Photo from El Pais: Lula Arriving at Federal Police Prison in Curitiba
Former President Lula, Brazil’s best loved and most hated personality is sitting in jail, hoping for and probably expecting an early release. But it is too soon to tell when this might happen. While the PT insists that he is their candidate, it is also obvious that he will not be allowed to run for another term as president. The polls place Jair Bolsonaro in first place in a race without Lula. But Bolsonaro has no party and his support will likely shrink. Marina Silva has entered the race again and will attract the green vote and some on the left. She has to compete against the Cearense Ciro Gomes. So in the center or center right, we have the Governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin. Former Supreme Court President, Joaquim Barbosa, has also joined the race and currently ranks higher than Alckmin with 8 percent in voter intent. Obviously, it is still early and much has yet to happen before the first round of voting on October 7. Barbosa’s entry is fascinating as it will test Brazil’s mythical racial equality and pits him neatly against the racist/sexist epitaph spewing Bolsonaro.
Because the PT has won the last four presidential elections, there is an illusion on the left about support for the ideology of the worker’s party. The problem is that the left did not win; Lula WON, as a populist willing to offer something for all. While Lula’s popularity is his major strength, it has also turned into a millstone. He is no longer acceptable to the elite and the media. This has hastened his conviction although the malfeasance of his governments is unquestionable. His “expedited” removal from the election reflects establishment fear of his return and the rejection of PT’s statist economic policy (New Economic Matrix) as dysfunctional for Brazil. Of course, the PT’s burden of corruption also played a role even while “morality” is only relative in contemporary politics. Trump, for example, refuses to show his tax returns and comingles business and government. While Macron, in France, is seeking to reduce the role of the state, his administration has also been questioned for its honesty in negotiating the rail strike and his handling of his cabinet.
While the upcoming presidential election is the marquee event, it also is only a part of the puzzle. The make up of Congress after the vote will have equal or perhaps greater weight. Brazil’s political parties have never been about ideologies but instead personalities. Such is the case even of the supposedly ideal driven PT, which has little support without Lula. The same applies to all other parties. The many parties represent regional and local alignments of those wielding economic power. Because these competing forces control Congress, funds from the central government have been essential for assuring governability. President Temer, for example, comes from the “Centrao” or a coalition of specific economic and local interests. He has lost his political capital trading benefits for support in escaping trial by Congress on inevitable and obvious cases of corruption. These same politicians – in order to preserve their office and benefits – have protectively ensconced themselves. They may voice support for reform but fail to act or promote change in party structure, the electoral process and campaign finance. As things currently stand, the status quo will prevail in the next Congress and the new president will again be faced with having to “buy off” a venal and fractious set of legislators.
Given the popularity of the anti-corruption movement, the Lava Jato, and the demands for reform, one could speculate that there might be an opening for a new set of less tainted political actors. However, this is not exactly the case. Rio de Janeiro is probably the most obvious example of the systemic shortcomings, which inhibit reform. A little over a month ago, the popular Councilwoman Marielle Franco was brutally executed by professional hit men. Police, under army supervision, have made little headway in solving the case. In the meantime, another community leader with whom councilwoman had contact was also shot down. These deaths come about because powerful economic forces tied to organized crime dominate significant areas of Rio. They have their hands in many activities both legal and illegal. The weakness of public authority has allowed organized criminal gangs and interests to effectively replace it and control large swaths of voters. In addition, lack of literacy and the inability to see through false promises makes the electorate prey for opportunists of all types including criminals. Marielle was perceived as a threat to these interests and paid dearly. Her example makes others fearful to enter the fray. Overall, the homicide rate continues unabated.
Brazil needs and deserves change. It is important to note that politics as reported in the news fails to show the whole picture. Brazil’s economy is improving after the long recession. Civil society is alive and active in spite of the backward obtuseness of the educational system and the quasi-monopoly Globo TV holds on the mass media. But, Brazil is bigger than its government and officialdom. The productive possibilities in the country contradict and outstrip the fiscal and employment limitations of the state. Clearly politics and the economy interlink but anyone on the ground also knows there are degrees of freedom and multiple opportunities. Progress is slow and halting, but it still happens. The mood is not good but there is still life on the beach and hope for the Selecao.