented a clean slate. No one expected him to change politics overnight, or to solve all the problems of Brazil, but he spoke a discourse of change and politically, we still need some.”

“Campos was modern, he listened to youth, to the streets. He understood that violence disproportionately affects young black people, and he had a really successful program in [his home state] Pernambuco to address that,” Dutra said. “I don’t see the other candidates putting young people in strategic positions, or even really listening to them.”

Dutra said that for most young Brazilians the best option he sees now is if Campos’ running mate, Marina Silva, steps up and takes Campos’ place as candidate.

“I think she will try her best to represent Campos,” he said. “They had good policies, good programs that they worked out together and if she sticks to them and does her best she will be a good representative too.”

Marina Silva, left, a former senator and environment minister, and Pernambuco state Gov. Eduardo Campos, raise their arms during a rally last October. AP hoto by Eraldo Peres

Political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia said that he thinks it is “very likely” that Silva, who is famous for campaigning on green issues, will become the PSB’s candidate, and that she could even surpass Campos’ spot in the polls. Having run against Dilma in 2010 as a Green Party candidate – when she gained almost 20 million votes – she has much better name recognition than Campos. Most analysts believe Campos was using this election to gain recognition, and run again seriously in 2018.

“What will be interesting is watching Aecio, to see if he tries to appeal to the youth vote now,” said Fleischer. “I think we’ll see a tilt from him towards environmental protection and sustainability.”

If Silva does run, Fleischer says Brazilian youth are very likely to transfer their support to her, drawn by her commitment to environmental issues and her canny use of social media, as well as her link to Campos.

But for many young Brazilians, especially those in Campos’ party, it won’t be the same.

“Campos is irreplaceable,” said Dutra. “The real loser here is Brazil.”

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