Published On: April 25, 2018

Who’s Next: The Race for President

Share This


While PT followers continue to congregate in Curitiba to show their support for the imprisoned former President, the eyes of the world are focused on the looming question – who’s next? The most strident Lula supporters and the PT leadership are claiming that not only will Lula be freed from jail soon, but that he’ll be allowed to run for president, beginning in August, when all the presidential campaigns must officially declare. As Lula currently leads the huge field of candidates by a wide margin, should he be permitted to run, there’s a good chance he would win.

However, Brazil’s federal prosecutors like Sérgio Moro are not eager to see that happen, and thus far, the Supreme Court has backed the prosecutors by keeping Lula in custody in Curitiba. There is every probability that even if Lula were released from custody or placed under house arrest, a common practice for white-collar criminals in Brazil, he would be excluded from the October election under the Ficha Limpa rule, and he could be forbidden to hold public office for the next eight years, as is the case with other convicted politicians. If so, who will he pick as his chosen successor to run for President as the PT candidate?

Judge Sérgio Moro of Curitiba

Judge Sérgio Moro of Curitiba

Thus we arrive at the crux of the issue. With the front-runner out – who’s next? Without Lula, the field of candidates is the biggest and broadest in the thirty years since the end of Brazil’s military rule and the establishment of the new Constitution in the 1980s. Around the globe, speculation as to who will be the next leader of Latin America’s largest economy is the topic of conversation.

Unfortunately, this political uncertainty, while providing lively party banter, is extremely detrimental to the economy. Just at the moment when Brazil’s economy was crawling out of a devastating recession, economic growth has stalled, and the Brazilian currency is down. The stock market sluggishness is typical for a presidential election year, but with so much presidential uncertainty, it’s worse, and coming at the worst possible time for the country’s 12 percent unemployed.

In the most recent poll conducted by Datafolha, a respected polling organization, with Lula left out of the election survey, the leading candidates are from the left and from the right. The center parties, PMDB and PSDB, the largest and most powerful parties, currently controlling the Congress in Brasília and the presidency, are polling far behind the left and right-wing candidates.

José Padilha, Brazilian creator of O Mecanismo at the Netflix offices in New York. Credit: Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

José Padilha, Brazilian creator of O Mecanismo at the Netflix offices in New York. Credit: Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

What is clouding this election year, the fog that permeates all political discussion, is Lava Jato. The investigation has revealed the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history, even stretching beyond Brazil’s borders. Brazilian construction company Odebrecht admitted paying nearly U$800 million in bribes to leaders in a dozen countries across Latin America since 2001 in exchange for public contracts. Last month, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned after his company was accused of receiving bribes from Odebrecht. Kuczynski is the third Peruvian president to be accused in the probe.

This month, Argentina’s former planning minister was charged with wrongdoing in the awarding of multimillion-dollar contracts to Odebrecht. The scandal has also resulted in prison sentences for two sons of a former president of Panama and the vice president of Ecuador. In 2016, Argentina approved legislation that instituted plea bargains for corruption cases. Anti-corruption measures in Latin America have more than doubled since 2001, according to an Inter-American Dialogue study.

While no candidate for Brazil’s October presidential election can officially declare before August, as many as twenty have directly or indirectly expressed interest. Here’s a brief summary of the most visible potential candidates:

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro

Congressman Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate with ties to the military, who is currently under investigation for the crime of hate speech. He leads in the current polling when Lula is not included in the election survey.

Billionaire businessman Flávio Rocha, right wing but less volatile and extreme than Bolsonaro. Rocha has no experience in politics, but he recently joined the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), which has long-standing support from the influential Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. The family behind the Universal Church also runs TV Record, a Brazilian TV network.

Geraldo Alckmin, center-right and current governor of Brazil’s largest state. He is serving his fourth term as governor of São Paulo state and will probably be nominated by his party, PSDB, one of the two current ruling parties.

Aécio Neves, center-right, is currently a senator from Minas Gerais, one of the most powerful states. He finished second in the previous presidential election and is rumored still to be interested in the office. However, his reputation is not clean, and he is in the same party as Alckmin.

