Gruelling TV debate marks low point of Brazilian presidential campaign

Debate devoid of effort to focus on concerns of voters

A rite of passage among new correspondents in Brazil is to wonder why, in a country where coalitions are inevitable, the Workers Party and the Social Democratic Party never work together.

After all, among the major parties they are what pass for Brazil’s most progressive political forces, with both having emerged from the struggle against the military dictatorship. Compared with them, the other main groupings are ragbags of the corrupt, the cynical and the reactionary.

Surely the parties could do so much more working together rather than against each other in alliance with the rest, asks the recently posted journalist, to pitying glances from locals and older Brazil hands.

The current presidential election campaign should dispel any such innocence. The already poor level of the campaign has only sunk lower since the other candidates were eliminated, leaving current president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party and Aécio Neves of the Social Democrats locked in a duel ahead of the second- round vote on October 26th.


The two movements are now in their sixth consecutive dispute for command of the world’s seventh largest economy, and it’s clear that they hate each other.

Getting personal

In Thursday night’s televised debate, both candidates served up a stew of mutual accusations, lies and insinuations that was as bitterly personal as it was devoid of any effort to focus on real concerns of voters. As one commentator noted, the nasty debate among partisans on Facebook and Twitter had spilled into the formal campaign.

All through the debate, accusations of incompetence, corruption and nepotism were traded across the São Paulo television studio. So gruelling was it that Rousseff nearly fainted at the end of it.

In one of many tense moments, she confronted her opponent about his refusal to be breathalysed when stopped apparently drunk while driving in Rio de Janeiro on an expired driver’s licence in 2011.

Neves accused her of lowering the tone, but she responded “I don’t drive while high on drugs or drunk.”

That insinuating phrase resonates with an online campaign that includes videos of supposed former police officers that accuse Neves of cocaine use and even involvement in drug trafficking.

Scurrilous Workers Party lies, responds the Neves campaign about the accusations, which are nevertheless hard to confront directly without giving them oxygen.

Meanwhile, the president's online supporters accuse the mainstream media of trying to create an atmosphere similar to that in 1954, when a right- wing press campaign played a role in the suicide of the populist president, Getúlio Vargas.

No matter how partisan Brazil’s anti-government media is, such claims are overblown. But Neves has only given them substance by talking about “liberating” Brazil from Workers Party rule, as if Rousseff was a dictator rather than an elected democrat who beat his party’s candidate by 12 million votes in 2010.

As well as the mutual animosity, it is worth noting that matters of substance also separate the two parties.

The most obvious is the role of the state in the economy. Neves has had most success when accusing the president of strangling growth with her unsuccessful interventions in key sectors such as electricity, oil and infrastructure.

Rousseff warns that her opponent is an economic liberal overly reliant on market solutions in a country where social inequalities are so entrenched that the state is obliged to play the leading role in redistributing income towards the poorest.

But such differences are perhaps not as great as they first seem.

The social programmes Rousseff has defended so vigorously during the campaign grew out of pilot schemes started by the last Social Democrat president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Neves has not only vowed to maintain them but even tried to claim their ownership for his party.

Financial links

As for his supposed closeness to the financial sector, evidenced by the strong spikes in the São Paulo stock market on any positive poll numbers for the opposition, the Workers Party must be furious at such ingratitude.

After all, Brazilian banks have never made profits like they have under the country’s first left-wing administration, much of them derived from usurious interest rates charged on loans to Brazil’s new emerging middle class, a huge well of support for Rousseff. The top one per cent of Brazilians have seen no drop in income under the Workers Party. Last year the number of Brazilian billionaires jumped by 50 per cent, from 43 to 65.

So it is not unfanciful to spy mutual ideological ground towards the centre, where both parties could work together.

Once, briefly, that seemed possible. Workers Party founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once campaigned for Cardoso when he ran for the senate. And the full story of the 1989 presidential campaign, when the Social Democrats were supposedly offered but declined the vice- presidential slot in Lula's first campaign for president, remains to be fully told.

But since then they have turned into the bitterest of rivals, willing to ally themselves with former pillars of the military regime, religious bigots and various shades of crooks in order to avoid working with each other.

The tragedy for Brazil is that by mixing with such sorts, both movements have seen a steady erosion of their original progressive principles and high standards, leaving a growing void at the heart of the country’s political system.