By Brad Haynes
SAO PAULO, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Thrust by tragedy into the center of Brazil's presidential race, environmentalist Marina Silva is riding a groundswell of anti-establishment anger but her chances hinge on expanding her coalition and winning over mainstream voters and business leaders.
Silva was the vice-presidential running mate of Eduardo Campos, a respected but lesser known former state governor, before he died in a plane crash last week. She moved to the top of the ticket on Wednesday and, as unexpected as her candidacy may be, she has already shaken up the race.
An icon of the conservation movement who was born into poverty on a rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle, Silva's prominent national profile helped her enter the race tied for second place in an opinion poll this week.
The poll also showed her with a slim lead over President Dilma Rousseff if they face each other in a second-round runoff.
The outpouring of grief surrounding Campos' death clearly gave Silva an extra boost in the poll and she faces an uphill battle for the rest of the campaign, lacking the resources and political machinery behind her main rivals.
Silva, 56, had faded from public view after a strong third-place finish in the 2010 election as she was marginalized by major parties. But her popularity surged again last year in the wake of widespread street protests that reflected a country fed up with its political class.
"Everything you heard in the streets last year - empowering the people, ending corruption, trying a new kind of politics - that's what she's been saying for years," said Eduardo Rombauer, a founding member of Silva's political movement, Rede Sustentabilidade, or Sustainability Network. "Everyone is talking about change and she is the person who symbolizes that."
It makes her an inspiration to supporters and a threat to Brazil's political establishment, which she has criticized as corrupt and short-sighted. Silva has bolted from two parties in the last five years and still faces distrust in the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) which announced on Wednesday that she will be its candidate in the Oct. 5 election.
"The last four years have been her time in the desert," said Alfredo Sirkis, a close friend who ran her 2010 campaign, which he called an "absolute underdog" candidacy.
As a politician, Silva defies easy categorization, combining a long-standing defense of the Amazon and indigenous rights with the cultural convictions of a Pentecostal Christian.
Her stands on both fronts have given fodder to allies and enemies alike. She is a celebrity in the global green movement and bane to Brazilian agribusiness. Her faith has won over fellow evangelicals but made her a lightning rod in debates over homosexuality and abortion.
She has little track record on economic policy although her closest advisers promise a more orthodox approach than the leftist Rousseff has taken, echoing critiques made by the other main opposition candidate, centrist Aecio Neves.
PRINCIPLE VS. PRAGMATISM
Silva often disdains the horse trading at the heart of Brazil's multiparty politics, criticizing backroom deals and proposing a broad cross-party alliance of ethical politicians.
But even close allies say she can fall short of her aspirations as she lacks the operational savvy of other politicians.
"Sometimes she fails as a political operator, making strategic and tactical mistakes, cultivating an ad hoc decision-making process and in the end working with only unconditional allies," her friend Sirkis wrote in October, venting after Silva failed to register her own party in time for the 2014 race.
In an interview on Tuesday, Sirkis said Silva has learned the lessons of that frustrating defeat and taken inspiration from the coalition-building style of her former running mate.
"I saw Marina evolve a lot alongside Eduardo Campos. That collaboration was a real apprenticeship for her," he said.
Dozens of new political parties have popped up in Brazil, but Silva could not fight off legal challenges last year to her petition for Rede, which faced stiff resistance from the ruling Workers' Party that she once represented.
Within 48 hours, Silva stunned friends and rivals alike with the decision to join the PSB ticket. By backing Campos, she seemed to abandon her presidential ambitions and tie her fate to a relative stranger struggling to reach double digits in polls.
Last week's plane crash changed all of that, opening another chapter in her remarkable life story.
Silva was one of 11 children born into a family of illiterate rubber tappers in the rainforest. She suffered diseases from malaria to mercury poisoning as a young girl, leading to severe dietary restrictions to this day.
As a teenager, Silva left her family to get an education in Rio Branco, capital of the remote northwestern state of Acre. She learned to read at age 16 while living in a convent and found work as a maid and history teacher. At the Federal University of Acre, Silva became active in politics.
She worked with environmental and human rights activist Chico Mendes to unionize rural workers and resist deforestation, and they both joined the Workers' Party. Mendes was shot dead in 1988 by a rancher in a land dispute, helping to galvanize the modern environmental movement in Brazil.
Silva was elected to local and state legislatures before she became Brazil's youngest senator ever in 1995 at the age of 36.
A Silva presidency would also be historic, as her Afro-Brazilian heritage stands in stark contrast to the long list of white elites who have occupied the presidential palace in the past century.
After arriving in the capital Brasilia, she joined the Assembly of God, one of many growing evangelical denominations that now include one in four Brazilians, a potent new political force.
When former union leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected president in 2002, he appointed Marina Silva environment minister. She served for five years, helping to reduce deforestation to its slowest pace on record.
But she was often at odds with powerful interests in the Workers' Party, which overruled her opposition to legalizing genetically modified crops, paving highways through the rainforest and restarting Brazil's nuclear energy program.
As the minister in charge of environmental licensing, Silva went head to head with Rousseff, who was then energy minister, over huge hydroelectric dams on tributaries of the Amazon river.
For the industries involved and their allies in government, Silva embodied the thicket of red tape holding back much-needed infrastructure in Brazil, but not everyone held her to blame.
"It's exaggerating to criticize Marina for the fate of poorly designed projects when she was simply enforcing the law," said Ildo Sauer, the head of gas and energy at state-run oil company Petrobras at the time, who worked with Rousseff and Silva on natural gas pipelines through the Amazon.
Rousseff rose to chief of staff and championed a major public works campaign in Lula's second term, sidelining the environment minister, who resigned in early 2008.
Silva ran for president in 2010 on the Green Party ticket, winning 19 percent of the vote and helping force a runoff between Rousseff and rival Jose Serra.
Silva's campaign benefited from a late surge of evangelical support as Rousseff stumbled with hot-button social issues. Silva left the Green Party the following year, citing internal party politics.
Brazil's powerful agricultural lobby remains wary of Silva, who has long fought the expansion of cattle ranches and soy farms through deforestation. But alongside Campos this year, she has begun to reconcile her differences with former opponents.
"She made a commitment to him and to us," said Luiz Carlos Correa Carvalho, head of farm industry group ABAG. "They both considered agribusiness to be fundamental for development."
Silva's PSB colleagues are watching how she will reconcile her convictions with the compromises she and Campos had made.
"Her time with Eduardo has forced her to develop a more pragmatic approach. The big issue will be whether she can integrate her ideals with this new reality," said Rombauer, a Silva confidante who had kept a distance from her PSB campaign. Over the weekend he wrote a campaign song and dusted off stickers he printed in 2007: "Marina Silva, President." (Additional reporting by Eduardo Simões, Roberto Samora and Brian Winter; Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)