The Speaker of the Lower House, Rodrigo Maia (DEM), center-right, who is being investigated in two cases. Another would-be presidential candidate under investigation is Paulo Rabello de Castro (PSC), the president of BNDES, the country’s state-run development bank.

Henrique Meirelles, center-right, who recently resigned as Finance Minister thus signaling his presidential aspirations, has the economic credentials, and he hopes to capitalize on the idea that he lead Brazil out of its current recession. If he can convince voters, he would follow in the footsteps of a previous economics scholar, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who went from Finance Minister to President in 1995.

Ciro Gomes with Lula

Ciro Gomes with Lula

Ciro Gomes, a leftist and former governor from the Northeast. He could be handpicked by Lula as his successor. Also, the former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, and the former governor of Bahia, Jaques Wagner, are possible successors to Lula. Guilherme Boulos, a leftist activist and professor, is a member of the Movement of Homeless Workers (MTST), and another possible candidate to take up the PT baton from Lula in August.

Marina Silva, leftist and environmentalist, has run for president twice before. Despite her leftist economic policies, she’s a social conservative with an evangelical background.

Joaquim Barbosa, center-left, former head of the Supreme Court, with no background in politics.

In the Datafolha poll released on April 15 with Lula’s name left off the list, Bolsonaro and Marina Silva were tied for first place, with Ciro Gomes and Joaquim Barbosa tied for third. The centrist candidates like Maia, Meirelles, and Alckmin placed far behind these four.

With so many candidates’ names flying through the media frenzy each day, it’s difficult to keep score. Between now and August, all the candidates will be desperate to reach two goals. First, they must raise enough money to support a national campaign; and second, they must seek the endorsement of at least one political party, and the bigger the party the better.

Marina Silva

Marina Silva

It’s too soon to know which candidates will be on the ballot on election day, Sunday, October 7. Probably the cast of characters will be smaller than the current twenty, but there could easily be five or ten, a dizzying choice, but a situation, in this writer’s opinion, that is evidence of a firmly entrenched democracy.

With the candidates spanning the spectrum from far right to far left, the populace will hopefully find someone to their liking and dispel the fears of the most paranoid or conservative citizens who fear Brazil is headed back into another military government. Contrary to popular opinion, the military takeover in Brazil in 1964 did not arise out of a bloody coup led by army generals. It occurred in a time of political unrest when the governing party invited the army to take control of the government to ease the crisis. Politicians asked the military to take over for six months to a year.

However, 2018 is very different from 1964. Today, Brazil is a middle-class country with access to social media and educated student leaders, who are the strongest and most vocal defenders of democracy. Brazilian society today is more educated, connected, and demanding of political accountability than any time in the country’s history. No political party, no matter how strong, would risk the backlash from an engaged and educated populace that would arise from inviting a military takeover with a nonviolent coup. The chances of a bloody coup staged by the military are even less likely, as all coups, violent or not, require popular support.

Joaquim Barbosa

Joaquim Barbosa

If there is a single point of focus among the population in today’s political climate, it’s anti-corruption. “Corruption is not a tropical disease. It’s not part of the culture but instead a product of weak institutions. What is needed is to build stronger institutions . . . . ” said Sérgio Moro in a recent speech in the US.

While the hottest debates are still swirling around Lula and his future influence, with pro-PT voices equal in their uproar to anti-PT voices, the more time Lula spends in prison, the more this debate will become meaningless. Several sitting politicians have left PT fearing their re-election chances in October. (Changing parties is common here.) The Netflix series about Lava Jato, O Mecanismo, released in Brazil on March 23 with an all-Brazilian cast, has stirred up additional animosity toward PT.

“Corruption Shop,” a kiosk at Brasília Airport to promote the Netflix series O Mecanismo. Credit: Evaristo Sa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Corruption Shop,” a kiosk at Brasília Airport to promote the Netflix series O Mecanismo. Credit: Evaristo Sa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


So – who’s next? Rather than evaluate each candidate on his/her merits, accomplishments in the political arena, and chances of winning, let’s simplify the field and analyze the situation by grouping the candidates into three broad political camps: left, center, and right.

