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As Marina grows, rivals target ‘inexperience’

Presidential candidate Marina Silva (left) of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) greets Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (centre) of the Workers'' Party (PT) as candidate Aécio Neves of Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) looks on before their first television debate at the Bandeirantes TV studio in Sao Paulo.

Rousseff, Neves bid to halt opponent’s surge in popularity in first televised debate

SAO PAULO — Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was forced onto the back foot in the country’s first televised debate ahead of October’s presidential election, as a second poll in as many days confirmed a surge in support for new challenger Marina Silva.

In the much-anticipated debate, Rousseff, from the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), defended her administration’s record in the face of cutting economic criticism from Silva and third-placed candidate Aécio Neves, of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

But as the three candidates awoke today, it seemed there was no real winner. Of the seven in total who took party, only Green Party candidate Eduardo Jorge was thought to have performed well, although he is currently scoring less than one percent in the polls.

All three frontrunners were under heavy pressure to perform, after a survey by polling firm MDA declared Silva, a former environment minister, would defeat the incumbent president by 43.7 percent of the votes to 37.8 percent in a runoff, predicting Neves will be cut from the pack in the first round vote scheduled for October 5. It was the second poll in two days to show Silva ahead in such a scenario.

According to MDA, in the first round of voting Rousseff would take 34.2 percent of votes, down from 36.2 percent in a previous MDA survey in early August. Silva scored 28.2 percent of votes, and Neves notched 16 percent support, down from 22.1 percent in the last MDA poll.

With all eyes on the three candidates, they continued to press their claims to the Planalto presidential palace. Rousseff’s tactic was clear. She sought to place her time in office in context with that of the PT, which has been in government since 2002, when it was led by the still-popular figure, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The incumbent president used the debate to highlight the social programmes that have benefited the poor, created jobs and helped millions of families get out of poverty.

“I want to ask people watching, the housewives,” she said. “What are you seeing? Do you have or do you not have more jobs today? Do you have or not have more food on the table?”

Rousseff also hailed her “More Doctors” programme with Havana, a deal which “imports” Cuban doctors into the country and sends them to rural and poor areas of the country to work.

‘Worse state’ than before

Silva meanwhile criticized Rousseff for not recognizing deficiencies in the education and health sectors and took aim at Brazil’s unpopular leaders and administration, which faced widespread protests in 2013 and the build-up to this year’s World Cup.

Pushed to offer real ideas, Silva said she would reduce the number of ministries, cut red tape and curtail the power of political parties.

“Unfortunately, we have a situation in which this government will hand over a country in a worse state than when it took over,” the PSB candidate said.

“The first mistake (Rousseff) has made is she does not recognize that problems exist and that the wonderful country that she tells us all about does not exist in real life,” she added, declaring that voters will choose a “leader” and not a “manager,” as Rousseff styles herself.

The new challenger did not seem awed. Silva, 56, only launched her campaign last week after being chosen by the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) to replace Eduardo Campos, her running mate who died when a private plane he was travelling in crashed into a residential area of the port city of Santos on August 13.

The evangelical, who once served as environment minister in an administration led by the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), switched alliances after failing to register her own political party for the election. She previously ran in 2010 as a standard bearer for the Green Party, when she took almost 20 percent of the vote. But her image, which plays on her poor background, is different this time — she is seen as more business-friendly and has promised to better manage government spending and to give greater autonomy to the Central Bank.

Silva has promised radical change and a type of “new politics” if she is chosen to lead the country, despite facing criticism for becoming more establishment since she last stood in 2010.

“When I say I want to govern with the best, I recognize that there are good people in all parties, but that the good guys are on the bench,” she said.

Neves seeks to capitalize on reputation

Neves, trailing in third in the polls after Silva leapfrogged him into second, sought to enhance his business-friendly reputation, revealing during the debate that he would tap hedge fund founder and former Central Bank chief Arminio Fraga to be his finance minister, should he win the election.

Fraga, a Brazilian economist who was president of Brazil’s Central Bank during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, is one of the founders of JPMorgan’s flagship Brazilian hedge fund and private equity group, Gávea Investments.

The economist has form against Rousseff. He previously accused the president of weakening the so-called “tripod” of economic policies (fiscal responsibility, inflation targeting and a floating exchange rate) that have been sacrosanct in Brazil since they helped reverse a period of rampant inflation and erratic growth in the 1990s.

Neves, formerly the governor of the second-most populous state in the country, Minas Gerais, hammered Rousseff over management of the economy, dismissing the president’s measures in the field as “absurd interventions” that discouraged foreign investment.

The PSDB leader also took aim at Silva, criticizing her political “inexperience.” Pointing to the environmentalist’s knack of switching from one political party to another, Neves claimed that Silva did not understand the details of the “new politics” that she proposes.

Both Neves and Rousseff seemed initially reluctant to attack the environmentalist on the campaign trail after she took on the leadership of the PSB, a position many believed was out of respect for the late Campos, but this week both leaders have decided Silva is fair game.

The final month’s campaigning will now be crucial. This week’s dramatic polling figures have changed the race, with many analysts now believing Silva is the favourite to win the election, thanks to a combination of winning over undecided voters and those dissatisfied with the government. Silva is also believed to score well with poor voters, due to her humble background, despite being seen nowadays as more business-friendly than she previously was in 2010.

Some experts however are still preaching caution. While Silva has undoubtedly benefited from public sympathy over Campos’ death, so her support could wane in coming weeks as emotions fade and her positions on issues become better known.

Analyst Carlos Pereira, of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, agrees that the new candidate seems to be taking votes off Rousseff and Neves, but believes this may not last.

“(Yes), she’s taking votes from Dilma,” Pereira said. “But we have to wait to see if this effect lasts.”

Herald with AP, Reuters, Télam

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