Brazil Elections: Can Marina Silva still go for gold?

Marina Silva’s late entry has lit up Brazil’s presidential election, but can the well-known environmentalist continue to take the fight to current President Dilma Rousseff and claim the ultimate prize?

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Presidential candidate Marina Silva has blown the Brazilian elections wide open, as voters disillusioned with the country’s political class see in her an opportunity for change. (Slogan reads: “We’re not going to give up on Brazil”). Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The tragic death of the former leader and presidential candidate for the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB – Brazilian Socialist Party), Eduardo Campos, has rocked the pre-election campaign in Brazil in many ways. Campos, 49, was killed in a light aircraft accident on August 13th, and had been polling in third place for the upcoming presidential elections, the first round of which will take place on October 5th. While Brazil united to mourn the tragic passing of a man who was – many claimed – destined to become a stellar politician nationwide, thoughts quickly turned to the implications for the presidential contest. As was widely expected, Marina Silva, his running mate and a renowned environmentalist who served as environment minister under former President Lula da Silva (2002-2010), was named as his successor.

Silva, who came third in the 2010 election with close to 20% of the vote, only joined the PSB’s ranks less than a year ago, after her attempts to register her own party, Rede Sustentabilidade (Rede – Sustainability Network), for this year’s election were turned down by electoral authorities on a technicality. However, she has remained one of the most popular political figures in the world of Brazilian politics, a status that if anything was reinforced after widespread protests throughout the winter of 2013 rocked the establishment and brought its approval ratings crashing down.

Now, Silva has turned what was looking set to be a relatively smooth re-election process for current President Dilma Rousseff, of the same Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party) as her predecessor Lula, into an extremely tight contest that will almost certainly go down to a second round vote at the end of October. Before Campos’ death, Rousseff was polling at close to 40%, with Campos (10%) behind the centre-right social democrat (PSDB) candidate Aécio Neves who was on around 23%. Even in alternate polls, with Silva as candidate instead of Campos, Rousseff remained firmly ahead but with Silva a distant second and displacing Neves.

Within days of her official unveiling as Campos’ replacement, though, Silva had soared to the top of the voting intention polls, with most pointing to a first-round dead heat between her and Rousseff but a clear win for Silva in the subsequent second round. Indeed, initial polls suggested that this second round gap could be as wide as 15 points, with one poll putting Silva on 47% to Rousseff’s 32%. The gap has narrowed since then, with Rousseff now comfortably ahead of Silva on first round vote (and Neves a fair distance behind on around 15%), but with a small Silva victory or a ‘technical tie’ (when the gap between two candidates is within a poll’s margin of error) predicted in the second round.

Silva last year with Eduardo Campos (R), then the PSB’s presidential candidate. Campos was killed in a plane crash in August, leaving his running mate Silva as the candidate to take his place. Photo courtesy of Agencia Brasil.

The question now is whether or not Silva can consolidate on her rapid rise in the polls and maintain the positive momentum in her favour – not just until the first round on October 5th but throughout the head-to-head campaign that will follow until the second round on October 26th. Her recent burst in popularity has, nonetheless, been built on a steady platform that dates from her early career as a well-known environmentalist and advocate of social and environmental justice, particularly in her home state of Acre, hidden in the heart of the Amazon basin.

She went on to become Environment Minister under Lula da Silva’s presidency from 2003 until 2008, when she resigned over her opposition to the government’s stance in favour of development projects in the Amazon. Silva is widely credited with having helped bring deforestation in the Amazon down by around 90% since 2004, and carried her support through to the 2010 election, when she stood for the Partido Verde (PV – Green Party) against Rousseff. Silva won almost 20% of the vote in the first round, forcing Rousseff to a second round against her centre-right opponent, whom she defeated comfortably in the end.

Then, in 2013, anti-government protests that had started as an outpouring of disapproval at the huge social and financial cost of Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 Football World Cup ended up as an all-out demonstration of rejection of Brazil’s political establishment, with millions taking to the streets to voice their disapproval of corruption and estrangement among the country’s political class. Silva, who had openly sided with the protesters, was widely regarded as being the main beneficiary of these demonstrations, as her outsider’s image and promise of change and social justice chimed with the protesters’ desire for a different way of doing politics in Brazil.

Of course, until recently Silva was not in the running for this year’s elections, and so many Brazilians who had become disenchanted with their politicians would have been forgiven for feeling that they did not have a serious candidate to choose from who could offer them a genuine response to their concerns, so clearly raised during the protests. Now that has all changed, and Silva’s meteoric rise since then has drawn heavily on this widespread desire for a different direction in Brazilian politics.

