2018 Election 2018 Election

Brazil’s presidential election approaches without favorites

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No clear favorite for Brazil's presidential election

Presidential election (from L to R): Ciro, Bolsonaro, Marina, Barbosa.

Brazilians are five months away from casting their ballots for president – and there are no candidates that stand out as clear-cut favorites. It’s the first time since we became a democracy that we have been this close to a presidential election with such uncertainty. Of course, that scenario would be far different if former President Lula da Silva hadn’t been recently convicted by an appellate court and arrested.

Lula remains the favorite for approximately one-third of the electorate, but he now will not be a part of the race (barring some bizarre turn of events, of course). According to the so-called Clear Record Law, candidates with multiple convictions – like Lula – aren’t eligible for office. Of course, the former president could, in theory, be released on parole and manage to have his ineligibility suspended by the Supreme Court. But if the justices put him in jail, they will likely deny him the right to run for the country’s highest office.

So that leaves us with a confounding scenario that we have never before seen. By scrutinizing the numbers, we can identify three clear clusters of candidates at this moment:

  • Those who are polling higher than most, but whose parties have little-to-no structure. They are extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, environmentalist Marina Silva, and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa;
  • Those with bit partisan machines behind them, but who have paltry polling numbers, like former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin and former Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles;
  • Finally, there are most candidates: no partisan muscle, and ridiculously low polling numbers. The list includes former President Fernando Collor (impeached in 1992 due to a corruption scandal), little-known libertarian João Amoêdo, and extreme left-wing militant Guilherme Boulos.

One amazingly disheartening reality is that the leaders of these polls are far from ideal. Lula is in jail; Bolsonaro faces charges of racism; Marina Silva has barely shown her face; Joaquim Barbosa is not officially a candidate; and Geraldo Alckmin is involved in corruption scandals of his own.

Too early to call

We are in what Brazilians call the pre-campaign. Right now, candidates are trying to create a brand of their own by finding something that connects them to voters. The real campaign doesn’t begin until August. By then, parties that exist only to drain money from the public electoral fund will gravitate around the candidates who present the best chance of winning.

These parties do not care about ideology. They simply want to be in the government – regardless of party affiliation – and operate on political patronage. While Geraldo Alckmin remains the likeliest candidate for these political groups, he has stalled in the polls. His low-profile demeanor certainly does not win him points at this stage, but he presents himself as a more viable option than the radical Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro has grown in the polls, in part because he presents himself as the anti-Lula. The former president is simultaneously the most-loved and the most-hated politician in Brazil. Many right-wing voters were becoming fond of Bolsonaro simply because he seemed to be the only politician capable of beating Lula. Alckmin, for instance, can come off as too soft, or too insipid…

This is why Bolsonaro might be the biggest loser from Lula’s exclusion — that is, after Lula himself. Without the former president around to antagonize voters, Bolsonaro risks losing much of his appeal.

Joaquim Barbosa – the true outsider

Bolsonaro is trying to craft his image as an outsider. However, he has been in Congress for the better part of the last 30 years. On the right, businessman Flavio Rocha is also trying to capitalize on Brazilians’ distrust of institutions, political parties, and Congress. Yet he remains relatively unknown.

At this point, only one true outsider seems to be a viable candidate for the presidential election: Joaquim Barbosa. He could gather support among both left-wing and right-wing voters.

Similarly to Lula, Barbosa benefits from the narrative of being self-made. Born into poverty, Barbosa swept floors in his youth and, thanks to his hard work and all-around brilliance, managed to get into law school at a public university. A doctorate in public law and a federal prosecutor, Barbosa became the first black man in the Supreme Court in 2003, when he was appointed by Lula.

joaquim barbosa

Former Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa could shake the presidential election.

The former Supreme Court Chief Justice has become a symbol against corruption. He was the justice who oversaw the Mensalão case – the most emblematic trial in Supreme Court history. The case was about a bribery scheme operated by Lula’s administration that paid monthly stipends to congressmen in exchange for political support.

During the trial, Barbosa proved to be an extremely tough judge, asking for the conviction of almost all defendants and pushing for harsh sentences. And the fact that some of his colleagues in the Court, like Justice Ricardo Lewandowski, bent over backwards to acquit most of the politicians on trial only enhanced Barbosa’s toughness.

But if Barbosa was the Workers’ Party’s executioner during that trial, he stood against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Which could help him score points among leftists. 

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About the author

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.