Silva throws a basketball at a campaign event in Rio de Janeiro
Pilar Olivares—reuters
October 2, 2014 9:42 AM EDT

When Marina Silva was a child, living with six sisters and a brother in a wooden shack deep in the Amazon rain forest, her father, a rubber tapper, would listen to Voice of America and the BBC Portuguese service on his radio. “My father was addicted to the news,” she says, recalling how “one time, I thought there were people inside the radio, and I opened it to see.” In a family where no one could read, the radio was the only source of news, and it gave her “an idea that a world existed beyond the place we lived in.”

Attention in that world beyond suddenly shifted to Silva when she made a dramatic entrance into the Brazilian presidential race after the Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 13. Silva had been his running mate. Until then, the Oct. 5 election looked like a walkover for the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, whose Workers’ Party has ruled Brazil since 2003. But Silva’s emergence changed the dynamics of the contest.

Rousseff was elected in 2010, in no small part due to the patronage of her predecessor, the phenomenally popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Known as Lula, he presided over a period of heady economic growth, surfing a global boom in commodities prices to make Brazil the darling of international investors. Once an economic laggard, Brazil became the B in the BRICS acronym for the world’s most promising emerging economies. Millions were lifted out of poverty.

But the sheen began to wear off under Rousseff as growth, which peaked at 7.5% in 2010, fizzled out. In 2013 a million angry Brazilians took to the streets to demand better government services and an end to endemic corruption. And then this year the country stumbled into recession, contracting by 0.6% from April to June, after a 0.2% drop in the first three months of the year. Yet no candidate seemed able to harness the feeling of disillusionment in the race against Rousseff. Many low-income Brazilians remembered how much poorer they had been before ­Lula and the Workers’ Party came to power, and Rousseff seemed secure in her lead.

Silva, a onetime Workers’ Party member and former Environment Minister under Lula, changed that. Once in the running, she tripled the 9% that Campos had been polling before his death. Soon, she and Rousseff each had a third of the vote, pointing to a likely runoff to be held on Oct. 26—with Silva polling ahead in the second-round vote. It was an electoral sensation that has kept Brazil gripped.

“Sometimes things happen that are beyond normal political reality,” says Fernando Abrucio, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Silva has something of the popular appeal of Lula, a former metalworker and union leader, he adds. “Many electors who voted for Lula [will] vote for Marina.”

A Silva win would be remarkable for Brazil. Despite the economic advances of the past decade, it is still a desperately unequal country largely controlled by a white elite. Silva, who learned to read at 16 and once worked as a maid, is an evangelical Christian—she converted from Catholicism in 2004—in a largely Catholic country. She would be Brazil’s first black, or Afro-Brazilian, female President.

Sitting in a Rio de Janeiro hotel room with her hair done up in her trademark bun, the 56-year-old says her ultimate ambitions are not for herself but for her country. “My objective is not to be President of Brazil. My objective is to contribute so that Brazil can be better, that the world can be better,” she tells Time in an interview. She proposes a radical overhaul—a “third way” combining social reforms with liberal economic policies—to get the world’s fifth most populous nation back on track.

“The most important thing now is to elect a government that can give a clear signal that it will establish the fundamentals of our economy,” she says. What that means is spelled out in her election program: autonomy for Brazil’s central bank, a floating exchange rate and measures to tame inflation, which currently stands at 6.62% in annual terms. Her party may be called Socialist, but her market-friendly proposals have won over São Paulo’s stock market. “She’s publicly come out with a set of policy proposals which match what most people in the market believe the Brazilian government should do to adjust the economy,” says Tony Volpon, an analyst at Nomura Securities in New York City.

The policies have their roots in Campos’ election agenda and stand in stark contrast to Rousseff’s more interventionist approach on the economy. They also pose a risk, with many Brazilians opposed to lessening the state’s influence on the economy. “She has won credibility with the market even as she has lost a lot of votes with the electorate,” says Volpon.

But Silva also emphasizes the importance of improving public services. She says she will raise education spending to 10% of GDP by 2019, compared with 5.6% under Rousseff. “What’s important for Brazil is to have a project that values the respect for diversity, and that can unite Brazil in all that is in fact of interest—social justice, democracy, respect for freedom of expression,” she says, “so that this country can be economically prosperous, socially just, environmentally sustainable, culturally diverse.”

Traumatic Beginnings

Aug. 13 started out as a sleepy news day in Brazil. An item about a small plane that had crashed in the town of Santos on the São Paulo coast raised little more than a crackle on Twitter. Then the news broke—this was the campaign jet of Eduardo Campos. He and six others had been killed.

It soon became clear that Campos’ VP candidate, Silva, would take his place and transform the election. The blue-eyed Campos, who was a 49-year-old father of five when he died, was born into a patrician family with solid socialist credentials. His grandfather Miguel Arraes was a three-time governor of Campos’ native state of Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil. As governor of Pernambuco himself from 2007 to April 2014, Campos built roads and housing blocks for favela residents, and created a network of technical schools.

Though Campos was running well behind Rousseff, he was canonized by his death. Some 130,000 people attended his funeral, with many waiting hours simply to touch his coffin. A clearly shocked and moved Silva was visible throughout the service, standing beside Campos’ widow Renata. Days later, Silva confirmed her candidacy. “It was a traumatic moment, excessively traumatic for all of us,” she says.

