Getting to know: Brazilian presidential campaigns

Brazil, as the late great Tom Jobim once said, is not for beginners. This is even more the case with politics, with trying to keep track of who’s in jail now (and out of it) and which of the 35 political parties are doing what.

But some beginners do want to understand Brazilian politics, and some people want to know who will run a country of 210 million souls starting next year. Lucky for you, I’m about to get real topical with my new guide to the presidential campaign.

Disclaimer: anything can happen in this presidential election. So if South Korea beat Germany in the election, too, don’t look at me! I’m no wizard.

And no, I’m not associating any party with Brazil. That wouldn’t be fair.

If each party were a national team in the World Cup, who would they be?
The Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) has either won or been runners-up in every election since re-democratization. In short, they are historically a powerhouse in presidential elections, having won the last four. And they have the best in the game on their team. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or simply Lula, left the presidency after two terms in 2010 with record approval numbers and his chosen successor in his post.
That dependence on one figure, however, has come back to haunt them this year. While Argentina’s talisman is trapped in a glass case of emotion, the PT’s is literally trapped in a prison cell after being charged and convicted of corruption. His conviction has not been without criticism, and Lula does still lead all the polls, but even so, it’s tough to campaign from jail. Even if he does somehow run and win, his conviction for corruption will mean that he might never take office thanks to the judicial challenges that will inevitably be brought against him.
This is no surprise to anyone who has been following the situation, but like the Albiceleste, the PT’s response was to double down. “Lula is the PT’s Plan A, B, and C,” said the petista version of Jorge Sampaoli.
The Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) is the other traditional powerhouse of presidential elections.  They won the 1994 and 1998 elections, putting them in second place among all parties.
Bar the first election after re-democratization, the PSDB has also finished in the top two every election. As the runners-up in 2014, they should be the obvious beneficiaries of the PT’s Lula-related troubles.
Yet something just seems off in the PSDB camp this year. The candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, is struggling to convince the party (or anyone, for that matter) that this time, after having lost to Lula in 2006, he can bring the trophy home.
Alckmin might as well be the face of the old guard of Brazilian politics, having served as governor and mayor of São Paulo, and been involved with numerous corruption allegations. His notorious reputation as a bland politician has even earned him the (not-so-)affectionate nickname of Chuchu (a particularly bland vegetable) Popsicle. He does not exactly set pulses racing, and his party has been sounding out other alternatives, although thus far settling on none.
With a weakened PT, one might think the circumstances would be favorable for the PSDB, but with the post-Lava Jato playing field looks worrying for them. There could very well be a South Korea or Mexico lurking, waiting to cut them down to size.
The Rede Sustentabilidade (Sustainability Network) is a new, fresh-ish look for an old figure caught in two minds: stick to her guns or go in a new direction.
Its leader, Marina Silva, has been a figure in Brazilian politics for the past two decades, but has fallen short in the last two elections after raising expectations. This time, however, she is presented with a scenario so favorable to her that she might finally be able to make the next step to the promised land (the second round of a presidential election).
Marina has belonged to other parties over her career, starting out as Environment Minister with the PT in the Lula administration before departing in acrimonious circumstances. She then joined the Partido Verde (Green Party), running for President for the first time in 2010 and finishing third. In 2014, she joined the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (Brazilian Socialist Party) and was to be the vice-presidential candidate until the presidential candidate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in an airplane crash. This opened up a golden opportunity for her, but she was ultimately unable to take it, making some questionable tactical decisions along the way and losing her head of steam.
This time, her name recognition and (relative) lack of trouble with the law has left her with a golden chance to fill the vacuum being left by the traditional parties–her direct competition might very well end up being the Swedens, Croatias and Colombias of the race. That said, she all too often seems to be caught between a Victorian-era search for the moral high ground and waffling in service of a Blair-ish political expediency. She often picks the wrong option.
Will she take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Or will she start Emile Heskey? Only time will tell…
On paper, the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement, formerly the PMDB) should not be a force. They never run their own candidate for president, and they likely never could. And yet, like this country with fewer inhabitants than the Minneapolis metropolitan area, they always seem to be in the later stages of the competition.
