At the end of August, we are now a little more than 40 days from the first round of Brazil’s elections. Here I want to focus on the presidential election and specifically the 4 leading candidates. I am leaving ex-President Lula off my guide as, although he is seriously campaigning from his cell in Curitiba it is totally unlikely that he will overcome the legal obstacles impeding his candidacy. Even so he is the elephant in the room and I will add a few comments on legitimacy and relevance.
The field is crowded and free television campaign time starts on Friday, August 31. Traditionally time on TV has had a major impact on election results, however with the growth of social media and cable TV (which does not have to carry the campaign ads), many suggest a declining influence of this traditional medium.
The four leading candidates are: Jair Bolsonaro, Marina Silva, Ciro Gomes and Geraldo Alckmin.
Here’s why people will vote for them.
Jair Bolsonaro is from Rio and retired as Captain from the Brazilian Army. He has served in Congress for over 20 years but has virtually no legislative accomplishments. Instead he has become famous and has assumed the moniker- Myth- as he has successfully packaged himself as anti-establishment in spite of his track record. He is most famous for his macho authoritarianism, his attacks on minorities and gays, his promise to arm the police, the army and the population so they can protect themselves from the criminal gangs and cartels that have taken over much of Rio. He also affirms that he will eliminate corruption even though he has been accused of various levels venality, nepotism and illicit enrichment.
Bolsonaro represents a popular strain of Brazil’s dictatorial and militaristic past especially in Rio where the right wing has always been prevalent with active and retired military personnel. Rio’s ongoing violence also makes Bolsonaro simplistic appeal to violent enforcement feel sensible in the absence of an effective state presence. And as violence and crime are major threads running throughout the country, Bolsonaro’s chutzpah in selling his solution gains favorable repercussion.
Currently, he polls in first place with about 20% of the electorate’s preference.
Marina Silva, a former Senator and Minister of Environment under Lula polls in second place with 16%. Ms. Silva ran for President in 2014 with the support of Brazil’s greens. But she is also popular because of her background as a poor woman born in precarious conditions in the Amazon, and rose to prominence without cutting her roots. Although she had been a member of Lula’s PT party, she separated herself and showed independence and strength in forming Rede, meaning network as a political party representing protection of the environment, Indigenous populations and at the same time a more market friendly approach to economic development. In 2014, her running mate was the founder and president of Natura, Brazil’s biggest natural cosmetic corporation. Marina, like Bolsonaro, is also an evangelical Christian. While over 60% of Brazil’s population still define themselves as Catholics, evangelicals have clout disproportional to their numbers. So Marina offers an image that Brazil’s masses can associate with. At the same time, she has worked to become acceptable to elites by advocating for liberal, read less statist, economic policies and reforms. She also is the favorite candidate among Brazil’s women voters.
Marina has around 12% of the declared votes when Lula is not among choices.
Ciro Gomes is a fairly curious candidate. He has always pushed left leaning credentials but has moved in and out of over 8 political parties. He served as a Minister under Fernando Henrique Cardoso who used to on left but is now considered a right wing “neo-liberal” and anathema to the PT and other left wingers. Ciro also served as governor of Ceara, a state in Brazil’s northeast which while grossly unequal in wealth distribution, has made better progress in economic recovery than most of the rest of the country. Typically, northeastern states are controlled by local oligarchs and Ciro Gomes comes out of this tradition. Still he is tip toeing around Lula’s imprisonment and seeking to attract the votes from the poor and the northeast of Brazil that gravitate toward Lula. One of his leading economic, yet populist, proposals is to reform Brazil’s credit rating agencies where many people in lower economic groupings: C, D and E have files disavowing their credit worthiness and thus limiting their credit and purchasing power.
Ciro is also notorious for shifting political allegiances and for being a loose cannon. There are many popular You Tube videos of him cussing out partisans, opponents and just about anyone who crosses his path in an unfavorable fashion.
Ciro is polling in single digits at 9% of voter intentions.
Finally, Geraldo Alckmin, the ex-governor of Sao Paulo and soundly defeated (by Lula in 2006) presidential candidate is, almost by default, the PSDB or Tucano candidate. All of Brazil’s presidential elections in the 21st century have come down to run offs between the PT (read Lula) and the PSDB. The Tucanos only gained the presidency once with Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Alckmin suffers from the lack of charisma and is viewed as a loser in presidential races. He achieved the rare feat of receiving fewer votes in the run-off round in 2002 than he did in the first round. He also suffers from the lingering effects of Aecio Neves’ defeat against Dilma in 2014 and Neves’ major involvement in corruption although he has been protected by his seat in the Senate and the lack of political will to pursue sitting politicians. Alckmin has had his own brushes with corruption in Sao Paulo and is certainly viewed as the old whereas someone like Bolsonaro is perceived to represent a new path. Still Alckmin is a competent politician and a fairly effective manager. He has the support of business and will be unlikely to support anti-market and “creative” economic policies. As a social democrat, it is fair to say that he is sensitive to Brazil’s gross inequalities but will try to correct them with market friendly policies perhaps similar to those that Lula actually pursued in his first term. Alckmin has put together a political alliance with Brazil’s centrist politicians which gives him much more TV time than any other candidate. It could also theoretically lead to a Congressional base that would allow him to govern. Nevertheless, these traditional centrists are notoriously corrupt and self-serving and could abandon the candidate should he be elected. Moreover, many see his centrist support as a compromise with tradition and corruption.
Alckmin is polling at around 7% and it remains to be seen if he can improve this with his free TV time and coalition support.
Of course, Lula is the elephant in the room. From his jail cell, he has registered as the PT candidate and leads all polls and has actually become more popular since his imprisonment. Nevertheless, the law is crystal clear that he cannot be a candidate as he has been convicted on appeal by the very legislation that he personally signed in 2010. Oh the irony! Still the problem is that the election without his participation risks illegitimacy and irrelevancy. Unfortunately, President Dilma, even though incompetent, should not have been impeached. Had Lula been tried while she was still president, his condemnation would be more favorably accepted even with the questionable evidence related to the apartment and purported bribe. With Dilma’s defenestration and the subsequent failures of President Temer, the PT allegations of a political coup d’état designed to eliminate Lula and the PT as a force have greater meaning.
Although Lula is popular, he will not be able to transfer enough votes to his anointed successor Fernando Haddad who currently has less than 5% in the polls.
Elections should bring legitimacy and stability. However, a cloud hangs over the October contest and Brazil will still have a tough future no matter who comes out with a victory.