Marina Silva: The Amazonian candidate who would be Brazil's next president

The death of her running mate in a plane crash has thrust the woman born on a rubber plantation into the spotlight. But what does she need to do to claim her country's top job?

Brasilia

She was born on a rubber plantation and could not read until she was a teenager, but Marina Silva has become the greatest threat to Dilma Rousseff’s hopes of winning a second term as President of Brazil.

Ms Silva, 56, officially launched her bid on Wednesday, upending  the elections in October and threatening the ruling Workers’ Party’s 12-year hold on power. Until now a vice-presidential candidate for the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB in Portuguese), she accepted its nomination to top the ticket after Eduardo Campos, a former governor and rising political star, was killed in a plane crash last week.

Ms Silva pledged to build a more prosperous Brazil and slammed the performance of Ms Rousseff, who has overseen four years of lacklustre growth and high inflation in a previously booming economy. “We know that our country needs investments and they will come when there is a new government that has credibility among investors,” she told a news conference.

She reaffirmed her commitment to fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting and a floating exchange rate, the so-called “tripod” of economic policies that gave Brazil stability after a period of rampant inflation and erratic growth in the 1990s.

Viewed as an outsider with no links to traditional elites, Ms Silva is a former Environment Minister whose ironclad environmental and religious beliefs have prompted critics to call her inflexible, but supporters praise her as Brazil’s most principled politician. A rubber tapper in her youth who was illiterate until adolescence, she appeals mostly to young voters who have lost faith in Brazil’s political establishment.

But she is also embraced by the country’s large evangelical Christian community and has proven, in a 2010 bid for the presidency with the Green Party, to be an attractive candidate for independent voters seeking an alternative to the Workers’ Party and its main opposition, the business-friendly Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

Environmentalist Marina Silva's running mate Beto Albuquerque, of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) Environmentalist Marina Silva's running mate Beto Albuquerque, of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB)
An opinion poll on Monday showed Ms Silva, who has vowed to find common ground between her activist ideals and investor-friendly economic policies, tied in second place with the PSDB’s Aecio Neves for the 5 October election. But in a runoff, the poll suggests Ms Silva would take 47 per cent of votes compared with 43 per cent for Ms Rousseff. The President leads Mr Neves by a margin of 47 per cent to 39 per cent in a second-round vote.

A PSDB source told Reuters that to ensure Ms Rousseff was unseated, the party would back Ms Silva in a runoff if Mr Neves was eliminated.

Still, Ms Silva’s prospects could fade when the emotional impact of Mr Campos’s death subsides and the two much bigger parties begin heavy campaign spending.

A pioneer of Brazil’s environmental movement, Ms Silva entered politics to fight for Amazon conservation. Once a member of the Workers’ Party, which embraced environmental causes before assuming a developmentalist tack when it came to power, she served as Environment Minister during the administration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Ms Rousseff’s predecessor.

As a minister Ms Silva clashed with other officials, including Ms Rousseff, over the licensing of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, ultimately leading her to resign. As a Workers’ Party opponent in 2010, she reaped a stronger-than-expected 19 per cent of the vote.

For this candidacy to succeed, Ms Silva must broaden her support base and draw funding from sectors of Brazilian society, particularly the business segment, that have long been wary of her views.

To overcome the suspicions of Brazil’s powerful agribusiness sector, which accounts for a quarter of the economy and 44 per cent of exports, the PSB picked as her running mate a farm-friendly congressman from Rio Grande do Sul. A decade ago Beto Albuquerque pushed through Congress – despite Ms Silva’s objections – legislation legalising the use of genetically modified soybeans.

If elected, Ms Silva’s economic advisers say her policies would be as business-friendly as those advocated by Mr Neves. Eduardo Giannetti da Fonseca, an economist and top adviser to Ms Silva since her 2010 presidential bid, has called her economic platform very similar to that of the centrist Mr Neves, with whom she is running neck and neck for second place.

Among other pledges, Ms Silva would ensure the autonomy of the central bank and streamline a government budget long criticised as wasteful by investors and the business community.

A clear sign that Ms Silva was now in charge of the PSB ticket was an announcement that campaign contributions would no longer be accepted from companies that made fertilisers, cigarettes, alcoholic drinks and guns.

“Everything you heard in the streets last year – empowering the people, ending corruption, trying a new kind of politics – that’s what she’s been saying for years,” said Eduardo Rombauer, a long-time political ally. “Everyone is talking about change and she is the person who symbolises that.”

Credibility: Winning the business vote

Marina Silva has little experience with economic policy, but her advisers promise a more orthodox, business-friendly approach than Dilma Rousseff has taken.

An adviser has said she will end the government’s price-control policy. The aim would be to bring relief to the federal budget and state-run companies. The government has effectively been subsidising petrol and electricity prices. The result has been heavy losses for the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, a crisis for the ethanol industry and costly bailouts for power utilities.

For decades Ms Silva, a former Environment Minister, has fought the deforestation fuelled by Brazil’s booming agriculture and logging industries.

However, her new vice-presidential running mate, Beto Albuquerque, represents farming interests, a sign of reconciliation between Ms Silva and agribusiness.

Reuters

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