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Abstentions in Brazil election could hurt governability

SAO PAULO (AP) – Attorney Carlos Gomes is a political junkie who plunged into campaigning for national and local candidates as a teenager. Two years ago, he even moved to Sao Paulo to work for a law firm that represents several candidates for office.

However he says he won’t be able to bring himself to vote in October’s general election.

“This time, I can’t choose,” said Gomes, 30. “These candidates are either uninspiring or plain bad.”

Record numbers of Brazilians are expected to do the same, according to polls and studies, raising the specter that whoever wins will struggle to govern Latin America’s most populous nation. It also means that the political fights of the last years, which culminated in the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the ascension of Vice President Michel Temer, who has since become Brazil’s least popular leader in history, are far from over.

“Imagine a scenario with a president elected by one third of the electorate, beating another candidate who gets almost as much,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper university in Sao Paulo. “Congress will know that one third doesn’t support him and another is against him.”

Such a turnout might be celebrated in the United States, where winners typically get about half the vote of the 50 to 60 percent of eligible voters who turn out, but in Brazil it could turn into political battles that threaten governability.

That’s partly due to the fact many Brazilians remain bitter over the ouster of Rousseff, which they see more as a political overthrow than as punishment for any crime. And the country’s fragmented political system – there are more than 30 parties represented in Congress – means presidents must spend much political capital forming coalitions. At the very least, a weak mandate would make that more difficult.

Brazilians have long been souring on their elected leaders, in part because of a corruption scandal that is arguably the largest in Latin American history. Launched in 2014, the so-called Carwash probe into kickbacks by construction companies has brought down many of the country’s top businessmen and politicians. That includes former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who leads preference polls for October’s election despite serving a 12-year-sentence for corruption.

Da Silva will most likely be barred from running, which is one of the factors expected to keep many supporters of his Workers’ Party from voting. Many other former backers have long lost faith in the party, which was in power when much of the corruption was happening.

“I voted for Dilma Rousseff four years ago, but after her impeachment, and with Lula (likely) being banned, I don’t feel like voting at all,” said Thais Ramos, a telecommunications specialist. “It is not because I reject totally whoever Lula endorses later, but I can’t put faith in our democracy now.”

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, though the fine for not doing so – about $ 1 – has little influence on people who would prefer not to be bothered.

In the 2014 general elections, almost 19 percent of eligible Brazilian voters skipped the polls on Election Day. Nearly another 9 percent showed up but left their ballots blank. The end result: Rousseff was narrowly re-elected with 38 percent of the total potential electorate. Opponents of the Workers’ Party immediately began talking about impeachment, based on allegations ranging from voter fraud to campaign finance violations. Eventually she was ousted for illegal management of the federal budget, allegations she strongly denies up to this day.

This election cycle, all indications are it will be worse. A Datafolha institute poll from June found that 28 percent of Brazilians had no intention to vote in the in the most likely scenario for the country’s presidential election, with da Silva being replaced by former Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad.

“A high number of no votes would not kill the legitimacy of the election from a legal perspective,” said Claudio Lamachia, president of Brazil’s bar association. “But it makes our representation less legitimate.”

For months, politicians and electoral authorities have been urging voters to participate, the kind of get-out-the-vote rhetoric usually not seen until weeks before Election Day. That worry increased in June, when 50 percent of voters in state of Tocantins skipped a special election for governor.

So many people sitting it out could benefit Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who garners both enthusiastic supporters and detractors. Bolsonaro’s closest competitor is centrist Marina Silva, who lost presidential bids in 2010 and 2014. Both candidates capture between 15 and 20 percent of voter intentions, according to polls.

Also competitive but lagging behind with less than 10 percent are left-leaning Ciro Gomes, who has served in cabinet posts in previous administrations, and right-leaning, Geraldo Alckmin a former governor of Sao Paulo state.

Enthusiasm is so low for the field of candidates that analysts say rejection votes could determine the winner. The candidate who sparks the most condemnation is Bolsonaro, who has a long history of making racist, sexist and homophobic comments.

An Ibope poll also from June found Bolsonaro had very high disapproval ratings. Thirty-two percent of the electorate said under no condition would they vote for Bolsonaro, only one percentage point above da Silva. The next most rejected was Alckmin, referred to by many as the “squash popsicle” for being seen as bland. He was rejected by 22 percent of the electorate, according to the poll.

“I will only leave home if it is to block Bolsonaro. I might vote against him, but I am not voting for any of these candidates,” said Guilherme Prado, a 44-year-old Uber driver who lives outside of Sao Paulo. “None of these candidates give me the confidence that Brazil will be doing better next year.”

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