To see Marina Silva deliver a speech on the campaign trail for the Brazilian presidential election next month is to watch a woman transformed. The fragile appearance of the environmentalist and former senator wrought by a tough childhood in a malarial Amazonian rubber plantation vanishes.
In its place come force and conviction as Ms Silva, a political outsider who is threatening to end the 12-year reign of Brazil’s powerful centre-left Workers’ party, or PT, links her compelling life story with Brazilians’ thirst for change.
“I was illiterate until I was 16,” she tells a party rally on a chilly night in mountainous Caxias do Sul in Brazil’s southern Rio Grande do Sul state, recounting how she went on to earn a degree in history.
“What makes the country grow is to have schools that are just as good for the poor as for the rich.” Until last month when the former presidential candidate of her coalition, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash, Ms Silva was not even in the running for Brazil’s presidency.
Now polls show her beating incumbent Dilma Rousseff of the PT in the second round run-off on October 26 – although her lead has narrowed in recent days – and rendering Aécio Neves of the larger opposition PSDB party a distant third.
Ms Silva is riding a protest vote that emerged last year in nationwide demonstrations for better public services, analysts say. She combines the social consciousness of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former unionist from Brazil’s poor northeast who ruled between 2003-2010 and is credited with lifting millions from poverty, with the economic orthodoxy of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former professor who was president between 1995 and 2002 and stabilised Brazil’s runaway inflation.
“She represents a vote for change,” said Marcelo Moura, a professor at São Paulo business university Insper. “She has the background of Lula…and the head of Fernando Henrique.”
Ms Silva was born in northern Acre state, where as an 11-year-old rubber tapper she rose before dawn each morning to “bleed” the trees of their milky resin with a machete. She suffered debilitating bouts of malaria and hepatitis and at 16 went to Acre’s capital, Rio Branco, to seek treatment and pursue her ambition of becoming a nun.
While studying, she joined Chico Mendes, the Brazilian environmentalist who was assassinated while trying to stop deforestation by ranchers. Two marriages followed and four children. Poverty was never far away. Her family remember her fashioning their first shower by punching holes in a tin can, according to a 2010 biography.
That determination and independent streak has marked her political career, too. In 2008, after falling out with Mr Lula da Silva, she resigned as environment minister – having reduced deforestation rates by 70 per cent – and then stood against his candidate, Ms Rousseff, in the 2010 election, winning 20m votes.
Some of that support came from Brazil’s sizeable evangelical community, which remains a potentially powerful political base.
“We support Marina because she supports the family,” said Cláudia Edl, an evangelical waiting outside a Silva campaign event in Rio Grande do Sul.
For others, her evangelical beliefs are a turn-off. Her religious conservatism led her to backflip on her party’s platform backing gay marriage. Ms Silva also claims God “cured” her of mercury poisoning, although she remains frail and for health reasons shuns cosmetics, chocolate, dairy products and sugar.
Despite her outsider background and green activism, investors and business figures so far like what they see – Ms Silva’s closest advisers include Maria Alice “Neca” Setúbal of the controlling family of Brazil’s largest private sector bank, Itaú-Unibanco.
Even on a visit to a Rio Grande do Sul agricultural fair, where the smell of barbecued meat hangs heavy in the air, ranchers seem willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“She recognises the advances of Fernando Henrique and Lula and now sees the opportunity for a different kind of politics,” says Paulo Pires of rancher co-operative federation FecoAgro.
Her message is one of non-partisan politics in which she will seek support across party lines. This will be crucial. The Brazilian Socialist party and its coalition only have about 36 seats in Congress. They need more than 200 to help a Silva presidency govern.
“That is going to be a major challenge for her,” said João Augusto de Castro Neves of the Eurasia Group.
At the rally in Caxias do Sul, which is held at the local Catholic church, locals munch free fried chicken as she pitches this vision of a “new politics” free of vote-buying and outdated ideology.
“We won’t make personal attacks, we are not seeking to ‘bring down’ Dilma or Aécio,” she says, even though opinion polls suggest she is on the verge of doing just that.
A radical candidate with an orthodox economic vision
• On inflation, Ms Silva aims to bring it down to the centre of the central bank’s target of 4.5 per cent plus or minus 2 percentage points. The government of Dilma Rousseff has been criticised for allowing inflation to stay at the top of the band and manipulating it through price controls.
• She promises to guarantee central bank autonomy partly through establishing fixed mandates for members of the board. A welcome development for markets concerned that monetary policy is too easily made captive to political concerns in Brasília.
• Her platform calls for a fiscal responsibility body to independently monitor budgets and the quality of expenditures and verify that the government is complying with fiscal targets. This is to counteract “creative accounting” by governments aimed at nominally meeting primary fiscal surplus targets.
• A Silva government is proposing to overhaul Brazil’s labyrinthine tax system, considered one of the key impediments to economic growth by lowering productivity, in its first term. But no details are available.
• The programme aims to deliver a shock to the economy that could lift growth in 2016. But doubts exist about Ms Silva’s ability to deliver without a strong majority in Congress. Dean Newman of fund manager Invesco Perpetual said in an note: “[There is] a long way to go yet before we finally know who will be leading Latin America’s largest economy over the next four years, but a change may prompt greater cheer from financial markets.
Fonte: Financial Times – 16/09/2014.