She has promised to lead, if elected, a government “based on democracy and citizen participation”, with a notable emphasis on sustainability and social-environmental justice: she has claimed that she would be “the world’s first social-environmentalist president”. It has also been noted by commentators that Silva is easily seen as most representative of modern Brazilian society, certainly in comparison with Rousseff and Neves, given that she comes from humble origins – the daughter of illiterate Amazonian rubber tappers – and like more than half the 200 million citizens of Brazil, she has Afro-Brazilian roots, a notable difference given the lack of proper representation of black and mixed-race Brazilians in mainstream politics and positions of power.

Massive protests against official corruption, shoddy public services, and the money spent on World Cup infrastructure instead of on Brazil’s many social needs. Marina Silva is widely viewed to have been one of the political figures to have best channelled the wishes of the protesters into her political programme. Photo courtesy of IPS.

However, for Silva to continue to ride this wave will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination. First, some are speculating that the recovery of Rousseff’s position in the polls with respect to Silva since the first couple of weeks of her campaign, has more to do with the ebbing away of the ‘sympathy vote’ that Silva attracted in the aftermath of the death of Campos, to whom Silva was said to be very close. Others are simply putting it down to the fact that, after an initial ‘honeymoon period’, Silva’s greater exposure to the fierce glare of Brazilian media during the pre-election campaign has led to more voters finding certain policies and aspects of her candidacy less welcoming – including a climbdown over her initially-stated support for gay marriage, something that she opposes on account of her strict evangelical faith.

The other main danger for Silva is that generally, where there is a tight race between an incumbent and a new challenger – as Rousseff and Silva most certainly are – incumbency tends to prove an advantage late in the game. This was certainly the case during Colombia’s elections earlier this year, when President Juan Manuel Santos eventually saw off his right-wing challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, despite a first-round win for Zuluaga.

However, that is not something that Rousseff and her team can take for granted. After a steady first half of her four-year term, Rousseff’s approval ratings have fallen considerably since, as have those of her government in general, particularly in the wake of last year’s protests. A recent poll suggested that 44% of voters rejected Rousseff to the point that they definitely would not vote for her, leaving her with little space to win back the overall majority needed for a second-round vote. Furthermore, a scandal that has recently broken out over accusations of corruption within government ranks, concerned mainly with the state oil company Petrobras, threatens to derail the PT government’s campaign and bring back into sharp focus all the anger and anti-government sentiments expressed during the protests.

Polls suggest a dead heat between the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff (L), and Marina Silva, with the head-to-head second round almost certain to be between these two candidates. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Needless to say, Silva would immediately face many obstacles in the event that she did win the election, not least a spluttering Brazilian economy and the huge effort that would be needed to build a lasting coalition capable of effective government. Not only is the PSB still a somewhat minor party in the grander scheme of Brazilian politics, which has been dominated in the last few decades by the centre-left PT and its allies and the centre-right PSDB, but Silva herself is far from at home within her adopted PSB.

There are plenty within the party who don’t quite view Silva as being their ‘own’ candidate, and there is the potential for many a clash on the economy, social issues, and of course Silva’s expertise the environment – it should be noted that despite its name, the Socialist Party is actually these days somewhat centrist and pro-business. In what is perhaps an early symptom of contradictions of policy matters, Silva has had to abandon her once fiery rhetoric on issues of the environment and agricultural big business, and has been seen to be approaching the powerful agricultural lobby that Brazil has, with pledges to support business growth and renovate the biofuel industry.

For now, though, that is all still too far in the future to be anything other than speculation. With virtually all polls suggesting that the second-round race between Silva and Rousseff is too close to call, we will just have to wait and see how the next few weeks unfold. Once the first round is out of the way, and the campaign becomes one solely focussed on Silva and Rousseff’s head-to-head, the polls might start to give us a better indication of just what chances Marina Silva has of becoming, as many recognise she would be, the world’s first out-and-out “green” president.

While Brazil’s role as host of this year’s World Cup proved to be surprisingly successful from an administrative point of view, the tournament ended in disaster for the national team with a 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals. Many have drawn comparisons between the humiliating loss and Brazil’s economic woes, with inflation at 7% and GDP growth at barely 1%. Photo courtesy of Getty Images via the BBC.
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