Silva was no stranger to such trauma. Born Maria Osmarina Marina Silva Vaz de Lima on Feb. 8, 1958, her original dream was to become a nun. On leaving the Amazon at 16, she spent two years as a pre-novitiate and worked as a volunteer in Catholic communities in Rio Branco, capital of the remote Amazon state of Acre, where she grew up. It was here that Silva’s life was changed when she met Chico Mendes, the charismatic rubber tappers’ union leader, eventually becoming his colleague in the nascent Workers’ Party. Mendes was murdered in 1988, after facing threats from landowners who objected to his anti-logging efforts. Silva felt obliged to carry on his work. When Campos died, it was as if history were repeating itself. “I saw myself again facing an even heavier burden, with less than two months to do a campaign,” she says.

In the years after Mendes’ death, Silva threw herself into politics, at 36 becoming Brazil’s youngest-ever Senator in 1995. Lula, who had helped found the Workers’ Party in the early ’80s, brought her into government in 2003, appointing her Environment Minister at a time when deforestation in the Amazon was rising. The peak came in 2004, when 27,772 sq km of the Amazon were cleared—an area almost the size of Belgium. By the time Silva stepped down in 2008, the figure had fallen by more than half, thanks to her efforts to involve 14 different ministries in the fight against deforestation.

She resigned from Lula’s government after losing a series of battles over the development of the Amazon and the approval of new hydroelectric dams. In 2010, after two years in the Brazilian Senate, she ran as the Green Party’s presidential candidate, ­securing 19% of the vote. Electoral rules foiled her attempt to start her own party in time for this year’s election, and in October 2013 she became Campos’ deputy. Silva says she identified with his program, even thought polls last year showed she was more popular. “We spent 10 months constructing an alliance … And suddenly he was scythed down by an accident,” she says.

The Pharaoh’s Army

Internationally, a Silva win would mean a continuation of the “South-South” agenda pursued by Rousseff. Earlier this year, Brazil hosted a summit with Russia, India, China and South Africa—the other BRICS countries—where leaders laid the foundations for an alternative to the West-centric financial system that has dominated the world since the end of World War II. A new multilateral bank was announced, modeled on the World Bank, along with a bailout facility for troubled nations. “It is fundamental that the emerging countries can create an agenda of cooperation in the same way that developed and rich countries of the world do,” Silva says.

And what of Brazil’s ties with rich countries? Silva says she wants to improve relations with the European Union as well as the U.S. But that might be challenging—relations with Washington hit a low point in 2013 after news broke that the National Security Agency had spied on both Rousseff and the state oil firm Petrobras. Rousseff responded by canceling a state visit to Washington. Silva indicates that she would have done the same. “This created great discomfort in our diplomatic relations, but we have to work so that this mistake can be repaired,” she says.

Domestically, Silva plans to shake up not just how the economy is managed but also how Brazil is governed. There are proposals to reform the unwieldy tax system and to take on Brazil’s Orwellian bureaucracy. Silva proposes what she calls “high-intensity democracy,” with a pledge to give ordinary citizens a say by holding referendums and inviting them to voice their opinions via the Internet.

It’s a vision that may yet prove too radical for the Brazilian electorate, particularly among the lower-income voters who have gained the most under the Workers’ Party, and who make up Rousseff’s base. Around 36 million Brazilians have emerged from poverty since Lula, who is campaigning for Rousseff, became President in 2003. Many of them remain devoted to his party, even after his departure.

But the fact that the souring economy has created an opening for another candidate became apparent during the protests in June 2013. Why, many asked, was the government splurging over $10 billion on the football World Cup when poverty and inequality were rampant? Although there were no major disturbances during the contest, with the government imposing a heavy security net, some saw Brazil’s semifinal thrashing by Germany as a symbol of the wretched state of the country.

In Silva’s eyes, the 2013 protests show that Brazil has changed, with the Internet having created what she calls “a new political animal,” altering the relationship between Brazilians and their leaders. “They are authors, they are mobilizers, they are protagonists, they are people who do not want to be political spectators. They want to take on a political role, live, experience.”

To win, she’ll need the backing of these new political animals. And with the latest polls giving the President an edge, Rousseff is not giving up easily. Her Workers’ Party is a formidable political machine, and she has the government on her side. Still, the incumbent looks rattled, as demonstrated in the tenor of the fight as the campaigning draws to a close. One Rousseff TV spot on Silva’s proposals for an autonomous central bank shows a table of laughing bankers, then a family at dinner with the plates suddenly empty after the government hands its powers to the private sector. “Using a biblical metaphor, it is a Pharaoh’s army attacking us in the morning, at night and in the day,” Silva says. “This is the campaign.”

Whether or not her campaign succeeds, many Brazilians feel that Silva is a winner already—and for good reason. In 2008, when Silva traveled to London to receive an environmental award, she was interviewed by the BBC. “It was like I had gone inside the radio,” she says. The story of the girl from the Amazon who has shaken, and may yet unseat, the powerful Workers’ Party, will ensure that she is likely to be inside that radio for a long time to come.

 

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