The plot thickens High suspense in Brazil’s general election

IF BRAZILIAN politics were a telenovela, the general election in October would make for a riveting finale. A motley cast of suitors is vying for the hand of a disappointed electorate. They include an old flame, who is pressing his suit from a jail cell, a swain who has all the attributes brides normally want but is a bit of a bore, and a rascal who promises excitement and danger. Unlike the plots of past political dramas, this one is building up to an ending that is impossible to guess.

That is because this election, in which voters will choose Brazil’s president, all members of the lower house of congress and two-thirds of the 81-seat senate, plus governors and legislators in the 26 states and the capital, is different from any that has come before. The voters are more disgusted than at any time since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. More than a quarter are undecided, an unusually high share just two months before the first round on October 7th; 31% say they might spoil their ballots or leave them blank.

Disillusionment makes voters unpredictable. Will they opt for one of the establishment candidates, who retain the customary advantages of backing by strong parties and the lion’s share of advertising time (see chart)? Or will they choose one of the radicals, who must get their message out mainly through social media? Complicating the picture further are a new political-finance regime and new rules for electing members of congress. The fragmented presidential field means that a candidate could enter a run-off, to be held on October 28th if needed, with just 15% of the vote. The safest bet may be that the election will not produce the conditions for political and economic renewal that Brazil needs.

The sour mood comes from two traumas that Brazil has suffered over the past four years. One is the country’s worst-ever recession, which began in 2014 and from which the economy is recovering slowly. The other is the Lava Jato(“Car Wash”) corruption investigations. These began as a probe into bribe-paying by construction companies to win contracts from Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, and have implicated scores of politicians from all the main parties. The current president, Michel Temer, has avoided prosecution only because congress voted to protect him from it. Last year just 13% of Brazilians said they were satisfied with their democracy, a lower share than in any other Latin American country, according to Latinobarómetro, a pollster.

The line-up of presidential hopefuls is unlikely to rekindle enthusiasm. The front-runner is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was president from 2003 to 2010 and remains the country’s most popular politician. But he is also the most important scalp claimed by the Lava Jato investigators: he is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption in a jail in Curitiba. That means he will almost certainly be disqualified before the first round. Regardless, on August 4th his Workers’ Party (PT) nominated him to be its candidate, hoping to exploit the sympathy of voters who regard him as a left-wing martyr. If he is forced out, his running mate, Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo, will probably become the PT’s presidential candidate.

In polls that do not mention Lula, the leader is Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman who has made a career of insulting gays, women and black people, extolling the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and advocating violent repression as the best way to fight crime. His running mate is a retired general who said last year that a military coup could solve the country’s political crisis.

Lagging behind is Geraldo Alckmin, a centrist former governor of the state of São Paulo, who has run for president once before, in 2006. Others in the second tier are Ciro Gomes, a former governor of the state of Ceará who is battling with Lula’s PT for the left-wing vote, and Marina Silva, an environmentalist with a compelling life story (she is the daughter of a rubber-tapper). She has run twice before.

Old whines

If the old rules applied, Mr Alckmin would be the strong favourite. That is not because of his charisma. Trained as an anaesthesiologist, he is mocked by Brazilians as a picolé de xuxu, an (imaginary) popsicle made from a flavourless vegetable. But Mr Alckmin’s Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) is one of the most powerful (the last elected non-PT president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was among its founders). For the first time, it has formed a pre-election coalition with the centrão (big centre), an agglomeration of smaller parties.

That entitles Mr Alckmin to 44% of free television advertising time, far more than any other candidate. (Ms Silva jokes that she will barely have time to say “good morning”.) Mr Alckmin will also get the biggest share of 2.6bn reais ($700m) in public campaign financing; for the first time in a presidential election, corporate donations are banned (at least in theory).

In the past, these advantages would have been decisive. The biggest shifts in poll standings normally occur after television advertising begins, which this year will be on August 31st, though the main gainers are usually unknown candidates. Mr Alckmin is, if anything, tiresomely familiar. So are his allies in the centrão, many of whom have been implicated in Lava Jato cases. “The PT and the PSDB think this will end up being another left-versus-right election,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy at the University of São Paulo. “But it’s about traditional politics versus a rejection of the system.”

The leading rejectionist is Mr Bolsonaro, who plans to win by being a fresh face in national-level politics (though he has been a congressman for 27 years), immoderate in his pronouncements and, unlike Mr Alckmin, compelling to watch. An evangelical Christian, he hopes to appeal to the third of the population that shares his faith and to other conservatives who don’t feel represented by the main parties. “Bolsonaro is an expression of this enormous contingent that’s for the first time represented in the political realm,” says Fernando Schüler, a political scientist at Insper, a university in São Paulo.

To what extent that will translate into votes will depend in part on whether his social-media prowess can counter Mr Alckmin’s old-media advantage. Nearly all “alt-right” websites support Mr Bolsonaro, says Mr Ortellado, who monitors political social media. That may matter less than Mr Bolsonaro hopes. Just half of Brazilians have frequent access to the internet, points out Mauro Paulino, head of DataFolha, a pollster. Mr Alckmin is trying to attract potential Bolsonaro voters by naming as his running-mate Ana Amélia from the conservative Progressive Party, to which Mr Bolsonaro belonged until 2015.

Another big unknown is how much support Mr Haddad will get if Lula is forced out of the race. The PT has formed an alliance with the Communist Party. Mr Haddad has begun to campaign with Manuela D’Ávila, one of its leaders, in what looks like an effort to familiarise voters with the duo in preparation for Lula’s withdrawal. The press has dubbed her the “vice’s vice”.

Although no party is more enmeshed in Lava Jato than the PT, voters remember that the economy prospered and the poor benefited under Lula’s presidency. “The PT stole, but they helped us out,” says Luciano Trajano, a janitor from São Paulo. Lula’s policies helped him buy his first plane ticket to visit his family in the north-eastern state of Paraíba. Such memories could usher Mr Haddad into the second round.

The new rules may change the shape of congress, though probably not as much as reformers hope. Public financing will benefit big parties at the expense of small ones. A “barrier clause” enacted last year eliminates money and media time for parties that get less than 1.5% of the vote in at least nine states, a threshold that will eventually rise to 3%. That will put pressure on politicians from small parties to join bigger ones. With fewer, more disciplined parties, congress may be less prone to the grubby deal-making that helped create the Lava Jato scandals.

However, 91% of the lower-house deputies under investigation plan to seek re-election, according to O Estado de S. Paulo, a newspaper. Some are surely doing so to keep their immunity from prosecution. “Congress won’t be substantially different,” said Pérsio Arida, Mr Alckmin’s economic adviser, at a recent conference. “Change must come from the president.” Brazilians can only wait and wonder what sort of change that will be.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “The plot thickens”

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