AFRICANGLOBE – Six weeks ago, when she jumped into the presidential race, Marina Silva was hailed as a dynamic outsider who could shake up Brazil’s political status quo.
The Socialist Party candidate quickly shot to the top of polls with her unusual display of business-friendly policies, environmental activism and an inspiring tale of ascent from a family of illiterate Amazon rubber tappers.
But after leading President Dilma Rousseff by as many as 10 points in previous polls, Silva now trails the incumbent heading into Sunday’s first round of voting, opinion polls released on Tuesday show.
Meanwhile, her rival Aécio Neves, who had dismissed Silva as “a wave” that would quickly recede, is inching up on Silva.
Missteps by Silva seem to have cost her some supporters, including a perception that the observant Pentecostal retreated from backing gay marriage under pressure from evangelical ministers.
But analysts say the main reason for her dwindling poll numbers is a barrage of negative television advertising by rivals that Silva — who styles herself as a high-minded and unconventional politician — either can’t or won’t match.
“Most of it is due to some very vicious and aggressive attacks that Dilma has made on Marina Silva, with falsehoods and lies, to try to create a campaign of fear against Marina,” said David Fleischer, a political-science professor at the University of Brasília.
As an example, Fleischer cited Rousseff campaign advertisements suggesting that Silva would hand over central bank authority to the banking industry, which the ads say would raise interest rates and plunge Brazilians into unemployment and poverty.
Rousseff has rebuffed criticism that she has distorted Ms Silva’s positions. “Everything that I say about candidate Marina is in her programme,” she told Globo TV.
Analysts say Silva’s response to such criticisms has lacked force and clarity, and that she at times has resorted to complaining about the attacks rather than rebutting them.
Fleischer said the ads target Brazil’s new middle class, which is worried about losing financial gains made during 12 years of Workers’ Party rule under Rousseff and her popular predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
It still appears likely that Rousseff and Silva are headed for an October 26 runoff following Sunday’s first-round elections. Brazilian election law mandates a runoff of the top two finishers if no candidate garners more than half of the valid votes in the first round.
The latest surveys by polling firms Datafolha and Ibope show Rousseff holding a lead of between 4 and 8 percentage points over Silva in second-round voting.
The challenger is struggling to regain the enthusiasm she generated after rising to the top of her party’s ticket when her former running mate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in an August 13 plane crash. Silva enjoyed a burst of mostly sympathetic media exposure after the disaster.
“The electoral scenario normalised itself, or it could be Marina Silva turned into a normal candidate,” said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at the São Paulo-based Tendências consulting firm.
For now, the momentum belongs to Rousseff, whose ruling Workers’ Party, or PT, commands a large, loyal following among poor voters benefiting from government programmes. But Neves, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, also could profit. During a campaign stopover in São Paulo on Wednesday, the senator exuded confidence about his chances of closing the roughly five-point polling gap that separates him from Silva in Sunday’s contest.
He said that his economic program was resonating with voters, particularly his emphasis on combating Brazil’s creeping inflation rate. He said that Ms Silva lacks the experience needed to govern the country, as well as “a qualified team to tackle the complex challenges in the economy.”
“Brazil is not for amateurs,” said Neves, an economist and two-time governor of Minas Gerais state.
In addition, Silva’s fragile health – a consequence of her youthful battles with malaria, hepatitis and metal poisoning — has been taxed as the campaign wears on, said Cristiano Noronha, vice president of the political consultant group Arko Advice, based in Brasília.
“The debate on television the other night didn’t favour Marina,” Noronha said. “It was visible that she was tired.”
Silva faces other challenges in seizing back the initiative. Under Brazil’s unusual election laws, she currently is allotted just a fraction of the television advertising time enjoyed by Rousseff. During the second-round campaign, both candidates would receive equal amounts of air time. But that may come too late to help Silva close the gap.
Meanwhile, Neves says he will devote the next few days to siphoning voters in large metropolitan areas from Ms Silva in the hopes of securing his place in the second round. Mauro Paulino, director-general of the Datafolha polling firm, said that although Neves’ stock is rising, “I think that Marina still has more chances” to face Rousseff in a second round.
He said Sunday’s vote ultimately could hinge on such minor details as whether voters know the election-ballot numbers corresponding to candidates’ names. That could yet another twist to this topsy turvy campaign.
“This election,” Mr Paulino said, “is breaking paradigms.”