It would be hard to overstate the prominence of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. The founder of the left-wing Workers’ Party, this former union leader – who goes by “Lula” – has dominated Brazilian politics for the last 30 years.
What happens next?
The two-round election counterbalances the centrifugal forces of the country’s multiparty system, allowing parties to regroup around the two leading candidates for the run-off. In the last six presidential elections, the two biggest parties – Lula’s Workers’ Party and the conservative Social Democratic Party of Brazil – have ultimately faced off.
With October’s election approaching quickly, the Workers’ Party faces a serious dilemma.
Party leaders could continue to back Lula’s candidacy as long as the electoral court allows it. If he is ultimately disqualified, they could then ask his base to shift their support to a replacement candidate.
Polls show that two out of three Lula supporters would vote for whoever he endorses. But if Lula is disqualified late in the campaign, Workers’ Party voters would have little time to get to know whomever is tapped to replace him.
Alternatively, the party could decide that Lula’s candidacy is a lost cause and ask the former president to endorse another candidate now. We believe that is improbable, though, since Workers’ Party leaders would be leery of showing their base a sign of weakness.
The strongest candidate with any chance of appealing to Lula voters is Ciro Gomes, of the centrist Democratic Labor Party. But Gomes, a maverick, seems determined to distance himself from the Workers’ Party and its towering founder.
Brazil’s unpredictable race
The Workers’ Party isn’t alone in struggling this campaign season.
President Michel Temer, who rose to power after Dilma Rousseff’s 2015 impeachment and has also been charged with corruption, is extremely unpopular. Almost half of the population saw Rousseff’s impeachment as a coup d'etat orchestrated by him. Temer’s painful austerity measures, pushed through during a deep recession, alienated pretty much everyone else.
Former São Paulo governor Geraldo Ackmin, who is representing Brazil’s mainstream conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party, is languishing, too. He scored just 8 percent in the latest poll. Ackmin and other key party figures are enmeshed in the same nationwide corruption scandal that took down Lula, though none have been convicted or arrested.
Then columnists began praising former Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa. He became something of a media star a few years back when he convicted several Workers’ Party officials in a high-profile corruption case.
A reminder of the dictatorship
If any candidate really stands out from the crowd, it is Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a staunchly pro-gun, anti-abortion former military commander. But the media seems to view him as too outrageous to rally behind.
In April, Bolsonaro was charged with “inciting hatred” for his verbal attacks on women, gay people and minorities. He often speaks with nostalgia of the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
Enter the outsider?
After four years of protracted political crisis, many hope the 2018 election – when Brazilians will choose not just their president but also congressional representatives and governors – will give Brazilian democracy a much-needed restart.
But, given the circumstances, that seems like a long shot.