Don't Count on Change in Brazil's Elections

Don't Count on Change in Brazil's Elections

Supporters of imprisoned former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who is forbidden to run in the upcoming Oct. 7 first round of voting.

SourceEVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

The country’s loathed parties look likely to survive October’s vote, even as scandal swarms.

Of Brazil’s last two presidents from the country’s Workers’ Party (PT), one has been jailed and the other impeached. As the party seeks to reclaim power in the country it led for 14 years, it has a new vow: to make “Brazil happy again.”

The slogan has echoes of Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” and taps a similar vein of disenchantment with the political status quo.

Polls consistently show widespread dissatisfaction with the political class among Brazil’s 147 million voters, who have been bombarded with tales of corruption from the Lava Jato (Car Wash) inquiry and shaken by rising crime.

With official campaigning set to kick off this week, Brazil’s October election is likely to be its most unpredictable in years.

But while at least five candidates from across the spectrum have a chance of victory, voters have few options for real change.

Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a lawmaker, recently tweeted a picture of himself alongside Steve Bannon in New York, saying, “We share the same worldview.”

Established political forces such as the PT dominate the race. Even Jair Bolsonaro, the populist former army captain who is considered a front-runner and casts himself as an outsider, has been a member of Congress since the 1990s.

“The voter doesn’t like what he sees, but he doesn’t know where else to go,” says Creomar de Souza, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of Brasília.

Amid growing concerns about the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions, the elections mark an important moment for Latin America’s largest economy. If the next president is unable or unwilling to implement fiscal reforms to rein in Brazil’s runaway budget deficit, a weak recovery could lose steam, sending the country back into recession, some economists argue.

“Brazil’s established parties are not loved but have shown how resilient they are,” says Oliver Stuenkel of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

Leading the polls is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the PT’s towering leader, who was imprisoned on corruption charges in April and is expected to be banned from running by the electoral court. Last week his party picked Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo, as its candidate to replace him.

Haddad is riding on the continuing popularity of the man who lifted millions out of poverty as president during two terms from 2003 to 2010. A lawyer, economist, and philosopher, Haddad called on his party to unite around Lula, whom he called “the biggest political leader of Brazil.”

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group foresees “the PT candidate will have a very good shot of taking the largest share of the leftist and Lula vote, and thus make it to a runoff.”

With roughly 8 out of 10 female voters undecided or intending to cast void ballots, Lula has chosen Manuela D’Ávila to run alongside Haddad. D’Ávila is a young lawmaker from the Brazilian Communist Party who has appeared in public with Lula ahead of his jailing and has regularly criticized the sentence against him.

Jair Bolsonaro is at the opposite end of the political spectrum. The far-right candidate has a small party, the PSL, and has struggled to entice a potential deputy president. After considering a jurist, an astronaut and an heir to Brazil’s last emperor, Bolsonaro has — true to form — chosen a military man. Running mate Gen. Hamilton Mourão has said that Brazil inherited its “indolence” from its indigenous peoples and its “deceit” from its African immigrants.

In another nod to his base, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a lawmaker, recently tweeted a picture of himself alongside Steve Bannon in New York, saying “We share the same worldview.” He added that the former adviser to Trump is an “enthusiast” of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign.

Bolsonaro’s tough-on-crime message, which is akin to another outspoken maverick leader, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, has struck a chord among educated middle-class voters fed up with high crime. Bolsonaro has a strong social media following and enthusiastic supporters.

But he has been unable to cobble together a coalition that would enable him to access more campaign funds, a larger party network and free campaign airtime, which is allotted in proportion to the number of legislators a party has. This may make it harder for him to deliver his message across Brazil and prove crucial in a tight race.

On that front, the biggest winner in recent weeks has been Geraldo Alckmin, the market-friendly candidate of the PSDB. The former governor of São Paulo has picked Ana Amélia Lemos, a conservative senator with ties to the powerful agricultural lobby, as his running mate in an attempt to attract some voters tilting toward Bolsonaro.

Alckmin, a former anesthesiologist, has sagged in early polling, but has now secured the backing of a powerful centrist bloc, beating the center-left Ciro Gomes.

This would allow Alckmin several minutes of free airtime a day against Bolsonaro’s scant seconds in a country where 62 percent of Brazilians gather electoral information from television, according to a CNI/Ibope survey.

Yet “Alckmin needs to convince voters he is not the status quo,” says Sergio Fausto of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation.

This is a challenge as his lackluster message appears akin to that of Mexico’s José Antonio Meade, the centrist candidate who came in a distant third in the country’s July’s election.

His establishment credentials and his party’s corruption scandals notwithstanding, Alckmin, like Haddad, has stronger electoral machinery. This makes them a force to be reckoned with in the first round of the election. The environmentalist candidate, Marina Silva, who is on her third presidential attempt, has performed well in polls but has a tiny party and is therefore considered a long shot.

Stuenkel says the potential resilience of established parties may be “a double-edged sword” for Brazil. “Many will be disappointed at the lack of renewal, but on the other hand we may not have an earthquake scenario like the one the 5-Star Movement provoked in Italy,” he says.

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By Andres Schipani

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