Friday, September 29, 2006

Brazilian Presidential Debates

Last night, I had the chance to see a bit of the Brazilian presidential debates last night (I believe the last one before Sunday’s elections). Although, due to time constraints, I only saw fifteen minutes, they were a fascinating affair.

First, there were supposed to be four candidates, which as any American can attest to, is absolutely stunning. Being from a country where debates are almost ALWAYS two people (with 1992 and Ross Perot’s involvement being the most recent notable exception), it was nice to see such variety.

However, in reality, there were only three candidates. Cristovam Buarque of the (further left than PT) Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Workers’ Democratic Party, and a distant relative of singer Chico Buarque), Heloisa Helena of the Partido Solidariedade Liberdade, and Gerardo Alckmin of the PSDB, were all present. Absent was the current president, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva. This was absolutely amazing to me, that not only would a major candidate not show up at a debate, but that the current present, seeking re-election, would avoid it. I asked my girlfriend why he wasn’t there, and she non-chalantly said, “Because he knows he’s going to win. He doesn’t need to be there.” She seemed a little surprise at my shock at his absence, but it’s just one of a million ways that politics differ from country to country. I had to explain to her that, if a candidate avoided a debate in the United States, he or she would take a HUGE hit in popularity, simply because the people would feel he or she was hiding something, or was unable to deal with even the relatively low-intensity of the canned debates in the United States. Yet here, Lula’s absence doesn’t seem to matter much to anyone. Those who hate him hate him regardless of his attendance, and those who love him applaud him for not attending to have his character assassinated.

Yet his absence didn’t go unnoticed or uncommented upon. The debate was on Globo TV, the largest media network in Brazil, and one that is OPENLY anti-Lula. As a result, they had an empty seat with his name on it, and continuously showed shots of it (more than of the candidates who WERE present when the debate first opened), allowing the image (at least to me) to repeatedly try to condemn him as a coward for being unable to attend (though I’m sure Lula is savvy enough to know what he was doing - he’s had to battle Globo throughout his presidency and his previous 3 attempts to run prior to 2002). Not only that, since he wasn’t there, the station decided to allow the other three candidates to state what they would ask Lula if he were there in place of the time he would have spent speaking were he present. In one way, I approve of this, because it does raise questions for the populace and the president equally. However, in general, I found this particular incident appalling, because many times, the candidates didn’t even address how THEY would tackle certain issues - instead, they simply fell to stale rhetoric condemning the “corruption” of Lula’s administration and offering nothing new themselves.

Another interesting thing about the debate was the importance of image and personal bearing. Not being able to always fully understand what the candidates were saying, I focused on how they bore themselves. I had heard that Alckmin, the leading opponent (at roughly 25%, depending on the poll) from the PSDB, had no personality (earlier this year, the PSDB went with him, who had more substance as a politician than another hopeful candidate, Aécio Neves, who turned it down and who was far more charismatic but less experienced than Alckmin). However, the rumors didn’t do the fact justice. We weren’t dealing with a Nixon/Kennedy type issue here, but he has less personality than Tino Martinez when he started on “Baseball Tonight” (Tino’s gotten better, but only marginally so). Alckmin just seemed as unmoving and uncharismatic as possible.

The final interesting thing to me was finally seeing Heloisa Helena. She formed the PSOL in 2003 when she was kicked out of Lula’s PT over policy disagreements. She claims that the PSOL stays by the people after the PT’s “betrayal” (she even commented that she would not betray the people the way Lula has), and her appearance appealed to this, as she showed up at the debate in jeans and a humble shirt, typical of the Northeast from which she hails (as does Lula). Many leftists in Latin America and political scientists in the U.S. sort of look to the PSOL as the real PT, offering a true “guiding light” in leftism for Brazil where the PT has failed (though the failures of the PT in social programs are dubious at best - it’s done more for social programs than any president since João Goulart in the early 1960s). On a listserv I’m a part of, we get to see a bombardment of articles that praise Heloisa Helena (“HH,” as she’s called here,) and completely condemn Lula. However, she is leftist AND remarkably traditional. While she is in favor of very strong social programs, she is VEHEMENTLY anti-abortion. While I approve of her social tendencies, I cannot support the anti-abortion stance she takes, and I find it ironic that those who strongly support her both in the U.S. and in Latin America completely neglect her absolute betrayal of the fight for women’s rights. She can condemn Lula for “betraying” the people even while she refuses to stand up for women’s rights in a country that has long had a hard time granting such rights (into the 1940s, men could kill their wives for “unfaithfulness,” and divorce was only legalized in 1977, paradoxically during Brazil’s dictatorship) and is still so difficult and complicated that it only is really available to wealthy women).

I wish I could have seen more of the debates, but it definitely was amazing to get such a good glimpse into a totally different political universe than the canned “debates” of the United States.