Matchmaking Season Begins in Brazil as Politicians Seek Parties

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(Bloomberg) -- Charismatic, experienced Brazilian legislator seeks political party with plenty of cash, TV time and a cleanish record on corruption.

On Thursday the Latin American nation’s lawmakers -- including its potential presidential candidates -- will start a month-long hunt for political organizations they hope will propel them to office in October. Brazilian law bans candidates from running as independents.

Established parties will have more power than usual during this round of political matchmaking, as they are virtually the only source of legitimate campaign finance this election. The amount of public money and airtime available to each party is determined by how many seats it currently controls. So while the candidates are looking for partners with cash and TV advertising, the parties want individuals who can overcome Brazilians’ distrust of politicians. Political beliefs aren’t really a factor.

"In Brazil there are party acronyms, but there aren’t party institutions," Senator Cristovam Buarque said, describing the alphabet soup of 35 registered parties. "None of them have an ideological identity."

A former member of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party, or PT, Buarque left in 2005 to join the PDT and now belongs to the PPS. "I had a good reason for leaving those parties," he said. "But maybe not such a good one for joining them."

In a sign of the disposable nature of Brazil’s parties, over a quarter of the congressional deputies elected in 2014 no longer belong to the group they championed when elected. Such maneuvering, periodically allowed under house rules, is likely to intensify before an April 7 deadline.

Presidential Contenders

Many of this year’s potential presidential challengers have worked their way through a handful of parties. Former President Fernando Collor de Mello is on his seventh, while Senator Alvaro Dias is bidding for the presidency on behalf of Podemos, following stints in the MDB, the PST, the PP, the PSDB (twice), the PDT, and the PV.

But the senator downplayed the significance of the moves. "I’ve never switched parties because we don’t have political parties in Brazil," he said. "What we have are letters used to register candidates."

One notable exception to this political bed-hopping is Lula himself, who founded and remains a member of the PT. Though he is the frontrunner in opinion polls for this year’s election, he is likely to be barred from standing.

In a volatile electoral scenario marked by voters distrust of politicians in the wake of a massive corruption scandal, choosing a party is a delicate task for presidential candidates.

Ex-army Captain Jair Bolsonaro, currently second in opinion polls, left the PP to join the PSC last year, but then signed preliminary agreements with two other parties, Patriotas and the PSL. Eventually, he settled on the PSL, and will officially join the party on Thursday.

Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, another likely presidential candidate, is mulling whether to leave the PSD for the MDB, the biggest party in Brazilian politics. Whatever he decides, the parties themselves only have to choose their presidential candidates by August, meaning there’s no guarantee the relationship will work to his benefit.

Sometimes it’s the party that makes the first move. Joaquim Barbosa, the former Supreme Court chief justice who became a national icon during the trial of a major corruption scandal, has been invited to join the PSB, possibly to run as its presidential candidate.

But Brazilians hopeful of significant renewal this election cycle in the wake of the Carwash investigation are likely to end up disappointed, according to Senator Buarque, as recent political reform creating a new fund to finance campaigns will only benefit insiders.

"The system is addictive and the addicts have made the rules to benefit from the addiction," he said.

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