On the streets of central Rio de Janeiro this week, a man pushed a wheeled garbage bin that had been converted into a mobile sound system and was blasting a hip-hop-style campaign jingle. Two unsmiling clowns handed out election leaflets for a state deputy. Campaigning has officially begun in Brazil for Oct. 5 elections, and the noise level has significantly increased.
But this time around, there is little attention being paid to the habitual joke candidates — the three bin Ladens, Jesus, or São Paulo state-deputy candidate Paulo Batista, who flies through his homemade campaign video, zapping communists with red laser beams fired from his eyes.
Instead it is the gale of popular support whipping up behind environmentalist Marina Silva that is making all the news. The latest poll on Aug. 29 put Silva neck and neck with incumbent President Dilma Rousseff — both have 34%, leaving third-placed Aécio Neves with 15%. In a second-round simulation, Silva had 50% to Rousseff’s 40%.
It has been an extraordinary turnaround. Rousseff’s Workers' Party (PT) has run Brazil since 2003, and the President looked like a sure thing for re-election until Aug. 13, when a small plane carrying then third-placed presidential candidate Eduardo Campos crashed, killing all seven on board. At the time, Rousseff led with 38%, and Campos, a former governor of Pernambuco state who was pushing a third-way platform for his Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), had just 9%.
His death catapulted Silva, his running mate, into the election. She had polled nearly 20 million votes in the 2010 election as a Green Party candidate and accepted a role as Campos’ vice-presidential candidate when attempts to found her own Sustainability Network party foundered. Now this former Environment Minister, who was raised in an illiterate, desperately poor family of rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon, is favored to win. Her name was chanted by some of the 130,000 mourners at Campos’ funeral.
The extent of her rise is all the more remarkable given PT's status as a formidable political machine. Its large umbrella of coalition parties is campaigning with over five times the allotted television advertising time of Silva’s PSB.
“It is a public-opinion phenomenon ... an epidemic,” says Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “This is the first time this happened in a presidential election.”
Rousseff is also facing a perfect storm of negative coverage. Not only has Brazil’s economy retracted for the second quarter running, putting the country technically in recession, but she was also embarrassed by comments alleged to have been made by a disgraced member of her party last week.
José Dirceu, former chief of staff to PT's phenomenally popular ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — known simply as Lula — recently called her “Lula in a skirt,” according to a blog written by Fernando Rodrigues on the UOL news site. Dirceu, jailed with other PT bosses last year in a major vote-buying scandal, has denied the comment, but the phrase has stuck.
Memories of that scandal haven't helped. In a recent interview on TV Globo’s prime-time Jornal Nacional news program, Rousseff refused to condemn party workers who had hailed Dirceu and other jailed PT bosses as heroes. “Perhaps the biggest PT mistake is not to have criticized themselves over corruption,” says Nicolau.
That's especially pertinent given Rousseff's party's ambitious reform proposals. The PT wants to form a constituent assembly to carry out political reform with public financing for campaigns to avoid “strategies based on purchasing power.”
Silva’s reforms are no less ambitious. Her "new politics" agenda seeks a five-year mandate instead of the current four, and she says she will not stand for re-election. Her party’s program promises transparency in the funding of electoral campaigns and easier rules for referendums. “One of the most important projects, at this moment in the history of Brazil, is that we can renew politics,” Silva said in her own Jornal Nacional interview.
Silva is picking up support from disaffected urban voters who flooded Brazilian streets in protests in 2013, and a middle class tired of corruption scandals like the one that saw Dirceu jailed. “Society does not recognize itself in the parties, and does not recognize itself in the way politics is going,” says Ricardo Ismael, a political scientist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro .
She has also been polling well among Brazil’s increasingly influential evangelical Christians. She is herself evangelical — although there is also an evangelical candidate, Everaldo Dias Pereira, better known as Pastor Everaldo, who is trailing with 2%.
(Her desire to appeal to religious voters seems to have affected her agenda, somewhat. When the PSB program was launched on Aug. 29, it included proposals to legalize gay marriage and criminalize homophobia. That might have angered evangelicals but could have given Silva more support among liberal urban voters. A day later, however, Silva withdrew the proposals as a “mistake.”)
But perhaps the most important issue in this election is the economy. Rousseff and PT have been buoyed, in recent years, by the stable economy and economic growth it enjoyed for a decade. The party used that economic growth to fund programs like the Family Purse income-support scheme to end social exclusion. A generation of poorer Brazilians advanced to a lower-middle class, called Class C. GDP growth peaked at 7.5% in 2010.
Brazil isn’t growing anymore, though, and the economy's stagnation is now one of Rousseff’s biggest problems. “This is an extremely vulnerable point in Dilma’s campaign,” says Paulo Fábio Dantas Neto, political scientist at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador.
It's one that Silva has been able to capitalize on. Markets rose this week on what is being called the "Marina effect" — the market-friendly PSB manifesto promises an independent Central Bank and more public-private partnerships to promote more much needed investments in infrastructure.
While Neves and his center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) have tried to take a business-friendly approach, voters are now primed to dismiss him as business as usual. “The electorate does not want more PT and will not vote for Aécio,” says Ismael. “Marina fills a space for those who want to change but do not want the PSDB.”
So is Silva a sure thing? Not necessarily, says Nicolau, who advises that Brazilian public opinion has shown itself volatile in recent years. The mass street protests of June 2013 dissipated rapidly. World Cup disappointment just prior to the tournament turned to pride once the tournament began.
“It is very volatile for some feelings, some perceptions. Today Marina is a phenomenon, but she could deflate,” he says.