On the left, there are several candidates who could win, ranging from Marina Silva and Ciro Gomes, who are leading in the polls and both have strong backgrounds in politics, to Joaquim Barbosa, who has no political history but a strong message of honesty and a working-class background like Lula. It is likely that all the leftist candidates will stress their credentials of integrity and attempt to capitalize on Brazilians’ biggest concern, anti-corruption.

However, while the left-leaning candidates appear to be Brazil’s best hope for electing an honest president, they face two giant hurdles. First, citizens who prefer center or right policies are not going to vote for a candidate whose message is to the left. To attract a winning majority of voters, a leftist candidate must be cautious in his/her dealings with PT, as many voters, particularly in the South, now associate PT with Brazil’s struggling economy and corruption.

In the South, where the population, in general, is wealthier and more educated, there is a greater insistence on capitalism over socialism. In the large urban centers, there is support for the economic policies of current President Temer and Finance Minister Meirelles and the other center candidates who have strengthened the economy by lessening workers’ rights and supporting international trade agreements. President Temer also backs the privatization of large public companies like Electrobras, the electric company.

Henrique Meirelles

Henrique Meirelles

It will not be easy for the leftist candidates to preach their politics without being associated with PT, the most powerful leftist party, and thus alienating urban centrist voters. At the same time, it will be difficult to win an election if PT’s supporters feel alienated.

Second, should a leftist candidate win, s/he must contend with the reality of forming a coalition government among the myriad of political parties. Should one of the three leftist candidates who are currently leading in the polls – Barbosa, Gomes, or Silva – win in October, they may or may not have the backing of PT.

While some congressman on the state and federal level have been leaving PT, it is still the largest leftist party. How the leftist candidates will contend with PT is a mystery that will be further confused by the short time allotted for campaigning. The Supreme Electoral Court will have the final say as to whether Lula’s name will be on the October ballot, but their decision could come as late as September, making for a nightmarish confusion of party affiliations and coalitions among the leftist candidates, a confusion that will alienate voters. Many citizens, particularly in the South, will reject leftist candidates like Marina Silva, believing she won’t have the support to lead Congress and thus lack the power to lead the country.

There are nearly thirty parties represented in the federal congress, so all legislation is accomplished by forming coalitions. In the past, bribery of politicians has been used to form coalitions, as evidenced in the Mensalão scandal. Having a president elected without the support of PT or the two powerful center-right parties lays the groundwork for either an ineffective and stalemated government, or it opens the door for more political bribery scandals.

Geraldo Alckmin

Geraldo Alckmin

Regarding the centrist candidates, they will have the money and machinery to generate publicity and momentum for their campaigns, and, if elected, they won’t have the problem of creating a governing coalition in Brasília that the leftists would have. If a center candidate wins, it will be business as usual in Brazil, which bodes well for Brazil’s economy. The downside for the center candidates is their reputation for corruption is currently as bad as PT’s.

Voters in the North of Brazil are more likely to favor candidates on the left than the center. But voters in the South are eager to break away from the country’s political history of corruption. Many politicians from the two biggest center parties have been indicted in the Lava Jato investigation, such as Aécio Neves, who finished second in the presidential election in 2014. This month Neves was ordered to stand trial before the Supreme Court regarding alleged bribes from Wesley Batista, the CEO of JBS, the world’s number one meatpacker.

Former politicians from the center, like Eduardo Cunha, ex-Speaker of the House, have been convicted and are in jail. The drive to eliminate impunity among government officials must cope with the stench of corruption that emanates from the current center candidates. Even President Temer has expressed an interest in the October election although his approval ratings are in the single digits and he is also under investigation.

Aécio Neves

Aécio Neves

In every survey thus far, Brazilians have shown their distrust for the center ruling party candidates. The recent economic gains, such as the rise in GDP growth and fall in inflation that President Temer and Henrique Meirelles take credit for, may not carry them through to October because consumer confidence is down due to election jitters, which could stall further growth.

