Marcio França (L) and João Doria (R)

There is a good chance that Thursday’s debate, held by TV Bandeirantes, between João Doria and Márcio França, the two candidates for the governor’s seat of the state of São Paulo, passed by unnoticed for the majority of people. The political atmosphere, contaminated by the polarization between anti-Workers’ Party and anti-Bolsonaro sentiments on a national level, sucks in all the attention and turns state elections into mere accessories.

This lack of importance is not by chance. In part because, for one of the candidates, there is an attempt to transform the state race into a pastiche of the presidential election. It is a shame, as, given the importance of São Paulo, it is crucial that the state maintain a focus on clarity and moderation, a window for the future. It should be important, but it isn’t.

The battle for São Paulo has done nothing to mitigate the mood of no-holds-barred political quarrel, with blows below the belt being traded between opponents. Analysts tread carefully, trying to find positive aspects from the chaos, but there comes a moment in which it is impossible not to swing to one side, whether it be in praise or criticism.

Undoubtedly, João Doria is not here to reconcile, encourage dialogue, build consensus and promote the welfare of all, a fundamental role of politics and politicians. His personality and hubris give him an air of someone who is not looking to bring people together. A 24-hour-a-day candidate since 2016, Mr. Doria does not avoid provocation and has no hesitation in embracing irrationalism, even if it means coming back to haunt him in the long term – as is the case of his 53 percent rejection rate, in the city of São Paulo, according to Ibope.

He exploits the decay of the Workers’ Party, less through conviction and more for convenience. He is a crusader, a Napoleon of imaginary wars, trying to vanquish the enemy who, at least in São Paulo, already died yesterday. Therefore, he destroys the future, as he burns bridges in a country which needs to rebuild them.

Being anti-Workers’ Party as a platform

In the São Paulo mayoral election, it worked well. In 2016, he managed to mobilize one-third of the electorate against the party of the incumbent at the time, Fernando Haddad. He solidified this segment’s support and benefited from a high rate of abstention and spoiled ballots come Election Day. He won in the first round, which is quite a feat as far as the state capital is concerned.

Indeed, he won a majority of valid votes. However, in truth, the real winner of that election was the “no” vote. While João Doria won over 33.74 percent of the electorate, the segment which washed its hands of the mayoral dispute added up to 33.84 percent. Following the rules, he was legitimately made Mayor, a position which Mr. Doria used as his campaigning platform, a strategy which ended up severely harming his political mentor, Geraldo Alckmin.

However, he reckoned he had found a campaigning gold mine: criticizing the Workers’ Party at every opportunity. In this year’s election, he spent a large part of the first-round campaign attacking Luiz Marinho, Lula’s candidate in São Paulo who never had any real chances of winning. It didn’t stick as well as it did two years ago, which led to Márcio França and Paulo Skaf winning over a large part of the electorate and taking the dispute to a runoff.

Once realizing that, this time around, he would not be as lucky as 2016 and that his victory would not be the walkover he had predicted, the former mayor was faced with the prospect of debating face-to-face with a skilled opponent, in a setting which was less disperse and more focused on proposals, typical of second-round elections.

With no capacity for growth, he retreated to his comfort zone, presenting himself once again as the judge, jury, and executioner of Lula and his party, and now, of the entire Brazilian left. A role, meanwhile, already occupied successfully by presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro. In light of this, João Doria felt obliged to stick his image to that of the former Army captain, in a way which jarred with the traditional São Paulo snobbishness. “Forget Bolsonaro, João!” exclaimed Mr. França, during Thursday’s debate.

Anyone uninformed or inattentive listening to his discourse would imagine themselves in the context of a Cold War; believing that Josef Stalin is in Moscow, that a wall is about to be raised in Germany, that Fidel Castro is leading the youth of Latin America astray.

If much of this was anti-communist delirium in the past, what about today?

However, what is João Doria to do, if the Workers’ Party no longer has any presence in the state of São Paulo? His solution has been to select an adversaire du jour to make up for the absence of his bête noire. To this end, he has strived to transform Márcio França into a dangerous leftist, based simply on the name of his party. Mr. França belongs to the Brazilian Socialist Party, which today is about as socialist as João Doria and his Social Democracy Party. The caricature he is trying to create, of “França the Red,” makes little sense.

However, this isn’t even the issue. The biggest problem is the importance that São Paulo may take in the national debate, which is being wasted by this Cold War fantasy.

The Workers’ Party deserves criticism. Failing to admit that may have been Fernando Haddad’s biggest mistake. However, transforming the party into a fetish, demonizing it, is not just opportunism. It is, above all, an attempt to exclude São Paulo from a debate which is serious and fundamental for the country: the need to regain unity, once the nationwide storm has passed, to pick up the pieces after the most aggressive and destructive presidential election to date.

Turning São Paulo into an illusory ideological trench against the Workers’ Party and the left in general belittles the debate and the state as a whole. Jair Bolsonaro already does this, and he reigns supreme in this field, particularly in São Paulo. The state, therefore, has the opportunity to take the debate to another level. The redundancy of the actors and issues is, however, tiring. Márcio França took a glancing shot at the matter, but the ad absurdum marketing fetishization of the Workers’ Party, has not allowed the issue to prosper.

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OpinionOct 19, 2018

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BY Carlos Melo

Political scientist and sociologist, professor at São Paulo's Insper Business School. Follow his blog