In the race to succeed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, only one candidate can match the former union leader’s up-by-the-bootstraps biography: his former Environmental Minister Marina Silva.
Silva, 52, who spent her childhood tapping rubber trees in the Amazon rain forest and worked as a maid before entering politics, had 10 percent backing in an Ibope poll published July 3. Lula’s former cabinet chief and chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, had the support of 39 percent, tied with opposition candidate Jose Serra, in the survey of 2,002 adults that had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Silva, who resigned from Lula’s cabinet in 2008 after losing environmental battles to business interests, may be drawing support away from both frontrunners, said David Fleischer, a political analyst at the University of Brasilia. She promises to maintain her former mentor’s poverty-fighting policies and programs for luring investment while ushering in an era of corruption-free politics and concern for the environment.
“What is right, in the past 16 years, both in economic policy and in social policy, we will keep,” Silva said in a phone interview from Sao Paulo ahead of meetings this week in New York with investors. “The mistakes we will correct, as we face new challenges, especially promoting sustainable growth.”
Silva said in an interview today that if elected she would improve upon Lula’s policies and leave her own “trademark.” By contrast Rousseff seeks simply to emulate the current president and Serra would stake out opposition positions just for the sake of being different than Lula, Silva said.
If support for her Green Party candidacy holds, Silva may push the Oct. 3 election for the next leader of Latin America’s largest economy into a second round, said Christopher Garman, the Eurasia Group’s director for Latin America. A candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Lula, who left school at age 11 to support his family and lost a pinky finger operating a machine press on an assembly line, is preparing to step down with a record approval rating of 85 percent, according to Ibope.
Silva says her campaign will benefit from new technologies to reach out to voters, such as the Internet and Twitter Inc.’s social networking site, following the example of President Barack Obama. Silva predicted today she would advance to the second round of voting.
All three candidates vow to maintain the decade-old economic pillars that won Brazil its first ever investment-grade rating in 2008: limiting the budget deficit, stemming inflation and allowing a free-floating exchange rate. Since Lula took office in 2003, the benchmark Bovespa index has surged five-fold while the real strengthened 99 percent against the U.S. dollar.
Silva, who joined Lula’s Workers Party in 1985 and was elected Brazil’s youngest-ever senator at the age of 36 in 1994, said she’s the best qualified to build on the president’s legacy for reducing poverty by 30 million people. A video on her campaign website touts their shared surname, which is common among poorer Brazilians. The two aren’t related.
Even while praising Lula as a politician, Silva is critical of some of his policies, especially those affecting the environment.
“The biggest risk we run today is complacency,” Silva told investors, including Citigroup Inc.’s former senior vice chairman William Rhodes, in New York today at an event sponsored by Sao Paulo’s BM&F Bovespa SA.
“The growth rhythm we are experiencing today reflects the effects of a cyclical recovery,” Silva said, adding that government spending cuts and other reforms are needed to achieve sustainable growth.
As environment minister, Silva fought for tighter controls on a 656 billion-real ($368.4 billion) infrastructure drive between 2007 and 2010 headed by Rousseff, said Claudio Langone, who worked alongside her at the environment ministry for four years.
Silva quit when Lula passed her over when seeking someone to head the government’s Amazon taskforce, Langone said. Silva entered politics fighting deforestation in the Amazon alongside Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988.
Among Silva’s targets in the campaign is the $11 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which would be the world’s third- biggest hydropower plant when it’s completed and would require the flooding of a Chicago-sized swathe of Amazon rainforest.
Only two groups, both led by units of state-controlled utility Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras in Rio de Janeiro, bid for the project in April after private-led consortiums dropped out. Brazil’s state development bank known as BNDES said in April it will finance as much as 80 percent of Belo Monte.
“If I were in the government, I would have suspended the auction,” said Silva, who in a blog posting wrote that she identifies with the lean, forest-dwelling humanoids depicted in Belo Monte opponent James Cameron’s sci-fi film “Avatar.”
While Silva, a born-again Christian who prays daily on the campaign trail, said she’ll show “zero tolerance” with the corruption practiced by Brazil’s two main political parties, she isn’t positioning herself as a protest vote against the status quo, according to Garman.
For her vice presidential running mate she chose Guilherme Leal, founder and former co-chairman of Cajamar-based Natura Cosmeticos SA, Brazil’s biggest cosmetics maker. Her main economic adviser is Eduardo Giannetti, who criticized excessive government spending and lack of policy coordination with the central bank in an interview last month with Rio de Janeiro’s O Globo newspaper.
Silva’s stable 10 percent polling level makes it difficult to know which candidate she will steal more votes from, or who she would support in an eventual second round, said University of Brasilia’s Fleischer.
“She has considerable problems with Dilma, because she was her main adversary in Lula’s cabinet,” said Fleischer. “Whether she would come around and support her in a second round we are not sure.”