Additionally, in 2016 legislators from the center ruling parties defanged an anti-corruption bill that would have provided protections for whistleblowers and cracked down on illegal campaign financing. Instead, they pushed through a law that makes it easier to prosecute judges for overreach.

That leaves us with the right-wing candidates. These gentlemen are attempting to ride the theme of anti-corruption along with economic conservatism, and thus far it’s been working. What remains to be seen is whether their platform of extreme social conservatism will gather enough votes to win an election. Social media criticism among young voters who support gay marriage, LGBT rights, and legal access to abortion could be enough to ruin their chances. In a recent television interview, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro defended himself, saying, “For the love of God, you can’t say anything in this country.”

Attorney General Raquel Dodge this month charged Bolsonaro with inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women, and gays. Her charges include a long list of incendiary remarks by Bolsonaro, who has developed a strong and loyal following by using harsh language and vowing to adopt severe tactics to address Brazil’s safety issues. Dodge cited a speech made by Bolsonaro a year ago in Rio that constitutes “hate speech,” a federal crime in Brazil. In another instance, Bolsonaro expressed his hatred for gays when he said he would “prefer that my son die in an accident than show up with some dude with a mustache.”

Guilherme Boulos

Guilherme Boulos

In conclusion, the biggest challenge for Brazil’s voters in October will not be the large number of candidates, but rather that citizens will find fault in all of the choices. The head of PT, Senator Gleisi Hoffmann, has suggested that PT supporters may vote for no one in the presidential election. This is legally viable in Brazil, where voting is mandatory, by casting a null vote, known as nulo. Hoffmann, a senator from the South, is herself up for re-election in October, and her future is being closely monitored by anti-PT voters in the state of Paraná.

According to the country’s largest newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, at least 15 of the 20 candidates who might run for president are targeted in more than 160 cases in courts throughout the country. “We had a past of great impunity in terms of corruption, and this vicious cycle has been broken,” said prosecutor Sérgio Moro. Ninety-three percent of Brazilians support the Lava Jato investigation, according to an Ipsos poll released this month. Forty percent of Brazil’s current Congress is under scrutiny for suspected corruption.

On April 20, The New York Times posted an article entitled, “From Janitor to Chief Justice: Could Joaquim Barbosa be Brazil’s Next President?” Eurasia, a consultancy that closely tracks Brazilian politics, recently called Barbosa “the real wild card of this election.” He is a fresh face on the political scene at a time when Brazilians are sick of the status quo. Barbosa made history in 2003 when he became Brazil’s first Black Supreme Court justice.

Alvaro Dias

Álvaro Dias

The eldest of eight children, Barbosa worked as a teenage janitor in a courtroom in Brasília, where he became fascinated with the law. He was the only Black student in his law school class at the University of Brasília. He studied abroad and learned English, French, and German and worked as a federal prosecutor, like Sérgio Moro, before becoming a judge. Thus his background appeals to minorities and the working class, and his record on fighting corruption could win votes among the middle class.

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee Barbosa can organize a successful campaign, especially as he’s never before run for political office. Additionally, there are potential landmines that are beyond Barbosa’s control; for example, if Lula should endorse Barbosa, it could drive away as many votes as it attracts.

In Curitiba, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I am Álvaro Dias” a reference of support for one of Paraná’s current senators. Dias, the former governor of Paraná, has a reputation for honesty, but unlike Barbosa, he has political credentials. However, Dias has made no direct reference to his own candidacy. Also, he’s not up for re-election in October, so he could simply wait his turn and continue as a senator. However, if there was any moment ripe for an unexpected candidacy, it’s now.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

[Research for this article comes from The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters]



Displaying 2 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. JDS says:

    A very good article. Congrats to Michael Rubin.
    However, I take umbrage for calling Jair Bolsonaro a “far right” candidate. I have been following his career for the past few years. He always gave me an impression that he is right in the center! Besides he is not a “lenga,lenga” politician like the ones from yester century.
    Brasil needs a shakeup and maybe he is the “Man”. He may not win, but is going to steal lots of votes from the traditional politicians sponsored by the MSM.

  2. Michael Rubin says:

    Thanks for your comment, JDS.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these html tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>