It’s a big day here in Brazil. For the past week, it’s been impossible to go anywhere in Sao Paulo without hearing “Dilma! PT! PSDB!” as well as a number of choice words I will leave to your imagination. Campaign posters are everywhere, TV stations have been airing publically funded campaign ads in specified time blocks, and the streets are filled with people handing out political propaganda. On Thursday, the fourth presidential debate was held, and over the weekend, Brazilians all over the country journeyed to their hometowns to place their votes. By now, Sunday evening, the votes are in, indicating essentially that all the excitement is culminating in six more weeks of winter.
Because no one candidate garnered the majority of the votes in today’s first round of elections, the top two candidates: the current president and PT’s Dilma Roussef and her PSDB rival Aécio Neves will go head-to-head two weeks from now. This was a surprising first round result in what has been a dramatic and even tragic election season. On August 13th, less than two months before election day, Eduardo Campos, the candidate representing Brazil’s third major party (PSB) died in a plane crash in Sao Paulo state. At the time, he was polling well behind the other two candidates, and it seemed clear that Dilma would keep the presidency. However, after tragedy struck, Campos’ vice president Marina Silva began to rise in the polls, giving all indication that this radical environmentalist who grew up poor and illiterate in an Amazonian state, might give Dilma a run for her money.
Since I arrived on September 6th, however, Marina has been slowly falling in the polls. Post-election reports today suggest that after the dust from the tragedy had settled, people began to feel that Marina was simply not suitable for the job, just as Aécio was beginning to cement his reputation for (relative) competence. Each candidate has, of course, personal platforms, but this does not seem to be the primary driver of peoples’ voting decisions. Rather Brazilian politics takes the concept of trust and likeability to a whole new level. Many of my students have told me (and yes, I have co-opted some of my English “conversation” classes as an opportunity to learn about the basics of Brazilian politics) that, unlike the US’s extreme political polarization, the three powerhouse political parties in Brazil are ideologically quite similar. It is therefore not so much political platforms that people vote for as it is the person. In practice this seems to boil down to voting for whoever is the “menos pior,” or the “least bad” or corrupt rather than there existing any candidates anyone is actually excited about. In fact, apparently the presidential debate last week devolved quickly into a series of “no, you’re corrupt” mudslinging.
Given the history of military rule as well as extreme corruption within the more recent democracy, it is then unsurprising that Brazilians are disillusioned with their government. Interestingly, everyone I’ve met has viewed a Dilma victory as an inevitability yet has believed Aécio to be the far superior candidate (or at least less corrupt) who will never win. In Sao Paulo, Marina seemed to be universally disregarded as the candidate who simply did not have the right “postura” to be president. Brazilian news reports have lauded all three candidates not for their successes but for the fact that they are unlikely to reinstate military rule and revert the country back 30 years. Knowing of course that the people I talk to represent a very specific subpopulation of Brazilians, I was still confused as to how everyone could expect a Dilma victory when many of the people I know, after missing or voting “blank” in the first round, are going out of their way just to vote against Dilma in the second. But then several people explained to me that the obligatory nature of voting here may have a very specific, possibly intended consequence. While you can “justificar” if you can’t get back to your state of residence to vote, forcing everyone to vote means, according to many Paulistanos, that the vote of “poor illiterates in the Northeast” can be easily bought with a free T-shirt from Marina or Dilma.
As a timely bit of culture, yesterday, I went to see “O Candidato Honesto,” my first Brazilian movie-theater movie. The premise is exactly the same as “Liar Liar,” but instead of a dishonest lawyer, there is a corrupt politician who is suddenly unable to lie. The predictable gags ensue when he can no longer tell his wife that she doesn’t look fat in that dress or his girlfriend that he’d been missing her. Of course the real problems ensue when he voluntarily admits to multiple cases of under-the-table political dealings. While it was far from an inventive movie—even the lead’s brand of physical comedy was highly reminiscent of Jim Carrey—it provided me with some more perspective on the general Brazilian frustration with politicians. The lead character’s rousing speech at the end (sorry, spoiler alert!) suggests how deeply Brazil yearns for the ability to truly trust its politicians. This runs much deeper than the American desire that our politicians will ever accomplish anything they promised in their campaign speeches. Here, people seek the rare candidate who won’t steal their money. They want the exorbitant taxes they pay to go toward bettering their roads and to other public works, the results of which they will actually see. As the “honest candidate” closes in his speech: the Brazilian people deserve both a better candidate and a better system that won’t allow votes to be sold for a t-shirt. Then and only then will there be a better Brazil.