Brazil’s Voters Face Some Ugly Choices

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Brazilian politics is in a bad way. One former president is in jail for corruption; another was thrown out of office. The sitting leader and much of the national legislature are under official scrutiny, and dinosaurs dominate the October elections. The only novelty? An odious strain of ultra-conservatism, whose standard-bearer, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, waxes nostalgic for men in epaulets.

Quick fixes won’t rescue a damaged democracy, only tough economic and political reforms will. But don’t tell that to the country’s exalted partisans, who want to reset Brazil to some imagined golden era: Say (pick your time warp) circa 1964, when the military took power, or 2002, when Workers’ Party hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected to lead Latin America’s pink tide of leftist rule, but also laid the way for the hemisphere’s biggest political corruption scandal and Brazil’s worst recession.

Brazil deserves better. With national elections looming, polarization and distrust run deep, poisoning public debate. Little wonder that as 147 million voters prepare to elect a president, a new congress, governors and local legislators, bad choices abound.

Consider Brazil’s Lula fixation. Convicted of corruption by a lower court and again on appeal, Lula is not only behind bars but, according to the Clean Slate law, banned from seeking office. He also happens to lead the opinion polls, and so — claiming he’s the victim of rogue justice — has turned his cellblock into campaign headquarters. The electoral court has until Sept. 17 to rule on his candidacy, and loyalists still believe that the Supreme Court will set him free.

Yet this is magical thinking. Indulgent and erratic as they’ve been, Brazilian courts have consistently shown Lula little quarter. Supreme Court chief justice Carmen Lucia recently called the Clean Slate law a milestone, and the incoming Supreme Electoral Court top judge has promised a speedy ruling. Never mind the charges that Lula still faces in five separate graft and bribery trials.

Speculation over his candidacy notwithstanding, politics in Brazil has mostly moved on. Environmentalist Marina Silva and former Ceara state governor Ciro Gomes represent the soft left, while centrists are coalescing behind former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, a career politician with zero charisma but plenty of (admittedly dicey) allies and a formidable campaign machine. Conservatives have found a champion in hard-right populist Bolsonaro, who’s polling a close second. Lula is not so much the “elephant in the room,” as one Brazilian columnist put it, as he is the couch-hogging in-law who overstayed his welcome.

Not only was the Workers’ Party signature white-starred red flag conspicuously absent during last week’s presidential candidates debate, Lula’s name was barely mentioned. “For the first time in two generations, Lula is not part of a Brazilian political campaign,” Jose Casado, a political columnist for O Globo, told me. “His absence is a defining moment for Brazilian politics.”

Other pundits claim Lula is merely playing political poker, keeping his brand in headlines while grooming a stand-in to run should the courts rule against him.

While Lula’s ambitions hold the Brazilian left hostage, the political right has gathered critical mass. Social media is in a lather over the rise of Bolsonaro, whom The Economist branded a “threat to democracy.” Yet that may misread the political moment. Yes, some Bolsonaro aficionados share his fondness for the days when generalissimos called the shots: Latinobarometro found in 2016 that just 31 percent of Brazilians supported democracy, the lowest rate in Latin America after Guatemala.

Disenchantment over democracy is not the same as support for authoritarian rule, however. Bolsonaro has tapped the angst of a sullen, conservative Brazilian demographic which suddenly has found its voice. The number of former military running for office this year has increased threefold since 2010, and the conservative so-called Evangelical Caucus in Congress has doubled since 2006 to 84 legislators.

One recent poll found that most Brazilians want the next president to be male (65 percent), white (73 percent), and to believe in God (89 percent). Another poll found that only a small minority want their elected leader pushing for decriminalization of abortion (30 percent) and marijuana (26 percent), or back same-sex marriage (36 percent).

Such convictions clash with the liberal social agenda cast in policy under Lula and his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff. Now the Brazilian cultural war has become an electoral battleground, with Bolsonaro marshaling the backlash.

“The left’s mistake was to turn divisive, socially progressive ideas on abortion and gay marriage into government policy,” journalist and former Brazilian legislator Fernando Gabeira told me. “That offended a great number of Brazilians who believed that families, not the schools or the state, should determine values.”

Granted, Bolsonaro’s cant is hard to stomach. He once attacked a feminist legislator saying she wasn’t worth raping, said he’d rather find his son with a broken arm than playing with dolls, and lavishly praised a former military torturer. That he frequently backpedals such extremism suggests that Bolsonaro is not contrite but unstable.

He also knows his market. “It does no good to pile up on him and disqualify his opinions as reactionary,” said Gabeira, who served alongside Bolsonaro in congress for 16 years. “A huge number of Brazilians distrust the press and the liberal elite, and Bolsonaro capitalizes on those emotions, pitching himself as an alternative to elites and a compromised political system.”

In that way, Bolsonaro has helped rewrite the script of Brazil’s clubby politics. “There’s a latent conservative, evangelical vote in Brazil, which finally has a spokesman,” said political scientist Fernando Schuler, of the Sao Paulo business school, Insper. “In many ways, he’s helping to complete Brazilian democracy.”

Of course, vitriol is no better a campaign strategy than victimhood. That may explain Bolsonaro’s belated conversion to market-friendly economics, a subject about which he cheerfully admits knowing nothing and so has outsourced to his new best friend, University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes. Bolsonaro’s track record on reform is even less coherent: In congress he voted against the real plan that beat hyperinflation, defends state-stewarded investment in infrastructure, and criticizes pension reform if it means culling the perks of military retirees.

Despite the enthusiasm of his base, Bolsonaro heads a tiny party with few allies. That means he’ll have just eight seconds a day to flog his exotically mixed message of culture wars and ersatz liberalism on broadcast television, which still trumps social media among the great unwired. His best play is as a foil to Lula and the left.

What’s to become of the mass of voters in the middle? With six weeks remaining until the election, it seems that Brazilians mostly face the choice of what sort of leader they don’t want.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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