South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Brazilian elections often produce the unexpected on the day but this presidential campaign looks like it might top them all. In the space of a month, President Dilma Rousseff has gone from shoe-in to fighting for her political life in the October poll.
What makes the election even more extraordinary in this conservative country is that the other frontrunner, like the president, is a woman. Both candidates have overcome adversity. Ms Rousseff was tortured as a political prisoner under the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Her rival is Marina Silva. Illiterate until the age 16, she then rose from poverty through civic activism to the post of environment minister under Ms Rousseff’s predecessor.
The two served together in the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, the great symbol of the Workers’ party. But, although both are nominally leftwing, there are big differences in policy and style, accentuated by a mutual personal disdain.
After more than a decade in power, the Workers’ party is an entrenched force in the bureaucracy. Ms Silva, by contrast, has the attraction of the radical outsider, just as Mr Lula da Silva once did. Her sudden rise would not have been possible without tragedy. She started the campaign on the ticket of Eduardo Campos, the Socialist presidential candidate. But last month Campos was killed when his jet crashed in bad weather. He had a reputation as a man of the future yet it was clear before he died that, even with Ms Silva on his ticket, he could not rise above 12 per cent in the polls.
Once Ms Silva announced she would be the Socialist candidate, however, she overtook Ms Rousseff, her ratings soaring almost overnight to 38 per cent. The campaign has since been on fire. Ms Rousseff has moved ahead again but if, as seems likely, it goes into a second round, Ms Silva is in front.
Silva is an unusually honest politician. She has struck a chord with her criticism of old-style party politics in which corruption has flourished
So what is there to choose between them? Ms Silva may be leading the Socialists’ campaign but her supporters come from a wide ideological spectrum. They include young radicals who took part in recent demonstrations, which targeted Ms Rousseff’s government and poor public services in general. But she also attracts the support of the influential evangelical Christian movement to which she belongs. This group is conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. So Ms Silva’s supporters make for an uneasy alliance.
However, Ms Silva is an unusually honest politician. She has struck a deep chord with her criticism of old-style party politics in which corruption has flourished. Now, business and some big banks are swinging behind her. This highlights the challenge for the incumbent. The economy went into recession this year; while inflation, the bogey man of old, began edging beyond the government’s target of 6 per cent.
In addition, Ms Rousseff and her party are having to work hard to avoid the fallout from a looming corruption scandal involving Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest, most prestigious oil company. They are fighting for their political lives so are portraying Ms Silva as an inexperienced and dangerous radical.
Certainly, she will face a challenge managing Congress. But she has decades of political experience up to ministerial level. Ironically, the Workers’ party is levelling the very accusations against her that Mr Lula da Silva faced from the right when he sought to break the mould of Brazilian politics.
The Workers’ party is paying the price for corruption and complacency. The proud legacy of Mr Lula da Silva, during whose time in office 40m citizens were raised out of poverty, will remain. But the government and economy today look tired. Ms Silva’s ascendancy, if it comes, will be every bit as dramatic as when Mr Lula da Silva defied hysterical scare stories to inaugurate an era of confidence in Brazil.
The writer’s latest book ‘Nemesis: The Battle for Rio’s Soul’ will be published next year