Shadow of corruption hangs over Brazilian presidential campaign

Leader in polls is jailed ex-president Lula, who may be blocked from running

After a pre-campaign lasting more than a year, Brazil's presidential election formally got under way this week with the start of the race overshadowed by the fate of imprisoned former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

His Workers’ Party registered the labour leader as its candidate despite him being in prison since April, where he is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. Lula denies any wrongdoing and claims he is the victim of an establishment plot.

Federal prosecutors immediately moved to have Lula’s candidacy expunged. Brazil’s “clean slate” law, which was signed by Lula himself in 2010, bars from public office anyone whose conviction of a crime has been upheld by a higher court. The former president was condemned in a corruption and money laundering case relating to a beachfront apartment last year, and his sentence was increased by a three-judge appeals court in January.

The legitimacy of his candidacy will now be decided by Brazil’s electoral court, and the Workers’ Party leadership are threatening not to recognise the contest if Lula cannot participate in it.


"An election without the participation of the Workers' Party does not have legitimacy," party president Gleisi Hoffmann told foreign journalists this week. She insisted the party had no backup plan even though it is widely believed that in the likely event that Lula is barred, his running mate, former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, will replace him.

Lula leads all polls in which his name is included, with about 30 per cent of the vote. If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent in the first round of voting on October 6th, a run-off will be held three weeks later. As the former mayor of a wealthy city in Brazil’s southeast, Haddad is little known in the north and northeast of the country, where Lula’s support is strongest.

Uncertain times

The uncertainty surrounding Lula and the lack of a clear frontrunner from among the other 12 candidates means the race is the most difficult to call in decades, according to analysts. "Not since 1989 and the first election following re-democratisation has there been this much uncertainty, and we are now just 50 days out from the first round," says political scientist André Pereira Cesár.

Lula is not the only candidate whose campaign risks being undermined by corruption problems. On the day registration closed, social democrat Geraldo Alckmin was being deposed by federal prosecutors as part of their investigation into accusations he took kickbacks from the Odebrecht construction conglomerate that were recycled into illegal campaign finances. He denies any wrongdoing.

Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo state, enters the campaign with the broadest coalition of parties, which means he will dominate the free slots on television and radio that were crucial in helping to decide previous presidential election campaigns. But though he is the candidate with most support among Brazil’s political and financial establishment, his chances are seen as being hampered by his notoriously dull personality and fears that he might face further allegations of wrongdoing during the campaign.

This month has already seen mini sell-offs in São Paulo’s financial markets sparked by rumours circulating that Alckmin will be named by executives negotiating plea-bargain deals, with prosecutors investigating corruption in the São Paulo state highways operator.

Far-right candidate

Another contender who saw the formal start of his campaign marred by accusations of wrongdoing was the former military officer Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate who is running on an anti-political platform bathed in nostalgia for the country's last military dictatorship.

He emerged from the obscure fringes of the political spectrum to become the most popular candidate after Lula, according to polls, partly thanks to his ferocious attacks on the corruption of the political class. But this week he was caught off guard by the revelation that the woman who helps look after his dogs at his summer house in his home state of Rio de Janeiro has been registered as one of his parliamentary staff since 2003, despite no evidence she ever did any official work for him.

Bolsonaro denied that Walderice Santos da Conceição was a “ghost worker” but was unable to provide any evidence that would justify her salary. Local media discovered Santos da Conceição in fact runs a small store in the town of Mambucaba in Rio state. After the case came to light, Bolsonaro said she had left his staff.

Bolsonaro, notorious for his racist, misogynistic and homophobic statements, lacks alliances traditionally seen as crucial for securing longer television slots and building ground campaigns in key states. But he is betting that his team’s skilful use of social media will compensate for his negligible television time.

Though he leads polls when the name of Lula is excluded with about 23 per cent, he suffers from high rejection rates, with 57 per cent saying they would never vote for him “under any circumstances”.

Much of Bolsonaro’s appeal is based on a harsh law-and-order platform aimed at voters furious at the inability of politicians to tackle Brazil’s chronic insecurity. Last year the country registered almost 64,000 homicides, a new record partially the result of violent turf wars being fought by increasingly powerful criminal gangs seeking to spread their influence across the country.