Forty years ago, Marina Silva was a maid washing dishes in the jungle city of Rio Branco. Today, she is a presidential contender, counting on her personal history to appeal to poorer Brazilians even as she adopts economic positions friendly to business leaders and investors.
Silva’s entry into the contest as a replacement for Eduardo Campos after he died in a plane crash has upended the race, with polls showing her attracting previously undecided voters. To win, she needs to do more: siphon support from President Dilma Rousseff among the poor, who have benefited from 12 years of social welfare under the ruling Workers’ Party.
Silva’s pledges to slow inflation, grant central bank autonomy and undo fiscal policies that led to a sovereign credit downgrade target a different audience: supporters of Senator Aecio Neves, who appeals mostly to more affluent Brazilians. Her personal background positions her to meld this economic-growth agenda with an appeal to poorer voters, said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at research company Tendencias Consultoria Integrada.
“She’s an alternative to the two poles that dominated Brazilian politics for the past decades,” he said. “She has real chance of winning.”
Voters surveyed by Datafolha who said they were undecided or would cancel their ballot fell by 10 percentage points to 17 percent from July to August, the first poll to include Silva. The coalition led by Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party, or PSB, selected her as its candidate Aug. 20.
Silva, 56, is statistically tied in second place with Neves with 21 percent and 20 percent support respectively while trailing Rousseff by 15 percentage points ahead of the Oct. 5 election, according to the Aug. 14-15 survey that has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.
Forty-three percent of respondents who earn no more than 1,448 reais ($636) a month, or two minimum wages, support Rousseff, according to the poll. That compares to 18 percent for Silva and 14 percent for Neves. The incumbent has only 18 percent backing among the wealthiest income group, which earns more than 7,240 reais a month, compared to 27 percent for Silva and 38 percent for Neves.
Silva started the race last week by criticizing the government’s handling of the economy, telling reporters in her first news conference as candidate Aug. 20 that surging consumer prices are undermining Rousseff’s efforts to reduce inequality.
The PSB candidate plans to slow inflation by more than half to 3 percent during her four-year term if elected in October, Maria Alice Setubal, an aide responsible for drafting her platform, said in an interview Aug. 22. Silva would shoot for the official 4.5 percent inflation target from the start and support central bank autonomy to set its policies, Setubal said.
“These are good signs: her message to the market is positive,” Jankiel Santos, chief economist at Banco Espirito Santo de Investimento in Sao Paulo, said by telephone about Silva.
The Brazilian central bank isn’t independent by law and the president has authority to fire its chief. Rousseff’s party leader, Rui Falcao, said in a May interview that the central bank has operational autonomy and that elected officials should have the final say in determining monetary policy.
Neves, 54, said in May that a law granting the central bank autonomy wasn’t necessary because he would, if elected, ensure independence to the board members.
The Ibovespa index, which has declined 16 percent since Rousseff entered office, rose for four straight days after the Datafolha poll was published Aug. 18. It was the first poll this year to show the incumbent wouldn’t have the majority of votes needed to avoid an Oct. 26 runoff.
Brazil’s economy is slowing as inflation that has exceeded target throughout Rousseff’s term causes business and consumer confidence to erode.
Analysts surveyed by the central bank have cut their 2014 growth forecast for 13 straight weeks, to 0.7 percent. That would be the weakest performance since the economy contracted in 2009. They forecast the inflation rate will end 2014 at 6.27 percent, the fifth straight year above the official target.
“I’m not one to cheer for the worst -- I hope inflation won’t be as hard as the market expects, but the government should do something,” Silva told journalists Aug. 20. “We just cannot lose the patrimony that we built of controlled inflation. Unfortunately President Rousseff will be the first president to deliver a Brazil in worse shape than she got it.”
Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in June pledged to gradually rein in public spending as part of a policy to slow Brazil’s inflation to target within three years. He says he will expand and increase the efficiency of welfare programs such as the cash transfer initiative Bolsa Familia, which was created by the Workers’ Party.
The president says her government has consumer prices under control and that inflation will slow this year. On the day Silva’s adviser Setubal spoke, Rousseff, 66, said policies to lower the inflation target would put at risk the kinds of initiatives that have lifted 36 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty during her party’s rule.
“Someone who tells you ‘I’m going to reduce the inflation target’ will have to cut social programs the next day,” the president told journalists in Rio Grande do Sul state.
Rousseff and Silva have clashed before. As environment minister under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Silva sought tighter regulations for large infrastructure projects spearheaded by then chief of staff Rousseff.
While Rousseff wanted to speed up the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, Silva said the environmental destruction it caused wasn’t worth the energy it generated. Silva eventually quit Lula’s government and ran against Rousseff for president in 2010 on the Green Party ticket, placing third with 19 percent of the vote.
Silva’s popularity increased last year when more than 1 million Brazilians took to the streets to protest against government corruption, the rising cost of living, slower growth and government spending decisions, according to Tendencias’s Cortez. As a political outsider, she gained the protest vote, he said.
Silva spent her childhood tapping rubber trees in the Amazon rain forest before working as a maid in Rio Branco. She says she started to learn to read at age 16 and a decade later graduated with an undergraduate degree in history. She entered politics fighting deforestation in the Amazon alongside the legendary conservationist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988.
“Marina Silva is a formidable candidate,” Nicholas Spiro, managing director at Spiro Sovereign Strategy, a London-based investment consulting firm, said by telephone. “Rousseff can’t taint her with the neo-liberal brush. She had a dirt poor childhood and she appeals to the Workers’ Party electorate.”