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If Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva is an actress, she is a good one.
In a moving speech last week in Fortaleza in Brazil’s poor northeast, the former senator and environmentalist hit back at suggestions from the campaign of incumbent president Dilma Rousseff that she would abolish bolsa família, the country’s monthly stipend for poor families.
She told the election rally how, as a child, she had asked her parents why they sometimes did not eat with the kids. Her mother had responded that they were not hungry, she said while choking up. She later realised her parents often went days without eating.
“Whoever has lived through that experience would never abolish bolsa família,” she said in the speech, which has been turned into an electoral advertisement.
The performance was Ms Silva at her best – sincere, humble yet powerful – in an electoral race that has become as much about the different styles of the three main candidates, who also include Aécio Neves of the centre-right Social Democratic PSDB party, as their policies.
“This is the most interesting election that Brazil has seen since 1989,” said Carlos Melo, professor at Insper business school in São Paulo, about the October poll. No election since then had been so close, he said. “Dilma will need to try to show that Marina lacks the conditions to govern.”
A former bureaucrat with the ruling Workers’ party or PT who has a reputation for growling at her ministers, Ms Rousseff was initially soft on her main opponent out of respect for the late Eduardo Campos, Ms Silva’s former running mate whose death in a plane crash last month catapulted her into the candidacy of the Brazilian Socialist party.
But then Ms Rousseff launched a series of well-funded ads aimed at scaring low-income voters dependent on social welfare benefits. One said a Silva proposal for an independent central bank would impoverish Brazilian households as usurious bankers used the opportunity to gratuitously increase interest rates.
The negative campaign initially worked, halting Ms Silva’s rapid surge after the plane crash, when she gained a nine percentage point lead over the president in a second round runoff.
In recent days, however, polls show Ms Rousseff’s comeback beginning to stall, with support for her slipping to 40 per cent in a second round run-off from 42 per cent previously, against Ms Silva’s steady 43 per cent, according to research firm Ibope.
Perhaps for this reason, the PT campaign has turned more positive again, emphasising Ms Rousseff’s claimed social achievements. “The results are there, 22m people left extreme poverty just during my government,” she says in her latest ad.
On the campaign trail, Ms Rousseff, a cancer survivor, appears fit and mingles with the crowds. On her website, admirers can send in a “Rousselfie” – selfie pictures they have taken with the president.
Ms Silva’s campaign slogan, meanwhile, is “Let’s not give up on Brazil”. Her site includes a page devoted to debunking “rumours” about her, such as that as an environmentalist she is against state-oil company Petrobras or that as an evangelical she wants to have creationism taught in state schools.
Her campaign appearances tend to be smaller scale and more impromptu than those of the highly organised PT. In a recent appearance, she joined on a stage in Rio de Janeiro great Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, who sang a song specially written for her.
This is the most interesting election that Brazil has seen since 1989. Dilma will need to try to show that Marina lacks the conditions to govern
- Carlos Melo, Insper business school
An online interview with Facebook users followed, in which she said she personally makes 90 per cent of her own necklaces and developed the beetroot essence she uses as lipstick. She advocates a return to orthodox economics coupled with social benefits and wants to assemble a government that bridges party differences.
But as a survivor of malaria, hepatitis and mercury poisoning, she can often appear fragile in public. During one recent rally, aides looked alarmed when an admirer grabbed her in a half bear hug to take a selfie with her. She can be brittle in press conferences, especially when she feels the media has misrepresented her viewpoints.
The most energetic candidate is the youngest of the three, Mr Neves, who often appears with an open-collared shirt pressing the flesh with the crowds. He emphasises his background as the grandson of Tancredo Neves, Brazil’s first president to be elected after the dictatorship ended. He also plays on his record as governor of Minas Gerais, an important Brazilian state.
His proposals include introducing heavier criminal penalties for youths between 16 and 18 years old, a return to orthodox economic policy, new trade agreements and tax reform, among others.
All in all, however, he is struggling to win over a public bored with the traditional polarisation between his more pro-business party and the populism of Ms Rousseff’s PT, says Insper’s Mr Melo. At this stage, Ms Silva is capturing the mood for change.
“I think Marina is trying to create a synthesis of these two standpoints, allow more liberal market economics, without letting go of an active state on social questions,” he said.
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