BRASILIA: Brazil’s presidential race is rapidly shifting gears with a surge in support for environmentalist Marina Silva sending a threatened Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent, into attack mode.
With a month to go until the election, the ground has abruptly shifted under Rousseff — who had been the overwhelming favorite to win — since the August 13 death of Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash.
Campos’ death catapulted his running mate, Silva, into the race and suddenly Rousseff is faced with a fresh contender. Opinion polls show Silva would defeat Rousseff in a run-off by 10 points.
The first round of the elections are on October 5, with a run-off likely on October 26.
On Monday night, in the contest’s second televised debate, Rousseff went for the jugular, calling into question Silva’s ability to pay for her myriad campaign promises.
If she can regain the initiative and win, Rousseff could give the Workers Party (PT) a fourth straight poll triumph — she succeeded popular two-term president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2011.
Lula on Tuesday offered Twitter backing for Rousseff, opening a new account, @LulapeloBrasil (Lula for Brazil).
“On October 5, reason will prevail,” Lula predicted.
“If we want what is good for this country, for it to remain productive and generating jobs, then we must choose Dilma.”
Silva, born into a family of poor rubber tappers, served as environment minister for five years under Lula.
Having last year failed to gain enough signatures to stand as the candidate of her “sustainability network,” Silva threw in her lot with the Socialist Party (PSB), and since taking the torch from Campos has raced to parity in voter intentions.
“Today, Marina is making the news in the election and is very competitive. In two weeks, everything changed. A month hence, anything can happen,” political analyst Andre Cesar of the Prospectiva consultancy told AFP.
Cesar said a stung Rousseff had changed tack in Monday’s televised debate.
“She is going to go on the offensive… as that is the only way to defeat Silva — though it could boomerang,” he noted, as Rousseff’s administration battles an economic recession her rivals largely blame on her government.
Rousseff used the debate to ask Silva how she would fund a raft of policies — the latter notably wants to invest 10 percent of GDP in education and also boost health spending. In all, Silva has unveiled a mammoth $60 billion of policy commitments.
Whereas Silva at the weekend rowed back on support for gay marriage — the evangelical Christian has since reiterated her backing for civil unions — Rousseff on Monday underlined her unequivocal support for the former, while criminalizing homophobic behavior.
“Rousseff is going to look for areas where Marina could have problems,” said Cesar.
Those include “economic policy, her relations as an ecologist with agro business” — a powerful sector with which Silva’s running mate Beto Albuquerque has strong links.
Silva, who stood for the Green Party in 2010 and came third with a respectable 20 percent vote share, was one of the few politicians not to see her image take a hit during the mass demonstrations of June last year.
An electorate demanding more investment in health, education and transport in particular is generally fed up with politicians and parties of all stripes.
Silva is gaining ground in the southeast, where Sao Paulo and Rio are located and which were major centers of protest last year.
Silva is “the alternative” many are willing to take a chance on, said Cesar.
But Rousseff retains support in the poorer northeast, which has gained from her party’s social welfare programs — also a major reason for Lula’s success.
“The most recent polls show the ‘Marina phenomenon’ is not just in reaction to the death of Campos but that she is here to stay,” said US-born analyst David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia.
“If Marina keeps on gaining ground at Rousseff’s expense, she could win in the first round.”
But, analysts say, social democrat Aecio Neves could also have a say.
Neves, trailing both women in third place, is taking a more conciliatory tack as he positions himself for a potential post-vote alliance.
“Neves will have to measure carefully his attacks on Marina given that he could be an ally to help her win the run-off,” said Fleischer.