Published at 12:01AM, July 10 2013
A new rival to President Rousseff of Brazil has emerged in the form of a leading environmentalist from the Amazon who shuns political parties and warns of the imminent collapse of civilization.
Marina Silva, an evangelical Christian and close ally of the murdered Amazon activist Chico Mendes, emerged in recent polls as the main contender to Mrs Rousseff, who had been considered a shoo-in for next year’s presidential elections until nationwide street protests erupted last month.
Of mixed African-Portuguese heritage, Ms Silva grew up in a poor community and was orphaned at 16. She worked as a maid to pay her way through university and then became a union representative. As a state senator, she tackled deforestation and big agribusiness in her native Amazon.
She was already gaining popularity before the current social turmoil and amassed almost 20 per cent of the vote in 2010. But the massive outpouring of disgust at a political and economic system riddled with corruption, inequality and violence has given the slightly built 55-year-old a huge boost.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that we are seeing a new political awakening all around the world and it’s finding new ways of expressing itself,” she said. “We are seeing an activism that is no longer directed by political parties. It is decentralized; it is leaderless.”
For someone who does not believe in political parties or leadership — she insists that she would stand for only one term — running for president presents something of a paradox. But she said that she was not deliberately seeking office, only trying to push her message for sustainable development, combined with individual responsibility. If she were elected, it would be a bonus.
“We will have to learn to deal with the idea that leadership will be multiple,” she said. “One moment you will be the leader and the next you will be led. If there is something you could do with charisma, it’s to convince people not to depend on charisma, but to become the subject of your own history. We are living in a crisis of civilisation.”
Turning that into reality will be difficult, but Ms Silva has promised that 30 per cent of the seats on her platform will go to independents.
She has long experience of politics. She was Environment Minister under Mrs Rousseff’s predecessor, President Lula da Silva, before quitting the Workers’ Party to run as presidential candidate for the Greens three years ago. Despite the scant air time given to minority parties, she came third.
But even the Green Party proved too mainstream and she formed her own movement, the Sustainability Network, to challenge the constraints of the political system, which allows only members of registered parties to run for office.
“Brazil is a country that could make an important contribution to this world in crisis,” she said.
Now her moment may be at hand, according to Marco Aurelio Nogueira, a political analyst. “These protests were anti-institutional and she has always been seen as an outsider, so she is benefiting. But it’s hard to know whether this popularity will last.” he said.
Her evangelical faith may not help either. She has been criticised by the movement’s conservative wing for her liberal policies, including proposing a referendum on abortion, still illegal in Brazil, and decriminalizing marijuana.