What’s next for Brazil’s Marina Silva?

Despite failure to clinch run-off spot against President Rousseff, environmentalist could emerge as a power broker.

On Monday I received an email from a friend in the United States with a simple question “What happened to the black woman who was going to be president down there?”

That woman is Marina Silva, and even if you only casually follow Brazil from afar, you likely have heard of her the past few weeks. She replaced the late Eduardo Campos on the Socialist Party ticket for president, after Campos was killed in a plane crash in mid-August.

Silva immediately skyrocketed in the polls to the point where she equaled or surpassed incumbent Dilma Rousseff, who up until that point appeared to be cruising to likely re-election.

With a powerful personal biography of rising out of poverty from the Amazon, and a surge in support, Silva became a new face of Brazilian politics, a blank slate where people could project their hopes and aspirations.

Her poll numbers were sky high and everyone was taking notice. Journalists justifiably were scrambling to profile her, interview her relatives, and deconstruct what her sudden rise all meant.

On August 20, seven days after Campos’ death, I was in Brasilia at Socialist Party headquarters when the political big shots officially nominated her to replace Campos on the ballot. There were dozens of reporters elbowing each other to get close to Silva when she pulled up in a sedan. Globo TV network, the biggest channel in the country, had all three of their top national political correspondents there to cover it. Camera crews jostled in a mob-like scene that encircled Silva’s every step.

A few days later, Silva’s face graced the cover of all the major national newsmagazines under banner headlines, one which read, “President Marina?”

There were the inevitable comparisons to Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.

‘Marina Mania’ was in full swing, and Brazil hadn’t seen anything like it before in a presidential race in modern times.

But something happened on Silva’s coronation to the presidency. She lost. Here’s why:

In truth, Silva always had a much higher hill to climb than anybody else. Her Socialist Party (PSB) infrastructure paled in comparison to Rousseff’s Workers Party political machinery.

Making matters worse, she only joined the PSB late last year to be a running mate to Campos, and party bosses barely even knew her. But it didn’t matter much back then when she was just going to be the VP on a ticket with little chance to win. It did matter latter when she found herself – unexpectedly – as the presidential candidate and a frontrunner to unseat both of the two main political parties.

Silva was the unpredicted mortal threat to the establishment political structure.

But Silva’s biggest strength – essentially not being deeply beholden to any one political party, was also her biggest weakness.

Rousseff and Neves’ campaigns both started sharpening their critiques of Silva, drawing her out of the bubble of invincibility around her, putting her on the defensive from all sides. She had little backup.

And then there is TV. National elections in this country are still decided by two things that go hand in hand: How many political party alliances you have and how much free TV air time is at your disposal. Period. Everything else is secondary.

Brazil is big, and you get to be president by getting your propaganda on TV screens, not by knocking on doors.

Rousseff had 11 minutes of air time nightly, Silva had about two and poll numbers slid. It was the beginning of the end for her.

In the final days, Silva was relying on less than a half dozen longtime friends and advisors making decisions on the fly, trying to hold on to enough votes to get in a runoff and fight another day.

It didn’t happen. 

A mediocre final debate showing the day before the election was also decisive, and one in which the polling had not picked up on.

A final campaign event that I attended in a working class suburb of Sao Paulo was nearly called off at the last minute for a lack of people. Only a few of her most trusted confidents were by her side.

But even with all against her, Silva garnered 22.1 million votes, equivalent to the total population of Australia.

So who she’ll endorse – Rousseff or Neves – is what everyone wants to know. It likely won’t matter much, because Silva’s supporters are just like her: Eclectic, unpredictable and like to slither out of the box they are often put into.

Some of the working class might migrate to Rousseff, some of the middle class conservatives will go to Neves, and the idealistic youth will splinter off in any which direction.

I’ve seen Silva up close in many settings over the years – from Environment Minister to her 2010 presidential run when I watched up close as she launched her Green Party campaign in Brasilia. She’s grown a lot as a politician, but she’s still kept her authenticity. Her ambition and political wit often underestimated.

Brazilian’s don’t agree on much when it comes to politics right now there’s a deep divide on what direction the country should take.

But it’s safe to say the democratic process in this country was strengthened in the most unexpected of ways the past few weeks. At minimum, it was made more interesting.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

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