A Game Changer in Brazil's 2014 Presidential Elections

10/11/2013 09:33 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Prevented by the Courts from running for Planalto, world-renowned environmentalist Marina Silva makes a surprising move to unseat Dilma Rousseff

Former senator Marina Silva's unexpected decision to join the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and position herself as running mate of governor Eduardo Campos of Pernambuco, president of the PSB, in next year's presidential race, has forced campaign strategists back to the drawing board. It is viewed in political circles as a potential game changer. President Dilma Rousseff's reelection next year is no longer seen as assured by seasoned campaign advisers and analysts. They say that a Campos-Marina ticket would be the first credible alternative to the Workers' Party (PT) of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Social Democratic Party (PSDB) of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, which have dominated national politics in Brazil for the past two decades. "Marinas's support for Campos inserts a wedge in the discredited PT-PSDB polarization," said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper, a private business school in São Paulo.

Both Rousseff and Senator Aécio Neves, the PSDB all-but-declared candidate, were taken by surprise by the announcement on Friday of the Marina-Campos alliance and acknowledged its potential impact by calling on advisers to reconsider their strategies for next year's presidential race, scheduled for October 2014.

"Bringing Marina to his tent was a masterful move on the part of Campos," said a campaign strategist who has done work for members of the current government coalition and for opposition candidates and asked not to be named because he is actively involved in the 2014 race. "They complement each other politically and geographically: Most of the 20 million votes she received in the first round in 2010 came from the more populous South and Southeast regions, especially in major urban centers, where her sustainability agenda has growing support." Campos is less known in both regions but brings solid support from a business community increasingly frustrated with Rousseff's statist orientation, poor managerial capacity and the disappointing economic performance of her government.

Sergio Fausto, the executive director of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Institute, said, "Marina Silva's decision has enormous political significance, in the sense that makes the removal the PT from power the strategic objective of the election." The former Workers' Party senator said that much in an interview on Saturday, accusing the government of operating in a "chavista style" to kill her plan to run for Planalto. The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was close to Lula but highly unpopular among Brazilian voters.

Most analysts, including some sympathizers of Rousseff, say that a Campos-Marina ticket would bring a new dynamism to the race, offering a potentially attractive alternative especially for members of the new emerging middle class who took to the streets in June and are tired of PT-PSDB rivalry and their aging leaders. Marina Silva and Eduardo Campos are popular in sectors of the Brazilian left. He is the grandson and political heir of Miguel Arraes de Alencar, a member of the Brazilian socialist movement who lived in exile during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and who was twice governor of Pernambuco. Marina Silva's personal life history parallels the "from rags to riches" saga of Lula. An afrodescendant, she is the daughter of a migrant who left the Northeast for the Western Amazon to work as a rubber tapper before the Second World War. Illiterate until the age of thirteen, she overcame her circumstances and became and influencial voice in the movement to preserve the Amazon rainforest.She is a founding member of the Workers Party and served as minister of the Environment in the Lula cabinet, along Campos, who was minister of science and technology, and Rousseff, minister of energy.

The decision by Marina to support Campos came after a federal electoral court denied registration of the party she was attempting to form to capitalize on her impressive performance in the 2010 elections, when she received 19 percent of the first round of votes, running as a candidate of the Green Party. Recent polls showed 26 percent of voter's preference for her in the first round, against Rousseff's 35 percent. A poll released last month about the vote potential of the various candidates showed, however, Marina with 43 percent and Campos with 21 percent against Rousseff's 56 percent.

Marina and Campos' challenge is to demonstrate that they carry most of their supports with them if they combine their strengths. She is seen as the main beneficiary of the massive street protests that shook the country last June and dramatically affected the standings of politicians in general, starting with Rousseff. Campos, a 48-year-old economist, has the highest approval rating among Brazil's 26 state governors. A rising star, he was reelected governor in 2010 with 82.84 percent of the vote. He is popular in the northeast of Brazil, a region that became a PT stronghold under Lula. However, Campos has been stuck around 8 percent in national polls. Despite the governor's poor numbers, last month PSB decamped from Dilma's coalition, signaling his decision to run for president. Former president Lula, Brazil's most successful politician, was aware about Campos' political growth potential and worked hard to keep him within the PT's tent.

The big question is whether Marina's followers would accompany her if she runs as a candidate for vice president. Although President Dilma Rousseff has partially recovered from the abrupt loss of popularity she suffered in the aftermath of last June's protests, recent polls indicate that most of the electorate is undecided. The same polls suggested that Rousseff would benefit more than both Aécio Neves and Eduardo Campos if Marina were not in the race. The Campos-Marina combination is, however, a new arrangement, unforeseen by analysts. Much may depend on their capacity to work together to mobilize public opinion with a forward looking, positive campaign message. Money would not be a problem. And campaign strategists agree that Campos is the candidate with the largest growth potential.

Both the Rousseff and Aécio camps' worried reactions suggest that a Campos-Marina ticket has legs and could substantially alter the race's dynamic. In another early indication of the potential of a Campos-Marina ticket, analyst now say former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva may return to the scene as a candidate, if Rousseff's bid for reelection falters. Former São Paulo governor José Serra, of the PSDB, who ran unsuccessfully against Lula in 2002 and Rousseff in 2010, has signaled that he will trying again, if Neves' campaign does not take off. Presidents can serve up to two consecutive terms in Brazil, but have to sit one out if they wish to run again. April 5 is the deadline for candidates to formally enter the race.

Melo, of Insper, said on Sunday that Aécio Neves would be well advised to start negotiations with Campos and Marina regarding the second round of elections, which will take place at the end of October, if Rousseff fails to receive an absolute majority of the valid popular vote on October 5. Assuming a second round on October 26, an alliance of Campos, supported by Marina, with Aécio Neves could make one of them the next president of Brazil and the other, the king maker.