Can Marina Silva shock the status quo?

THAT’S THE TICKET: Vice presidential candidate Beto Albuquerque kisses the hand of running-mate Marina Silva, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party.
THAT’S THE TICKET: Vice presidential candidate Beto Albuquerque kisses the hand of running-mate Marina Silva, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party. AFP/Getty Images

A few months ago, incumbent president Dilma Rousseff appeared to be coasting toward reelection despite a flagging economy. However, in August, political maverick Marina Silva was thrust into the spotlight of Brazil’s presidential campaign after the death of her running mate. Pledging to reform the country’s dysfunctional politics and jumpstart the economy with free-market reforms, Silva has surged to a tie with Rousseff in recent polls.

As a result, Rousseff is not expected to win a majority of the vote on October 5 and faces a serious challenge from Silva in the runoff on October 26.

Silva’s humble background and fierce independence have attracted voters who have seen their economy slip into a recession under statist policies that are driving up deficits and drying up jobs. It remains to be seen if Silva can convince enough voters that she can shake up the status quo and deliver practical reforms needed to restore growth.

Since assuming the nomination of the Socialist Party (PSB) alliance, Silva has tried to stake out a middle ground, pledging to “maintain the (center-right party’s) economic conquests and the (Workers’ Party’s) social conquests.” Her platform combines free-market and free-trade policies with continued support for social programs.

In their first debate last month, Rousseff challenged Silva to explain how she will pay for new social spending while maintaining fiscal discipline. Silva has asserted that her reforms will improve government services, cut waste, and boost economic growth.

Silva is challenging the traditional power structure and promising a “new politics.” Her cause was aided by revelations this month of yet another scandal involving political payoffs by the state-run oil company Petrobras. The prestigious magazine, Veja, recently disclosed testimony by Robert Costa, a former Petrobras executive convicted of money laundering, implicating Rousseff’s energy minister, Edison Lobão, key congressional leaders, and dozens of other political allies in a scheme to trade political favors for kickbacks derived from oil company contracts.

Silva has used the Petrobras scandal to make her case for a political shake-up, saying Rousseff either knew about the payoffs or failed to manage her team.

If Silva were to win a surprise victory, she would have a mandate to liberalize the Brazilian economy, expand trade with the United States and Europe, and reform traditional politics. Last year, south Florida did over $20 billion in two-way trade with Brazil — a number that will likely increase if that South American giant can pull itself out of recession.

However, Silva’s critics have questioned her ability to coalesce Brazil’s fractious political model — in light of her relative inexperience and rejection of political deals. Rousseff’s mentor, popular former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, has bluntly urged voters to distrust “those who support anti-politics.”

Silva would have to negotiate her program with legislators from more than 22 parties who respond more to deal-making than political vision. Although Silva is the candidate of the Socialist Party alliance, she cannot count on the PSB bloc in Congress to support her free-market policies. So, her administration will have to work with recognized power brokers who know how to cobble together ad hoc coalitions. One asset available to Silva is the experience of her running mate, Luiz Roberto de Albuquerque, a four-term congressman who understands how to navigate the legislative process.

Polls taken immediately after Silva’s candidacy was formalized in late August showed her surging to within a few points of Rousseff in the first round and beating the incumbent easily in a runoff. As expected, more recent polls show Rousseff recovering ground, pulling even with Silva in a second round.

Even after the Silva surge, the conventional wisdom in Brazil has been that the powers of the incumbency and the PT’s superior political machine would save Rousseff on election day. However, Silva has held her ground in the polls and used the Petrobras scandal to counterpunch.

The election in Brazil has become a choice between “more of the same” and a spirited challenge of “politics as usual.” Marina Silva has only a few more weeks to convince 140 million Brazilian voters that she can renew growth, unlock the country’s productivity and wealth, and clean up corruption and mismanagement.

Roger F. Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005, and is a visiting fellow at theAmerican Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S. andforeign clients.