Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Which Presidential Candidates Have the Edge in Brazil?

Former São Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin // File Photo: Alckmin Campaign. Former São Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin // File Photo: Alckmin Campaign.

An Ipespe poll released July 31 shows far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and conservative Geraldo Alckmin in the lead in São Paulo State when imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is excluded from the survey. Why didn’t Alckmin garner more support in São Paulo State, where he previously served as governor? What is driving support for Bolsonaro? With millions of people using social media in Brazil, how big of a handicap is it for Bolsonaro that he is allotted just a tiny amount of free television advertising time? Other than a final ruling on Lula’s eligibility, what factors between now and the Oct. 7 election will most influence the race’s outcome?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Aside from Lula, whose criminal conviction will almost surely bar his candidacy, Alckmin is today the only candidate that is both competitive and qualified for the job of president of Brazil. Although elected governor of São Paulo with 57 percent of the vote, recent polls suggest few Brazilians, even in his home state, make him their first choice to lead the country. With his support now in single digits, Alckmin faces a formidable challenge to attract, in just two months, sufficient first round votes to put himself into the runoff. Although not particularly inspiring or charismatic, he still has a fair chance of securing the 20 to 25 percent of the vote needed to pull it off. He is a skilled political operator, and is the only contender who managed to assemble a large multi-party coalition to support his candidacy. The coalition gives him nearly half of the television time allotted to all candidates and on-the-ground support across Brazil’s vast territory. He should certainly be able to pick up a chunk of votes in São Paulo (whose voting power equals that of California, Texas and New York in U.S. presidential elections). If he gets to the runoff (and, as likely, Lula cannot compete or generate much support for a stand-in candidate), his opponent will likely be Bolsonaro, whose nationalist, extreme right and often racist views appeal today to a large segment of Brazil’s population, which is fed up with corruption and insecurity, disgusted with politicians of all stripes and despairing of the economy. But Bolsonaro has spawned at least as much hostility as he has support, and his political base remains extremely narrow. While a weakness in the initial round, Alckmin’s centrist views in a highly polarized election may become a source of strength in the final stage. All told, it is hard to imagine how Bolsonaro could win over a majority. Still, worsening economic conditions, escalating crime and violence, and new revelations of political corruption could enhance the appeal of his radical, hardline rhetoric. It has happened elsewhere.”

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues, professor of international relations at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil:“Creating the perception of being the ‘newest’ in politics is the most important factor for any candidate in Brazil’s next election. In fact, few candidates are new. Those best positioned in the polls—Lula, despite being imprisoned, Bolsonaro, Ciro, Marina and Alckmin—all have been in politics for more than two decades. And those who are relatively new—Manuela and Boulos—are not as well known. The way parties form their alliances is still based on old politics, and it’s far from people’s desires for something new. However, almost all candidates are trying to pass themselves off as newcomers, while still being capable of governing the country and freeing it from a legacy of corruption. In this scenario, Alckmin is by far the less ‘new.’ He made electoral deals with the ‘oldest’ in Brazil’s politics, the Centrão, a set of political parties hosting a large group of politicians that guarantee TV advertising and governability, but who are well known for huge corruption charges. This explains why Alckmin risks losing the elections in his own state of São Paulo, where he has dominated for decades. If Lula is not allowed to run, Haddad—a new generation of the Workers’ Party—will replace him, with a real chance to run in the second round with Lula’s support. Social media may play a role and help candidates with less advertising time, but it still won’t be a turning point in Brazilian politics. Finally, there are more undecided women than men. Attracting them—or not frightening them away—could be key for defining who will survive the first round.”

Monica Arruda de Almeida, adjunct professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University: “I often ask my friends and colleagues from São Paulo how they feel about Alckmin as a governor, and most people seem to dislike him, which is a sentiment that the electoral polls corroborate. Perhaps part of the problem is that after four terms as a governor, there is a natural electoral apathy for somebody who has been in power for so long. Another problem is that Brazil as a whole is doing very poorly economically. The country is just bouncing back from one of its worst economic recessions in history, and its anemic recovery has not been enough to improve people’s sentiments about the country’s politicians. Unemployment in the state of São Paulo is about 13 percent, which is on par with the national average. That makes it very hard for constituents to be enthusiastic about their governor, particularly when they see, for example, more and more people living on the streets and urban violence out of control. The irony is that São Paulo is by far the safest state in the country, with a homicide rate of 8.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, as compared to the national average of 28.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Brazilian voters are tired of corruption, extreme violence, lack of economic opportunities and the state’s unnerving inability to address those issues. The Bolsonaro voter in particular is hungry for law and order. Not surprisingly, Bolsonaro regularly comments that he is a Trump admirer. But whether a Bolsonaro presidency would be the right answer for those problems is a completely different story.”

Christopher Garman, managing director for the Americas, and Filipe Gruppelli Carvalho, Brazil associate, both at Eurasia Group:“The election will be dominated by anti-establishment feelings and anger toward the political class. Alckmin is seen as an establishment candidate who does not meet the profile that the voters want, and hence will struggle to grow. His alliance with large centrist parties gives him a big campaign advantage, but these groups are also close to the Temer administration, and many have associations with previous corruption scandals, so Alckmin does run the risk of being seen as a continuity of this administration. Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, however, is capitalizing on much of the population’s anger at a corrupt political class, given his nationalist views and strong stance on fighting corruption and violence. Voters are desperate for solutions to these issues, and Bolsonaro’s hardline position against them, such as a carte blanche for police officers to kill criminals and allowing the sale of personal handguns, appeals to a large part of the electorate. While Bolsonaro lacks television time, he and his supporters dominate the conversation on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, which have become more important tools in the political debate. Television time remains important, but a shorter 35-day ad campaign will decrease its effect on the vote, since candidates will have less time to steer voters their way. Alckmin’s chances thus depend less on selling himself, and more on deconstructing Bolsonaro in order to gain back traditional PSDB voters in the south, southeast and center-west of the country. While possible, we don’t bet on it. Bolsonaro’s base is very loyal. Additionally, new accusations of corruption against Alckmin can come out, making the former governor’s campaign for the presidency challenging. But his pathway to the second round depends on an effective negative campaign against Bolsonaro. The race has all the ingredients to become a classic mudslinging election.”

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