They don’t play pretty and they don’t play fair, but they have veterans who know how to get the job done. If you blink, they’ll be in the quarter- or semifinals or dominating Congress before you know it. They are the kingmakers of Brazil, and no party can form a coalition without them. They never die, even when changing their name to escape from all the bad press about corruption.
They even, believe it or not, have won the biggest prize of all, with a vampire sitting on the throne at this very moment. And say what you will about that vampire, but he is very good at what he does, and he will continue to prosper no matter how many rules he breaks. No one knows how, given that their candidate, Henrique Meirelles, the finance minister, is polling at about 2% right now, but they will somehow end up on top after all the dust clears.
The PT might be dependent on one figure, but not in the same way as the Partido Social Liberal (Social Liberal Party). As a historically small party without any real influence, it has the luck to count on the services of the new force in the game.
Jair Bolsonaro is not necessarily a new figure in Brazilian politics, but he is riding a crest that he has never before enjoyed. Excluding Lula, who might very well be out of the picture, he is polling above any other candidate . He has attracted a lot of attention for his explosive style as well, and has amassed a large social network following.
This is not to say, of course, that Bolsonaro is anything like Mohamed Salah in terms of personality–Salah admittedly does not deserve this comparison just for being ridiculously good at soccer. He is a gentle man who apologizes to goalkeepers for scoring on them, Bolsonaro is a loathsome human being who deserves to be on the receiving end of a judo throw by Sergio Ramos. Salah attracts attention for his explosive and unpredictable style of dribbling and finishing, while Bolsonaro attracts it for being a misogynist, homophobic bully who merges Donald Trump’s lack of inhibitions with a fetish for military trappings. In this fragmented of a presidential field, his tendency to attract attention for being ridiculous is a major weapon.
In some ways, Jair Bolsonaro looks unstoppable, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to do everything on his own. Presidential campaigns have historically needed some sort of party organization to appeal to (or buy off) undecided voters. Will Bolsonaro have the backing–both financial and logistical–necessary to do that? It’s a tough ask, and he might very well go crashing out in the first round. But then again, Bolsonaro has not been wounded yet, and is going into the campaign at full strength. With a full-strength Salah, would Egypt have gone further?
The Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Democratic Labor Party) is a party that, when the stars align, can punch above its weight. It has had its Davor Suker in the past, with Leonel Brizola having served as a key figure in the history of Brazil, and it now has another figure at the head.
This might very well be happening now, and it will never get a better chance to beat the odds. Having got the easy side of the draw (left of center), its candidate Ciro Gomes has a decent chance of becoming the alternative to the winner from the right side of the political spectrum. It all depends on whether he can convince the disaparate factions on the left to forget Lula and their own candidates and go with him. If so, he could go to the very end, and perhaps even win it.
The only thing is that Gomes–the Brazilian Joe Biden–is far from the composed figure that is Luka Modric on the field of play. He is a straight talker who was a popular governor, but has a reputation for losing his temper. And uniting the Brazilian left could be a far trickier task than beating Argentina and England.
Finding a good comparison to the U.S.’s soccer team is no easy task–it’s tough to find the right comparison for their incompetence given that they didn’t even qualify for the World Cup.
This is why the Partido Renovador Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Labor Renewal Party) is the best choice, but not a perfect one (by the way, they nothing to do with labor, and they certainly have nothing to with renewal–they barely, in fact, deserve the name party). They currently do not have even one member in the Chamber of Deputies (of 513 seats) or the Senate (of 81 seats). Bless their hearts, though, they’re throwing their hat in the ring for president again.
Like the U.S. Soccer Federation, they also believe that the solution to problems is to go back to what you knowno matter how bad it was the last time you tried it.
Their fearless leader, Levy Fidelix, has run for lots of offices. He has won precisely none of them. He is known for three things: his proposal to build an “air-train” between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, his fondness for homophobia, and his impressive(ly dyed) walrus mustache. You might criticize him for his mistakes, but he’ll have one reaction: double down on them.
Admittedly, the PRTB has never had any success, so it’s not exactly like the U.S. soccer team. I just really wanted to compare Bruce Arena to someone who thought it was a good idea to blurt out on nationally televised debate that he couldn’t support gay marriage because “the excretory apparatus does not reproduce.”

Author: SoldadoRyan

Post-doc at the University of São Paulo, PhD in political science from the University of Texas-Austin in political science (2016). Professional interests: voting behavior, clientelism, international relations, quantitative methods, qualitative methods Non-professional interests: Liverpool FC, Palmeiras, board games, sci-fi, puns