Could Marina Silva be the next president of Brazil?

  • Photo courtesy of Marina Silva ""
    Aug 21, 2014

    Earlier this week, upwards of 100,000 people gathered in the city of Recife, Brazil to mourn the tragic death of presidential candidate Eduardo Campos. The homepages of Brazil's biggest news outlets showed images of former President Lula's tears, President Rousseff's solemnity, and fellow candidate Aécio Neves's incredulity. Brazil reeled as news of Campos's death unfolded.

    In the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for this October, Campos had campaigned as the true heir to former President Lula, and as a pragmatic "leftist", the first of a new generation of Brazilian leaders. Drawing much of his support from disenchanted middle class voters that once supported President Rousseff's Worker's Party (PT), Campos also had proven able to diversify his base following the Workers Party's corruption scandal.

    And as Brazil buries a leader who captured the sentiment and hopes of millions, all eyes are beginning to turn to another popular emerging leader—Marina Silva, who was selected to take Campos's place as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate.

    But who is Marina Silva? And what impact will Campos's death and Marina's candidacy have on the all-important October Presidential elections?

    Q1: Who is Marina Silva?

    A1: At the simplest level, Marina Silva has taken on the mantle of the Socialist Party's candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. Previously Campos's running mate, Silva will take over his place on the ticket given his tragic death last week. But where, more broadly, has Silva come from?

    In many ways Marina Silva epitomizes the identity of a country undergoing profound transformation. She was born into a Brazil very different than today's and has coped with the challenges posed by a society in flux. The struggles she faced were typical of rural Brazil in the early- and mid-1960s: she comes from a very poor mixed-race family from the Amazon forest that made ends meet by rubber tapping—one of 11 children, 3 of whom died at a very young age.

    Like many Brazilians of her generation, Silva only learned how to read when she was sixteen years old—and despite becoming literate at such a late age, she went on to complete graduate programs at both the University of Brasilia and the Catholic University of Brasilia.

    Her political career is marked by both environmental and labor activism. As an environmental activist, she participated in non-violent protest alongside other rubber-tappers to prevent deforestation in the Amazon.

    She was also a founding member for the local chapter of Brazil's largest labor union, the CUT. After successful engagement in local politics, Silva became the youngest female senator in Brazil's history. She served as former President Lula's Minister of the Environment from 2003 to 2008.

    A year later she left the Worker's Party claiming that the party did not place sufficient emphasis on sustainability. After leaving PT, she joined the Green Party (PV) and was their presidential candidate for the elections in 2010. Mariana later left PV in 2011 and, in 2013, after failing to form a new political party in time to run for the 2014 elections, she opted to join PSB and endorse Campos’s candidacy.

    Q2: What impact will Marina Silva have on the election?

    A2: The death of Eduardo Campos was a game changer and has made the October election a hotly contested one. The landscape appeared relatively set as most observers predicted a close second round between the incumbent President Dilma Rousseff and Social Democratic (PSDB) candidate Aécio Neves.

    All this depended on a scenario where the third candidate, Eduardo Campos, gained only 9 percent of the vote in the first round. Last week's news of Campos's death sent observers and pollsters back to the drawing board.

    Silva's candidacy could negatively impact the chances of both Neves and President Rousseff. When Silva ran for president in 2010, she garnered roughly 20 percent of the popular vote—and a similar performance in this iteration could take Neves out of the running for a second round, leading instead to a Rousseff-Silva faceoff. And because Silva would likely be a tougher second-round opponent than Neves, this scenario could also be all the more challenging for Rousseff, as well.

    And the latest polling after the death of Campos has Dilma with 36 percent, Marina with 21 percent, and Neves with 20 percent. Rousseff and Neves, who find themselves on opposite sides of the political divide, now share a predicament.

    For the first time in these elections, polling on a possible second round is pointing to a candidate other than the current president—on August 18, a survey conducted by Datafolha following Campos's death predicted that Silva would garner 47 percent of the vote compared to Rousseff's 43 percent.

    Q3. Why is Silva a tougher second round opponent, and what could her victory mean for Brazil?

    A3: Even though 35 percent of voters claim they would not vote for Rousseff under any circumstances, that rejection rate has not translated to support for opposition candidates. Instead we have seen elevated number of voters--13 percent-- that intend to nullify their votes rather than vote for any of the candidates. And while many lower middle-class voters have become disenchanted with President Rousseff, they are likely to vote for her to avoid a Neves presidency.

    But Marina Silva may change all that.

    Given the dissatisfaction with all candidates, voters may gravitate to a new face they can relate to. Silva's story is a compelling one and will resonate with millions of voters.

    In a potential second round between Silva and Rousseff, those who voted for Neves in the first round may see Silva as a better alternative to Rousseff, and any uneasy Rousseff supporters may consider voting for Silva in the second round once there is no risk of Neves winning the election.

    What remains to be seen, however, is exactly how Silva would impact public policy in Brazil.

    An environmentalist at heart, Silva only recently joined the Socialist Party. And though in matters of economic policy, that party has few differences from Rousseff's own Worker's Party, Silva's plans to reinvigorate the Brazilian economy and boost growth remain ill defined.

    Traditionally, her environmental concerns have been paramount—as, for example, with her view of the oil industry as a "necessary evil," and her opposition to the controversial Belo Monte dam.

    But her economic policy is rooted in late-1990s tradition: a floating exchange rate, inflation targeting, and maintaining a primary fiscal surplus are pillars of the macroeconomic policy she advocates.

    Her team of economic advisors include Brazilian heavyweights André Lara Resende, who was one of the architects of “Plano Real” in 1994 and later served as President of the BNDES under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Eduardo Gianetti, known for his stance against excessive economic interventionism.

    She has also pushed back on the growing influence of Chinese companies in Brazil, an increasingly controversial reality given ballooning investment from China in recent years.

    Still, she has pledged to maintain the course set out by the Campos campaign before his death—a course that has shied away from radicalism in favor of more moderate economic policies.

    The extent to which she modifies that course moving forward, however, remains to be seen. Given the plurality of parties in the Brazilian system, if elected, Marina will also need to build a coalition.

    As a candidate, she built her image around her independence and has always positioned herself as an alternative to the growing polarization between PT and PSDB.

    In fact, during the last electoral cycle, Marina opted to remain neutral in the second round of the presidential elections and did not endorse either of the two remaining candidates. As such, the question that remains is if, as President, she would be able to compromise to one side or the other and build the necessary alliances in order to govern effectively.

    Conclusion: Ultimately, the election is still Rousseff's to lose. The official announcement that Silva will take Eduardo Campos's place as the Socialist Party's candidate presents a challenge to both Neves and Dilma.

    Marina Silva's commitment to maintaining macroeconomic stability—when combined with her charisma—have the real potential to upend expectations. If the economy continues to present lower growth and inflation continues to rise, an election that once appeared to be a foregone conclusion - especially if the election were to go to a second round - could go to a candidate that nobody saw coming.

    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Carlos Grover and Amanda Caldeira, intern scholars with the CSIS Americas Program’s Brazil Initiative, provided research assistance.

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