THE BLOG
08/14/2014 01:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Campos Tragedy, Marina Silva's Moment Arrives in Brazil

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It will take more than ten days for the followers of former Pernambuco governor Eduardo Campos to mourn the untimely death of their candidate in the presidential election that's now less than eight weeks away.

But within the next ten days, the party that Campos led, the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), coordinating with the coalition that supported his presidential candidacy, must turn to the pressing reality of selecting a new candidate, who must then hit the ground running as the general election campaign is set to begin.

There's no way to underestimate the impact of Brazil's October general election. With around 203 million people, Brazil is the world's fifth-most populous country, and it's the most populous country in Latin America, where the Brazilian president holds significant regional political clout. Despite recent troubles with growth and the value of its currency, Brazil's $2.25 trillion economy is also the largest in Latin America and the seventh-largest economy in the world, and its status as one of the BRICs makes it one of the leading global emerging markets.

There's no rule that Campos's running mate will automatically succeed him, but no one is more prepared to take on that challenge than vice presidential candidate Marina Silva (pictured above, as Campos looks on), the former environmental minister who placed third in the last presidential election in 2010.

Silva, visibly shaken earlier today, was reportedly set to join the fatal flight that took not only Campos's life, but the lives of six other individuals. She spoke briefly to reporters today after the crash, and she is now on her way to Santos, the port city in São Paulo state where Campos's flight fell:

"A imagem que eu vou guardar dele é da nossa despedida de ontem, cheio de alegria, cheiio de sonhos, cheio de compromissos", lembrou Marina. ["The image that I'll save is our farewell yesterday, full of joy, full of dreams, full of compromises," said Marina."]

Tragically, Campos's death now provides Silva the best chance of her political career to become Brazil's president. If she now becomes a presidential candidate, she would bring to the race incredible credentials: her cross-cultural appeal and popularity; a wave of sympathy for Campos, his ideals and his principles; and the institutional support of the PSB party machine. Silva would instantly become the most serious obstacle to incumbent Dilma Rousseff's reelection. Though polls give Rousseff a wide first-round lead, surveys show she could, like Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in June, struggle in a direct runoff.

Silva, however, is only a recent convert to the Brazilian Socialist Party, and longtime powerbrokers within the PSB may still have doubts about elevating Silva to the top of its ticket. But she was winning as much as 27% support in polls as recently as April, which always made her Rousseff's strongest potential opponent in the October 10 election, more so than even Campos, who was struggling to win more than 8% or 9% in polls before his death today.

Silva would also instantly outshine the center-right challenger, former Minas Gerais governor Aécio Neves, the candidate of Serra's center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

Before Campos's death, the conventional wisdom was that the race would tighten, but that Rousseff and Neves would ultimately face off in a October 24 runoff. Silva's candidacy, however, would upend that conventional wisdom. Her entry into the race would transform it instantly into a tight, three-way contest, with a Silva-Neves runoff as likely an outcome as either a Rousseff-Silva runoff or a Rousseff-Neves runoff.

It beggars belief that the Brazilian left would forego the very real opportunity of a winning presidential bid in favor of handing the presidential nomination to a more traditional PSB stalwart, like former Ceará governor Ciro Gomes, his son, current Ceará govenor Cid Gomes, or Espírio Santo governor Renato Casagrande. In fact, some leaders are already publicly supporting Silva, including the late candidate's brother, Antonio Campos.

Initially elected in 1994 to the Brazilian Senate as a member of the Workers Party (PT), the party of Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, she also served as the Lula administration's environmental minister for four years. She broke with Lula in 2008, however, joining the Green Party (PV) to run for the Brazilian presidency against Rousseff four years ago, a campaign that surprised the entire Western Hemisphere when she won over 19% of the vote.

Silva's attempt to form a new vehicle, Sustainability Network, failed when the Brazilian supreme electoral court last October ruled that Silva's new party had insufficient signatures to qualify in 2014. She quickly joined Campos's Socialists and, in March, Campos invited Silva to join the ticket.

There's no doubt that the strengths of her presidential candidacy would electrify the Brazilian left and intrigue a great number of moderate and conservative voters as well:

Religion and faith. As a member of the Assemblies of God, Silva's Pentecostal faith appeals to a growing number of evangelical Christians in a country that's still primarily Roman Catholic. In either case, her faith opens to her a sympathetic ear among religious voters of both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds in a country where religious and social conservatism run strong, especially with respect to abortion and other hot-button issues.

Race and class. As the most prominent Afro-Brazilian politician in the country, Silva could attract support from a traditionally disadvantaged race in Brazil that amounts to nearly 8% of the population. Her own humble background, as one of 11 siblings who grew up on a rubber plantation, will certainly resonate with Brazilians beyond race, especially in a contest against Rousseff, whose party is vying for a fourth consecutive term in power, and Neves, whose grandfather Tancredo Neves was appointed president in 1985 (though he died before taking office).

Environmentalism. Beginning her career as an environmental activist in pursuit of protecting the Amazon rainforest, Silva would also speak forcefully to Brazilians worried about the impact of growing agribusiness and mining interests throughout the rural countryside, including throughout the Amazon region. Though Brazil's business class is wary of Silva, she demonstrated as environmental minister that she's not entirely unsympathetic to sustainability that balances economic growth with ecological protection.

Corruption. Rousseff has been embarrassed by the scandals of her predecessor's administration, and she was forced to fire several ministers since first taking office four years ago. In contrast, Silva would come to the race with a strong reputation for honesty. Though the initial rationale for the summer 2012 protests against Rousseff's government may have been the rise in public transportation costs, they soon grew to incorporate ire at a cozy Brazilian political elite to which both Rousseff and Neves belong.

Urban-rural balance. In the 2010 election, Silva drew much of her support from relatively wealthier, urban professionals. For example, while Silva won no states in that election, she did win the Distrito Federal (Federal District), which includes the capital city of Brasília. If she can effectively harness Campos's legacy and popularity in his home state of Pernambuco and elsewhere among relatively poorer voters of the Nordeste region, she could assemble a potent urban-rural coalition with a real chance at winning the presidency. If that sounds familiar, it should -- it mirrors the backbone of the coalition Lula himself built in 2002 and 2006 by uniting urban laborers and rural workers.

Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, DC, and the editor of Suffragio.org.