As Brazil’s election nears, Silva falling in polls as fast as she rose

Brazilian opposition candidate Marina Silva is losing support for this month’s presidential election almost as fast as she once gained it.

The former environment minister, who became a candidate 43 days ago after the death of her running mate Eduardo Campos, surged in polls as she captured support from voters disillusioned with slower growth, government corruption and accelerating inflation. Silva is now losing backers as she fails to deflect criticism from challengers that she lacks the experience and political support to lead.

Silva has seen her advantage over third-place candidate Aecio Neves in the Oct. 5 first round narrow to five percentage points from 13 points in less than two weeks, according to a Datafolha poll published Sept. 30. President Dilma Rousseff’s advantage over her surged to 15 percentage points from seven points in the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

“Aecio appeared to be dead two weeks ago, but he’s back in the game,” Andre Cesar, director of public policy and business strategy at consulting company Prospectiva, said by telephone from Brasilia. “When Marina became a viable candidate, she scared Dilma and Aecio. The process of de-constructing Marina has met its objective.”

Support for Silva could fall even further, Cesar said, given her relatively meager campaign cash and party structure.

Silva, who’s running on the Brazilian Socialist Party ticket, presented herself as a third-way candidate challenging Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and Neves’ Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which have alternated in the presidency for the past two decades. With the smallest congressional base of the three, Silva said she would tap the best people from all political parties to govern the world’s biggest emerging market after China.

Her coalition has 36 members of Congress, versus 391 in Rousseff’s alliance and 142 in Neves’s, according to Eurasia Group. Because free time alloted to candidates on television is based on congressional representation, Silva has about about half the airtime of Neves. Rousseff has more than double Neves’ time.

“You cannot campaign without a certain level of professionalism, TV time and party support,” said Cesar Zucco, professor of public administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “The surprise is not that she is falling but that she rose so fast.”

Silva’s campaign press office didn’t return phone calls requesting comment. Rousseff’s and Neves’s campaign press offices declined to comment on their strategy and voter support.

To win voters from Neves, whose support according to polls is stronger among wealthier Brazilians, Silva pledged to adopt economic policies friendly to businesses and investors. She said she would slow inflation, grant central bank autonomy and undo fiscal policies that led to a sovereign credit downgrade.

Rousseff responded by saying her opponent would push Brazil into a recession. In a TV advertisement the president’s campaign began airing last month, a family grimaces as their dinner vanishes from the table as a result of economic policies proposed by Silva.

To appeal to poorer Brazilians, Silva has relied on her personal history: she was a maid and a rubber tapper in the Amazon jungle who faced hunger and only learned to read and write at 16. She also vowed to keep in place social policies implemented by the Workers’ Party in the past 12 years and reminded voters she belonged to Rousseff’s party until 2009.

That gave Neves the opportunity to say Silva and Rousseff were “two sides of the same coin.” Neves, a former governor of Minas Gerais, also said Silva wasn’t prepared to preside over Brazil because she never held an elected executive office, such as mayor or governor.

Silva has also lost support by wavering on some of her proposals, said David Fleischer, a professor of politics at the University of Brasilia.

Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, best known for his role as the Hulk, withdrew backing for Silva this week after he learned the evangelical candidate had backtracked on full legal support for gay marriage. In an earlier video endorsing Silva, Ruffalo said he identified with her views of a development model that integrated economic, environmental and social justice.

Silva removed a passage in her government platform that supported a constitutional amendment guaranteeing gay marriage. Her party said the passage had been included by mistake in the editing process. The about-face followed criticism of the proposal by leaders of evangelical churches. Silva is a member of the Assembly of God.

“Governing Brazil requires firmness, courage, clear positions and firm attitudes,” Rousseff said during a Sept. 28 presidential debate. “There is no room for improvisations.”

While Silva still has a better chance of reaching the second round than Neves, the situation can change, said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at consulting firm Tendencias.

“It’s very open and the scenario can be reversed,” Cortez said by phone. “It’s a very intense competition between those two.”

– With assistance from David Biller in Rio de Janeiro and Raymond Colitt in Brasilia.