RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's once humdrum presidential race now resembles one of the country's famed soap operas, with a newcomer thrust into the spotlight by a plane crash and the longtime favorite reeling from a one-two punch of bad news.
With just over a month to go before the Oct. 5 vote, President Dilma Rousseff awoke to newspaper headlines Saturday announcing that Brazil's long-sputtering economy had officially entered recession for the first time in more than five years.
Worse for her, perhaps, were the other banner headlines splashed on front pages: A poll showing Rousseff trailing her new rival Marina Silva by 10 percentage points if the election goes, as expected, to a second round.
"Yesterday must have been President Dilma's most difficult day in a long time — she only had awful news," wrote Merval Pereira, a political columnist for the O Globo newspaper.
Silva was a peripheral figure in the election until Aug. 13, when a campaign plane crash killed Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos, who was running third, far behind Rousseff.
Silva, who had been his vice presidential candidate, waited a week before officially filling Campos' spot on the ticket, and her star has rocketed upward since, fed by widespread voter discontent over what many consider an inefficient and corrupt political system.
Her life story is cinematic itself.
Maria Osmarina Marina Silva Vaz de Lima, 56, grew up as one of eight children of an impoverished rubber tapper on a plantation deep in Brazil's Amazon region. Her mother died when Silva was just 15.
After a childhood during which she was infected with malaria five times, at age 16 Silva was hit with hepatitis and her father sent her to the Acre state capital of Rio Branco for better health care. She decided to enter a convent to fulfill her dream of becoming a nun — and to finally learn to read and write.
There, Silva had a political awakening when she came into contact with priests adhering to liberation theology, a Latin American-inspired movement that promoted rights for the poor. She helped found the local branch of a union representing impoverished Amazon agricultural workers and advocated side-by-side with famed rain forest defender Chico Mendes.
Silva, who became a devout evangelical Christian, joined the now-ruling Workers Party in the mid-1980s and was elected as a Rio Branco city councilwoman in 1989. Two years later, she moved into the state legislature before becoming a federal senator in 1995. Newly elected President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva — no relation — made her his environment minister when he took power on Jan. 1, 2003.
Silva left the post five years later after disagreements with other ministers on how to develop the Amazon region. She was particularly at loggerheads with Rousseff, who was then the nation's energy minister and who pushed an aggressive agenda of building hydroelectric dams and other projects in the Amazon to spur economic development.
After joining the Green Party, Silva ran in the 2010 presidential election and won a surprising 20 percent of the vote despite having little campaign ad airtime.
The Datafolha poll released late Friday showed Rousseff and Silva now even heading into the first round, each capturing 34 percent of voter intentions.
But when asked about a second-round runoff, Silva was favored by 50 percent to the incumbent's 40 percent.
The poll was based on 2,874 interviews carried out across Brazil on Thursday and Friday. The margin of error was 2 percentage points.
The survey showed that Rousseff remains most popular among Brazil's poorest, who have benefited from Workers Party policies that have lifted millions out of poverty in the past decade. But many Brazilians are frustrated by the state's heavy hand in the slumping economy, and for the first time in years, consumer confidence has been steadily dropping.
The country technically entering recession only compounds the anxiety.
"This puts Dilma on the defensive and gives Marina ammunition, it gives Marina more of a chance to explain to voters how she'll turn the economy around," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.
But he said it's not necessarily a fatal blow to Rousseff's campaign. "Voters really only understand it if unemployment rises and inflation eats into their buying power." Unemployment remains low in Brazil and inflation, while rising, is within the range of government targets.
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