Brazil candidates carefully tread religious divide

Rio de Janeiro - Brazil's evangelical Christians -- rapidly gaining in number and political clout -- are giving a boost to the presidential bid of their fellow convert, Marina Silva.

In Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic population, Silva's candidacy has been bolstered by her membership in the 12.5 million-strong Assemblies of God evangelical church.

Latest polls show former environment minister Silva giving President Dilma Rousseff a run for her money in first-round balloting on October 5 and a slight edge over her in the October 26 runoff.

Catholics, a majority of Brazilian voters, number some 123 million -- about 65 percent of the country's 200 million population -- but their numbers have been steadily falling since the 1970s.

By contrast, evangelicals, who as recently as 1970 made up just five percent of the population, today comprise 22 percent, and are set to be a majority after 2050.

The challenge for Rousseff and Silva has been to carefully navigate Brazil's traditional Catholic heritage, while also heeding the financial and political muscle of media savvy evangelicals.

It helps Silva, some experts said, that her past as a Catholic -- she briefly considered becoming a nun as a teenager -- has allowed her to hold on the support of many adherents of her former faith.

"A fair number of Catholics who might otherwise be put off by her Pentecostalism will look kindly on Marina's Catholic credentials," predicts Dr. Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Brazilian evangelicals.

At the same time, Silva is likely to garner the support of most evangelicals, regardless of her espoused political program.

"Most Brazilian evangelicals don't pay much heed to the political preferences of their leaders," Chesnut told AFP.

Current polling has Rousseff winning the support of some 40 percent of professed Catholic voters to 31 for Silva, who leads the evangelical count by 43 percent to 32.

Silva, who defected from Rousseff's ruling Workers Party (PT), is running for the presidency under the banner of Brazil's Socialist Party (PSB).

Silva is likely to benefit more from the impact of the evangelical vote in a head-to-head run-off against Rousseff than in the first round.

That is because many Protestants in the first round are likely to support the highly vocal fringe candidate Everaldo Pereira, an evangelical pastor, who is among several contenders seeking the office. He is not deemed likely to advance to the run-off.

Both Silva and Rousseff appear to be mindful of how important the faith vote is.

They are largely avoiding controversial issues such as gay marriage and abortion -- bitterly opposed by evangelicals but supported by young secular voters favoring some degree of social liberalization.

Silva, meanwhile, has had to perform a balancing act to keep religious backers behind her.

She withdrew support for gay marriage after criticism by hardline evangelical pastors -- blaming an editorial error for its inclusion in the initial version of her manifesto.

Like many voters, Silva holds deeply conservative views on abortion as well as gay marriage, but she insists her evangelism is for the private sphere and that she could govern a constitutionally lay state.

For all the talk about the role religion this election year, some say the divide is not hard and fast, as it would appear on the surface.

The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) insists it is strictly neutral in the race, saying Catholics are encouraged to vote according to their conscience.

Some observers also point out that Rousseff -- who before coming to power said she was an agnostic -- enjoys a good deal of support within the pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which owns Brazil's second largest TV station, Record.

Sociologist-economist Marcelo Paixao from Rio's Federal University thinks that religious affiliation is overblown as a factor in how Brazilians cast their vote.

"I think they will both draw support from both camps. Voters don't really vote along religious dividing lines," Paixao told AFP.

Some voters insist that they don't like to mix politics and religion, and say that widespread cross-over voting is altogether possible.

"The Catholic Church does not tell us who to vote for," explains Solange Rodriguez, overseeing a Missionaries of Charity display inside Rio's Metropolitan Cathedral.

"Some of us may vote for Marina -- if she backs policies in line with Christian beliefs," Rodriguez told AFP.