By Ben Tavener
A second debate between Brazil's top presidential candidates on national TV late Monday showed the race for the presidency is now one to be fought between incumbent President Dilma Rousseff, and environmentalist Marina Silva, according to a key political analyst.
In the debate broadcast on the public SBT television channel, Brazil's seven top presidential candidates took each other to task over hot-button topics, which were dominated by the economy.
Previously seen as a battle between Rousseff and former Minas Gerais governor Aécio Neves, Monday's debate appeared to mark a turning-point in the race, recently upended by the dramatic entry of Silva, a former senator and environment minister, as a presidential candidate.
"It is obvious that this is now a race polarized between Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva," Carlos Manhanelli, President of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants, told the Anadolu Agency (AA).
"Aécio Neves has now been forgotten, and Marina Silva – who performed well in [Monday's] debates, tackling questions on the economy, inflation – has taken full advantage of that, as well as vowing to bring in a new form of government, a 'new politics,' which is something the electorate is keen to hear," Manhanelli explained.
The veteran political consultant of more than 40 years said Silva was offering voters an alternative to Rousseff's managerial style of politics, at least on paper. Last year's mass street protests, seen in hundreds of towns and cities across Brazil, demanded political reforms and improvements to public services, which Silva has repeatedly promised as part of her nascent campaign.
- Economic woes
Rousseff's economic record continued to take a battering from her rival presidential hopefuls, compounded by recent figures showing the country has entered into a technical recession.
The president, who is vying for a second term, denied Brazil was "truly" in recession, and praised the success of her party's social programs, which she said has "lifted 36 million people out of poverty and 42 million into the middle classes."
Rousseff shot the criticism back to Silva, questioning the "additional US$62 billion" the environmentalist's new plans would cost, in a bid to show Silva as lacking in experience with unachievable pledges.
Silva responded more confidently on the economy than had been seen in previous debates, and managed to tackle allegations over money she charged for giving talks, ricocheting similar accusations back at Rousseff's mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Silva also managed to address an embarrassing U-turn on pro-LGBT issues that had been "erroneously published" by her campaign team, without much apparent collateral damage.
Earlier this week, the environmentalist and devout evangelic Christian's political program was published with sections that mentioned support for equal marriage and the criminalization of homophobia. Within 24 hours, the candidate had to backtrack publicly on the "mistakes," which caused a cacophony of reaction in the Brazilian media.
However, Manhanelli told AA he believes the issue would pass quickly without denting her campaign significantly, although questions over her faith and position against abortion could continue to dog her bid for the presidency.
- Neves 'out of the race'
Silva became the candidate for the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) following the death of Eduardo Campos in a plane crash Aug. 13, and was initially seen as a wildcard.
In the first televised debate, many questioned Silva's vague answers and lack of concrete proposals which, despite polls in her favor, left the race relatively open between the top three candidates.
However, Silva's performance in Monday night's debate – in which she and Rousseff chose to trade crossfire, rather than with Neves – was composed and more forthcoming with concrete proposals.
Ultimately, the clash seemed to secure Silva's place in an all-but-certain runoff against Rousseff, and the end of Neves's bid for the Planalto, backing the results of the latest survey by pollsters Datafolha, released Aug. 29, which showed the two candidates tied in the first round – both at 34 percent – forcing a runoff that would be won convincingly by Silva.
Neves, however, dropped to 15 percent in the poll. Coupled with a lack of passion in Monday's debate, some in Brazil's print and social media have now begun speculating whether Neves will throw in the towel before the first round and instead side with Silva, in order to avoid an embarrassing defeat for his Social Democracy Party and keep the possibility of a power share alive in case the PSB candidate beats Rousseff.
After running in the 2010 presidential elections for the country's Green Party, in which she finished third with more than 19 percent of vote in the first round, younger voters in particular are keen to see where Silva stands on a range of topics.
Given a history of switching allegiances, uncertainty over the extent to which her religious convictions will color her politics, and her dramatic entry into the election, Silva has been at the center of attention in the Brazilian media since she stepped into the race, and every step of her campaign and every word uttered in public has been endlessly scrutinized.
Silva has been described as more "pro-business," potentially wooing supporters that would otherwise have voted for centrist PSDB candidate Neves. However, a promise to run for only one term has also been seen as attractive to Workers' Party voters who are tired of Rousseff, and keen to see Lula return to the Planalto in the 2018 elections.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.