In tight Brazil race, candidates avoid moral quagmires
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – As the battle for Brazil's presidency heats up, the leading candidates – determined not to scare voters away – are steering clear of divisive social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Incumbent Dilma Rousseff and her top rival Marina Silva are locked in a tight race, with opinion polls showing Rousseff leading in the October 5 first round, but a virtual dead heat in the expected October 26 run-off.
Given the major role of religion – a largely conservative country with the most Catholics in the world and a growing, vocal evangelical camp – neither woman is looking to make waves.
"The candidates have very little to gain if they take a firm stand on such issues," political analyst Fernando Lattman-Weltman of the Getulio Vargas Foundation told Agence France-Presse.
He explained that most voters' "main concerns are how the economy is doing, jobs and health," rather than the pros and cons of liberalizing drug laws or whether to loosen abortion laws.
Polls show the candidates are right to avoid the social minefield.
A poll by the Ibope Institute earlier this month showed 79% of Brazilians oppose the legalization of abortion and marijuana. A majority – 53% – are also against same-sex marriage.
The 66-year-old Rousseff, Brazil's first woman president, indicated she favored legalizing abortion back in 2007.
But the former Marxist guerrilla changed her stance when she ran for the presidency under the Workers Party (PT) banner in 2010 in the face of pressure from the broad coalition of parties that back the PT in Congress.
She also declared herself a "Christian" during the 2010 campaign – after previously saying she was an agnostic.
Socialist Party candidate Silva, an evangelist who as a young woman almost became a Catholic nun, said during the last election, when she was the Green Party candidate, that she personally opposed abortion but would accept the results of any popular referendum on the issue.
Polls suggest any such vote would see abortion remain illegal, save for cases involving rape or where the mother's life is at risk.
The United Nations estimates some 200,000 women die each year in Brazil during illegal abortions.
"The thing is, Brazil already has legalized forms of abortion, and many women who say they are against abortion have already had one," says sociologist Fatima Jordao.
"But at election time, the discussion always becomes black and white, one of good against evil."
On same-sex marriage, Silva has rowed back on her position, amending her manifesto just a day after initial publication had shown her in favor. Her team blamed an "editorial error."
She explained she would "defend rights relating to civil unions between same-sex couples."
Opponents saw her as bending to pressure from evangelicals, which she denied.
Brazil's Supreme Court recognized same-sex civil unions in 2011 but Congress has not made that decision the law of the land.
Historian and political scientist Saulo Said of Rio University says Silva's amendment of her manifesto was not opportunistic.
"Marina perceived that what was in her program did not dovetail with her political views," he said.
After Silva amended her manifesto, Rousseff and Social Democratic candidate Aecio Neves, running a distant third in the polls, publicly came out in favor of a 2006 proposal seeking to make homophobia a crime in a country where homosexuals routinely suffer violent abuse.
The proposal however has failed to make progress through Congress, where dozens of evangelical lawmakers sit.
While the main candidates seek to avoid the moral maze, their fellow candidates from the political fringe have been more vocal.
Green Party candidate Eduardo Jorge and Luciana Genro from the far-left Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) party favor legalizing abortion, marijuana use and gay marriage.
Pastor Everaldo, from the center-right Social Christian Party (PSC), vocally backs the reverse.
"We can consider it a step forward that at least the issues are being debated," Jordao said.
In the latest presidential debate earlier this week, organized by Brazil's Bishops' Conference, neither Rousseff nor Silva had to field questions on the moral agenda, which were directed only to other candidates. – Rappler.com