Has Brazil's presidential 'candidate for change' already missed her chance?

Brazilians head to the polls Sunday to vote for their next president. Marina Silva raised hopes for reform when she entered the race, but her flip-flopping on issues like gay rights has many flocking back to the ruling Worker's Party.

Felipe Dana/AP
Marina Silva, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), attends a televised presidential debate in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Brazil will hold general elections on Oct. 5.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blogRiogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

[Marina Silva] was given a real shot at Brazil's presidency during a time when President Dilma Rousseff faces a number of serious challenges. And she just might have blown it already. In fact, as she has fallen in the polls, third-place contender Aécio Neves has been creeping up, with the potential to knock her out of a second round. So why hasn't Marina Silva lived up to the hype?

There are a number of factors working in her favor. After massive protests last year, there's a portion of the Brazilian population hungry for change. The Workers' Party has been in power for over a decade, leading to "PT fatigue" and bitterness about political corruption. Brazil is technically in a recession as the economy has slowed. And the president's approval ratings haven't been high.

Yet Ms. Silva hasn't been able to fully channel this dissatisfaction, nor able to fully take advantage of the country's situation. Instead, she's left voters scratching their heads about what she really stands for and what she would be like as a leader. And in some cases, she has simply alienated her potential voters.

First, she's been flip-flopping on a variety of issues from gay marriage to the country's amnesty law. She's irritated some supporters by meeting with investors and agrobusinessmen. The LGBT issue was particularly bad, given that some worried that her religious beliefs could influence how she would govern, and her change in stance on gay marriage came after complaints from evangelical leaders.

Next, she's come under constant attack from the president's campaign team. But she hasn't been very successful in responding.

Some of these ads warned that under Silva, all of Brazil's gains would literally disappear. Given the number of Brazilians who have left poverty and have joined the new middle class since the PT came into power, it's understandable how this kind of fear-mongering could be so effective.

But Marina's team wasn't very good at changing people's perceptions, and hasn't been able to react to the attack ads. Instead, her team has used a lot of rhetoric about Rousseff lying [...] The "liar, liar, pants on fire" line isn't particularly convincing.

This week, her team tried to step up her game, making better use of tapping into demands from last year's protests and highlighting complaints about quality of life and public services that many have.

She also went on the attack about corruption, something Aécio Neves has been more vocal about on the campaign trail.

But was it too little, too late?

Given the smaller window of time she's had to campaign since she became a candidate two months ago, she could have done more up front to tap into protester demands, and to capitalize on PT fatigue, especially when it comes to corruption. She could have stuck to her guns and demonstrated a clearer, more coherent platform and stance on key issues. And maybe she could have waited to court different interests until she made it to a second round. In an effort to gain mass appeal, she ended up trying to be a chameleon, but it didn't work.

Marina Motta, a Rio human rights researcher, told PRI's The World this week that the PT is "a decadent, sold-out party but it’s a historical, consistent party." Voting for the PT and Dilma, she explained, is playing it safe and voting for the devil you know. In Marina's case, no one seems to quite know who she is. And even though she represents change, voters may be wary of just what that change would mean.

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