Three weeks ago the 2014 Brazilian presidential elections were set to be the most boring ever.
It has all changed since centrist candidate Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash and was replaced by environmentalist Marina Silva, who is now seen as the favorite to win.
Polls suggest incumbent Dilma Rousseff would lose to her in a likely runoff by 10 points. It is even worse for the opposition’s Aecio Neves, who is almost 20 points behind for the first vote on October 5th. It is so shocking that the talk about the economy and political support is insufficient to affect the newcomer.
That is probably why the focus of the campaign has shifted towards the role of religion and gay rights. All three candidates are doing their best in these two topics to score some points with undecided voters – and that means to be considerate to religious leaders and homosexual activists. It is clearly a difficult task, since most religious leaders in Brazil are much more conservative than Pope Francis, and gay movements are very vocal against their critics. Brazil is the nation with the most Catholics on Earth – about 70 percent of its 200 million inhabitants – and presidential hopefuls with a decent shot are always religious (or say they are).
The first move was made by Silva, an evangelical who belonged in the Catholic Church until the end of the nineties. The first major incident in her campaign came when she released her program stating she would fight homophobia and support gay marriage. It took hours for conservative religious leaders to speak out. One of the most prominent, Silas Malafaia, said he would make the most aggressive speech of his career if Silva didn’t take it back.
It took less than a day for the candidate to go backwards, claiming there was a mistake in the edit of her program. Gay rights activists are now furious with her. Evangelicals, who are 22% of Brazil’s population, are mostly behind her campaign. Malafaia, who has popular TV shows, was so pleased that he promised to support Silva in a likely runoff against Rousseff. Polls at the end of the week will show if the new favorite to win has been affected by that decision.
President Rousseff also had her share of controversial topics. After dismissing an anti-homophobia bill eight months ago, she now says she is for it. To make it up to religious leaders, she also suggested extending to evangelical churches the same benefits she agreed with the Vatican a short while ago; less taxes and also a freer labor law, among others. It wasn’t enough for the most vocal faithful.
To make it worse for Rousseff, liberals and leftists are furious with that approach. Not all evangelical churches in Brazil are seen as serious ones. That move could prove costly in the key battleground state of São Paulo, which has 22% of Brazil’s electorate and gives Silva a 16 point lead over the president, according to an Ibope poll. Nationwide, the Worker’s Party candidate up for reelection is 10 points behind. The likely runoff is to be held on October 26.
Neves, who started his campaign visiting evangelical and Catholic leaders, are also working on a religious agenda to be announced in his program, next week. It could be the last move to save his bid, since the economy and anti-corruption platform hasn’t worked well for the former Minas Gerais governor – he has 17% in the Datafolha poll.
Neves’ platform is likely to be more moderate than that of Pastor Everaldo, a preacher who has just 2% in the polls but is very vocal about smaller government, and gay rights to be limited to what they are now. Civil partnerships are accepted in Brazil because of a Supreme Court ruling. Congress considered overruling that decision or passing new law, but failed to do so.
If elected, Silva will be the first black, Amazon bred and evangelical president in the country’s history. Although polls haven’t suggested any religion problem for her so far, Brazilian social media has seen more and more criticism towards the environmentalist because of her faith. Supporters of Rousseff and Neves have called Silva a fanatic, especially after taking back the gay agenda from her program. She denies her religious beliefs can be mixed in her politics.
In the 2010 campaign, Rousseff denied being an atheist. She said fighting cancer brought her closer to God. She visited religious leaders and forged alliances with many of them. Her adversary on that occasion, José Serra, brought abortion into the debate, which stimulated many priests and pastors into attacking the former Marxist guerrilla’s credentials. She still won. This time, in the most unexpected turnaround possible, the outcome seems less favorable to her.