Bello |—| Brazil’s election is now up for grabs

Apr 12th 2018Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 2.47.03 PM

The jailing of Lula has big implications for October’s national vote

VILA JOANINHA, on the edge of Diadema, a suburb of São Paulo, is the kind of gritty neighbourhood that voted for the Workers’ Party (PT) of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who on April 7th began a 12-year jail sentence for corruption. But crime and unemployment have hit the area hard and there is anger about graft. Vila Joaninha’s loyalties are wavering. Lindomar Santos Galvão, a gardener, says that in the presidential election due in October he might support Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and maverick seven-term congressman of extreme right-wing, macho views. “I think he’d bring order,” he says.

Two of his colleagues in the Vila Joaninha residents’ association are less sure. “Bolsonaro could win,” says Cleber Souza, the president. “I don’t support him but we need new people.” Silvia Souza (no relation), a medical secretary, thinks the PT still has some credibility “because of the opportunities it gave” when it was in power. “People who stole much more and did much less than Lula are not going to prison,” she adds.

Lula leads the opinion polls for the election, with 37% support, according to Datafolha, a pollster. He is almost 20 points ahead of Mr Bolsonaro, his nearest rival. The PT insists that he remains a candidate. But even if his lawyers free him pending further appeals, Brazil’s electoral law will probably bar him: anyone convicted of corruption, with his sentence confirmed on first appeal, cannot run.

The jailing of Lula is merely the most extraordinary twist in an election that was already like no other in Brazil, at least since 1989 when Fernando Collor, a previously obscure conservative populist, won against a crowded field. The past six contests have come down to a fight between the left-of-centre PT and the centre-right Brazilian Party of Social Democracy (PSDB), which ruled from 1995 to 2002 under Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Brazil is traditionally moderate. In a normal election, Mr Bolsonaro would have no chance. But Brazilian politics has been turned upside down by the economic slump of 2015-16, a deterioration in security and the conviction of dozens of politicians, apart from Lula, for corruption in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation. In 2016 congress impeached Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s protégée and successor, for fiscal misdemeanours. Her successor, Michel Temer, is even less popular. While bringing about a still-modest economic recovery, he has had to fight off corruption allegations.

The result is an anti-political mood. Campaigning through social media, Mr Bolsonaro, an evangelical Protestant, attracts the support of frustrated youth and of farmers scared by rural crime. Support for Lula may now splinter among several candidates. No other PT leader has Lula’s political stature. There are two far-left candidates. And there is Ciro Gomes, a soft-left former minister in the PT-led coalition governments, who has a chance, especially if Lula endorses him.

On balance, Lula’s absence from the ballot will hurt Mr Bolsonaro by making the election less polarised. That could help Joaquim Barbosa, a former chief justice who is black, popular and well-known as a scourge of corruption. He is considering a presidential run. The more fragmented the field, the fewer votes will be needed to make the inevitable run-off, and the greater the uncertainty. The shape of the race will not become clear until early August, when parties have to choose their candidates and coalition partners.

A side-effect of Lava Jato is that corporate donations are now banned. How much public money and free television time each candidate gets depends on the congressional strength of his or her coalition. That hurts Mr Bolsonaro and helps the PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin, the long-serving governor of São Paulo. He would build on Mr Temer’s economic reforms but is deeply uncharismatic.

The biggest question is how much the country has really been changed by the past few years. “At the start [of the campaign] people want new things,” says Luiz Felipe D’Ávila, who is advising Mr Alckmin. But as it goes on, he says, “the power of mayors and the party machine” will tell. The PSDB, the PT and Mr Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement are the only parties with local organisations in 90% or more of Brazil’s municipalities, points out Ricardo Sennes, a political consultant. We don’t buy the idea that Brazil has changed totally.

The next six months will show whether that is right, or whether public anger amplified by social media has torn up the political rules. Much is at stake. After its years of turmoil, Brazil desperately needs some calm expertise, as well as integrity, at the top.