Unemployment Dominates Brazil’s Disjointed Presidential Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Three hours of heated, fragmented debate between Brazil’s presidential candidates failed to provide voters with much detail on how to put Latin America’s largest economy back on track.

Eight of the 13 contenders for Brazil’s presidency traded barbs on Thursday over corruption, crime and the dire state of the economy, with the country’s stubbornly high levels of unemployment returning again and again as the dominant theme of the night. None of the candidates, however, addressed the topics in much depth and viewing figures were low.

"We are in a very preliminary stage," said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Tendencias Consultoria. "There was no winner because no one was able to lure new supporters."

Arguably the most substantive exchange on policy centered on the labor reform enacted by the business-friendly administration of President Michel Temer. Left-wing candidate Ciro Gomes repeatedly attacked the measure, blaming it for Brazil’s joblessness, while the ex-governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, defended the law as a key step towards modernizing the country’s workforce. Ex-Army captain Jair Bolsonaro also spoke in favor of the reform. Notably absent from the debate was the opinion poll front-runner, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is in jail and will likely be barred from running.

After years of deep recession and anemic growth, Brazil is gearing up for its most uncertain election in three decades amid widespread disillusion with almost all the institutions of the state.

While Bolsonaro has performed strongly in early election polls by tapping into rage over soaring crime and graft, the electoral situation remains highly fluid. According to Datafolha, roughly 80 percent of Brazilian women are undecided or intend to annul their votes.

The debate ranged from job creation to abortion, but there was relatively little talk of the corruption that has dominated the news cycles in recent years, or the pension reform investors consider essential to stabilizing the public finances.

Candidates were broadly cautious in their attacks and measured in their responses, with one notable exception. In response to a question about rising crime in the country, Bolsonaro, known for his outlandish remarks on minorities and progressive values, proposed chemically castrating rapists.

"It was a lukewarm ambiance and the candidates remained in their comfort zones," wrote Poder360, an online news site focused on Brazilian politics.

The Workers’ Party last weekend formally endorsed Lula as its presidential candidate even though he has been incarcerated since April. Barred from taking part in Thursday’s debate, his vice-presidential candidate, ex-Sao Paulo governor Fernando Haddad, held a round-table discussion with other left-wingers broadcast simultaneously on the web.

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