Brazil's Insurgent Candidate Blows Smoke

Brazil's Marina Silva was supposed to shake up its presidential race, not dispense bromides and evasions.
Brazil's presidential candidates, distinct and the same.

With seven candidates on stage, and a month to go before Brazil's Oct. 5 presidential election, the first nationally broadcast debate of the race last night got the billings of a telenovela. It ended up more like a network rerun.

This was Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva's chance to meet her rivals in the race for the Planalto Palace and to spin for a national audience her much touted vision for a "third way" in Brazilian politics.

Thrust into the lights when Socialist Party leader Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash on Aug. 13, she seemed poised to claim the 77 percent of voters who told a major polltaker, the National Transportation Council, that they are dissatisfied with Brazilian politics. After 2 1/2 hours of combat and sound bites, however, the many bewildered and disillusioned voters were likely none the wiser.

QuickTake Brazil's Highs and Lows

Expectations couldn't have been higher. A poll released hours before the debate showed the 56-year-old former rubber tapper polling 29 percent to President Dilma Rousseff's 34 percent, and well ahead of Social Democratic Party hopeful Aecio Neves, with 19 percent. That result would set up a second round of balloting, where Silva is projected to trump Rousseff, 45 to 36 percent. The turnabout has goosed the stock market, which jumps every time Rousseff's prospects slip, and sent the campaign spin machine into a ditch.

Throughout the debate, Silva dangled a fetching-sounding, ecumenical path through a country torn between Big Government enthusiasts and market-friendly reformers. Just what that middle way would look like remains a mystery. "Silva is the charismatic, anti-politician, a familiar but hard to quantify figure in Brazil," political scientist Fernando Schuler told me this week. "Will her government be a bunch of pressure groups? Will she fight with agribusiness? Will she meddle in the economy? No one knows."

Billed as the candidate of healing and hope, Silva spent the entire debate behind a frown and a wall of stock phrases. She faulted the Rousseff administration on the gap between its "colorful, almost cinematic vision" of Brazil and the hardscrabble reality of "the povo," the common folk. Her fellow challenger, Neves, said it better: "The Brazilian dream today is to live the life of the PT's propaganda."

Questioned about her plan for a government of "political unity," she reached for soccer metaphors, promising to "call qualified people who have been relegated to the bench." To fix Brazil's loss-making pension system, Silva deflected, hinting only at "a correction." What about those big ranchers and farmers, who became her blood enemies when she was Environment Minister? Silva promised to hold them to the law not the fire.

Nor was she clear on how her agenda would differ from that of the ruling party. In June, when Rousseff issued a decree in favor of "direct democracy" to impose semi-Cuban style "popular councils," for instance, Silva applauded, then backpedaled when Congress rebelled. Nothing she said during the debate clarified her stance.

Silva's flip-flops and sidestepping on the campaign trail have drawn scrutiny and parody. "Marina Silva breaks ranks with Marina Silva," read one send-up. This is only politics as usual, but unbecoming for the herald of the new. In Brazil's fractious electoral scene -- 22 parties in the national legislature -- campaigns are carpentry, each candidate cobbling together a jumble of acronyms, where opportunism trumps ideology. Silva sits astride a six-party block, led by the Socialists, but built as much on resentments and competing appetites as on ideas. To lead the ticket and win chary voters, she will have to find her own middle way.

Twelve years ago, with debt spiking and Brazil's tender economic stability at risk, former union man Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva trimmed his beard, donned suits, and tacked to the center to convince middle-class Brazilians that he was no longer a two-fisted radical. He spelled out the new Lula in a "Letter to the Brazilian People." After last night, we still don't know what Silva's letter would say.

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