Elections and Democracy in Brazil

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Brazil’s first round of municipal elections was completed on Sunday, October 2nd and there were no major surprises.  Lula’s PT party took a drubbing and the results were somewhat favorable to President Michel Temer’s government although the PMDB did not win, show or place in any of Brazil’s top 3 electoral zones (Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte).

Brazil’s mix of the advanced and the archaic certainly comes out in voting.  The vote count was done by computers minutes after the polls closed but those elected succeeded not so much because of their brilliance, competence or party affiliation but instead because of their personal appeal. Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical songster placed first for the run off in Rio. The well-known soccer player Joao Leite came in first in Belo Horizonte and faces the second around against the former president the favorite home futbol team.   Joao Doria, elected outright in Sao Paulo, aside from being a millionaire publicist is also an ex-TV personality who used to host a program analogous to Trump’s Apprentice.  Examples of entertainment and popular culture mixed with politics much like in the USA.  Globalization of politics is all around.

As in North America, wealth, name recognition and being able to convincingly pitch what the people want to hear are important to winning elections.  Still Brazil is different.  In the US there are only two major parties and two “want to be’s” (Libertarian and Green) while in Brazil there are over 35 parties with a complex system of summing party votes to favor a slate and to gain resources.  Republicans and Democrats diverge on social causes, sexual equality, women rights and climate change but in Brazil party separation at the municipal level is not based on programs but on the person.  In Sao Paulo, Lula’s favorite Fernando Haddad tried to walk a thin line between leftist PT politics and efficient spending and use of resources.  In doing so he lost the vote of the poor, which wound up diluted.  Doria was elected in the first round with over 50% of the vote compared to some only some 17% for the PT incumbent.

In Brazil, voting is required by law.  Suffrage has now been extended to 16 year olds as compared to the existence in the 20th century of literacy, age and gender requirements which helped preserve the primacy of the white patriarchy.  Today, Brazilians recognize themselves as a mixed race society and only 48% of the population self describes itself as white, yet over 70% of the elected mayors and council members are Caucasian men.  Traditions are strong and difficult to break.   In the run up to the first round, there were over 20 political assassinations.  Some of these were vindictive small town type feuds but many were related to the drug trade and the preservation of gang influence and territory.  This is a major area of concern in Rio and other big cities.  The situation is not yet like Mexico where the narco-cartels control whole towns and outlying areas but it is something that could occur with the weakening reach of the state.

Elections are important in Brazil and the process and campaigns in the election cycle are important civic activities.  Voting contributes to building civic society and institutions.  These municipal elections were the first where corporate contributions to campaign financing have been prohibited.  In theory, the process is becoming more “democratic” but the prevailing levels of education and the influence of the broadcast media still strongly impact the public perception of the candidates.  Moreover, Brazilian politics reflects the overall level of critical thinking and debate in society.  Certainly, important information on the candidates, their backgrounds and their programs are available and debate is intense and widespread.  People vote their interests based on information and perception.  The effort to be informed and to think is undoubtedly cumbersome and time consuming.   In a situation where people are working long hours to meet ends meet and have little time and cynical view of politicians, the challenges of building institutions and civil society are immense.  But, in the end, it is better to have elections, have voters and the whole process, but at the same time patience with the results.

The short term impact is pretty much business as usual in Brazil.  Populism, personalities and personal contacts and special relationships permeate the system. There are no new or exciting faces readily apparent for the future.   Politics as the means for ordering power still has its draw.  Individuals and organizations strive to promote ideas and interests through the political process and this is particularly important at the local level where streets need to be fixed, sanitation services need to be installed, schools need to function, streets need to be policed and growth needs to be guided.  In the long run, electoral participation should build political institutions.  Former President Dilma Rousseff’s successor, President Temer’s party had the largest number of candidates but the PSDB was more successful in getting people elected. And while the PSDB came out as winners overall, the party is seriously divided between its more social democratic branch and the more conservative elements elected in the city of Sao Paulo.

Brazil needs a political reform to reduce the number of parties and to make them more representative.  Whether Congress can come to this same conclusion remains to be seen and the next big political test will be the general election in 2018.  Given the current situation with a President of questionable legitimacy, it is unlikely thatany major political reforms will take place until after 2018 vote.  At this point, the jockeying is on to see who can emerge as a viable candidate.  President Temer should be ineligible in two years, but if he achieves legitimacy through economic success, the Brazilian politicians can likely find a way to qualify him.  Lula, while under indictment on various corruption charges still is the most charismatic and electorally popular figure.  The PSDB will have the nearly impossible task of finding a unity candidate with the ongoing competition involving Aecio Neves, Jose Serra, and Geraldo Alckmin.  Marina Silva, who came in third with a surprisingly strong showing in 2014 is currently floundering.  Personalities prevail over programs as the Brazilian system gradually evolves with each cycle.

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