Why you should care

Brazil’s democracy has tossed up a breathtaking presidential race. An environmentalist — and evangelist — could come to power.

She seems like the perfect candidate. Maybe that’s why so many Brazilians are worried.

In two weeks, Brazilians will head to the polls in what may turn out to be one of Brazil’s most historic elections. Since former President Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party swept into office in 2002 on a platform of poverty reduction, the country cleaved between pro-Lula and anti-Lula forces, the electoral map starkly split between blue and red.

Now there’s a third way: presidential candidate Marina Silva. And she could win. If elected she’d be Brazil’s first mixed-race president, the first Amazonian president, Brazil’s first environmentalist president. Actually, the world’s first environmentalist president.

When she opens her mouth to speak, Silva becomes a lion, sometimes shaking with passion.

Silva has a peculiar charisma. She has a soft, almost childlike voice, and her hair is usually pulled back in a severe bun. When she enters a room, Silva looks down, barely looking up to wave — an embodiment of humility — and she wears monotone clothes, necklaces made from seeds and, often, a shawl, for she chills easily. Her opponents call her frail and question whether she has the heft to lead Brazil.

But when she opens her mouth to speak, Silva becomes a lion, sometimes shaking with passion before enraptured supporters.

Brazilian women politicians debate behind a podium

Presidential candidate Marina Silva before a TV debate.

Recent polling puts her at 29 percent, behind current president and Lula torch carrier Dilma Rousseff at 38 percent, but ahead of Aecio Neves, the anti-Lula/Dilma, pro-business conservative candidate at 19 percent. If those tallies carry through to the vote on Oct. 5, no candidate would receive a majority, forcing a runoff. In that case, polls suggest a squeaker, with Rousseff and Silva both at 41 percent.

Not bad for the accidental candidate, who rose from the ashes this political season when she took the spot of the Socialist Party’s candidate, Eduardo Campos, who was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 13. Of course, she was already well-known to Brazilians, polling 19 percent in the 2010 presidential election and serving as environment minister under Lula. So who’s afraid of Marina Silva? A lot of people, it turns out.

The Rural Lobby

Silva’s been the enemy of the extraordinarily powerful rural lobby for decades. She and her fellow environmentalists believe the ruralistas’ defense of ranchers and agro-industry has caused most of the environmental destruction in Brazil, and they haven’t kept that view a secret. President Rousseff, by contrast, has walked a fine line between the ruralistas and the environmentalists — by, for example, passing an executive order that curtailed parts of the new Forest Code while allowing the law to go forward. Silva, the staunch environmentalist, would not be so inclined to walk the line, and many ruralistas foresee years of tooth-and-nail fighting under her watch. In the words of former Minister of Agriculture Roberto Rodrigues, “Agribusiness is afraid of Marina.”

The Most Socially Liberal Voters

Silva’s not a social liberal. She ducked controversial issues like legalization of marijuana and abortion in a recent presidential debate, saying the public should decide, though she’s personally against the legalization of abortion. And she changed her mind on gay marriage, which is legally unresolved in Brazil, first for and now against, but in favor of “civil unions.” But then, one could argue that Rousseff and Neves aren’t any more socially liberal than Silva.

Anti-Evangelicals (or Secularists)

Evangelical Christians make up 22 percent of the Brazilian population, and their political power is on the rise. In 2010, Silva, an evangelical, was perceived as the “candidate of God,” and that religious cast has stuck with her, for better and for worse. Many Brazilians distrust the rise of the evangelical church’s power, symbolized by the construction of a massive temple in São Paulo. Although Silva has said she is “committed to a secular state,” and even though she hasn’t joined the evangelical voting bloc, she still makes some of those voters squeamish.

Lula Lovers

It’s hard to overstate the emotional connection Lula had with many Brazilians. He led an anti-poverty campaign and swore to get Brazil out of the “third world,” and by most measures, he succeeded. After 12 years, Lula and Dilma’s party, the PT, has enormous symbolic resonance and political power. While Silva would likely keep some of their policies in place, such as the hugely popular Bolsa Familia family assistance program, a Silva presidency would signify an end to the decade-long PT reign and the Lula era. Some Brazilians would have a hard time letting go.

A middle aged Brazilian woman politician is escorted through a crowd of supporters

Marina Silva and Rodrigo Rollemberg, the Distrito Federal’s candidate for governor

The Establishment

In many ways, a Silva vote is a protest vote. For years, Silva has spoken out against the corruption and lack of transparency of the Brazilian government. She’s seen as a kind of rabble-rouser and a “symbol of the antiestablishment sentiment that has roiled Brazil,” always retaining strong support among students and educated young people. Polls show that the percentage of voters who intend to cast a null vote — essentially an intentionally spoiled protest ballot — dropped dramatically once Silva entered the race following Campos’ death. She is now running on a platform of what she calls “new politics.” Another challenge to the status quo: Silva would be the first mixed-race president in Brazil, where white people hold most of the power but most of the population is black or of mixed race.

Silva, 56, is a complicated figure. Raised by Amazonian rubber tappers, she couldn’t read until she was 16. She once hoped to be a nun, worked as a maid to put herself through college and eventually became part of the inner circle of the iconic anti-deforestation fighter Chico Mendes; he was assassinated in 1988. Her environmental cred was solidified during her term as minister of the environment under Lula’s presidency, when she was a PT member. She’s called for an end to illegal deforestation and prioritizing sustainable development over aggressive resource extraction.

But Silva’s not the stereotypical leftist, green fighter of the imagination. There is her social conservatism, of course, and while she supports federal social assistance, she also advocates for free-market and free-trade policies and the creation of a U.S.-like independent central bank.

So while Silva may seem to be the moderate option between two poles in the election, in fact, it’s far more complicated. The race in Brazil is still up for grabs, with Rousseff gaining ground, perhaps because many people within Brazil really do fear a Silva presidency.

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