Sunday, October 15, 2006

Presidential Debates in Brazil, Round 1

Last Sunday, the first round of presidential debates between Lula and Alckmin aired on the TV (with Lula finally attending a debate, since it was just him and another man, and not an opportunity for three candidates to gang up on him), and compared to the U.S. debates, it was a DOOZY.

First of all, the moderator does not ask the questions to the candidates – they question each other. Thus, Alckmin and Lula were posing direct questions to each other. This forum allowed for far more contentious questions and at times nearly-open personal attacks.

This led into something else that you never see in the U.S. – direct personal insults. With the debate format as it is, and the clear dislike between Alckmin and Lula, they occasionally didn’t hide their feelings too well. After Lula had criticized Alckmin’s policies in the state of São Paulo while he was governor, and had given some statistics to show how flawed Alckmin’s program had been, Alckmin responded immediately with a cold stare and said, “Liar. LIAR.” Later on, when given the chance to respond to Alckmin’s criticisms of Lula’s spending as president, Lula began his response to Alckmin by saying very patronizingly, “Look, my little dear one.” As I explained to my girlfriend and some friends who were watching the debates, the mudslinging in debates in the U.S. is never so blatant and personal.

Another remarkable moment again came from Alckmin’s side. His presentation was simply terrible throughout the night (and I say this not as somebody very interested in seeing Lula win, but I viewed the debates more as a cultural event to which I had special access as an outsider). Each candidate was given 45 seconds to ask a question; his opponent then had 2 minutes to respond; the one who asked the question was then allowed to respond to the response for one minute, and then the other finished with another minute. However, Alckmin often tried to go over his time, and at one point, he threw an honest-to-god temper tantrum. The moderator told him two or three times that his time was up, and yet he continued talking. Thus, in accordance with the debate rules, the TV station killed his microphone, and they took the camera off him, looking only at Lula and the mediator. However, you could clearly hear Alckmin continuing to shout his answer for another minute or two, although, because they killed his mike, you couldn’t hear what he was saying – just that he was prattling on. The moderator was clearly unimpressed, and Lula said, “Is he going to ask me a question?”, to which the moderator only could say, “only if he quits talking.”

Additionally, Alckmin’s arguments were extremely weak, and the only “real” “issue” he kept raising against Lula was his use of a new presidential plane to travel worldwide, costing 7 million reais (roughly 3 million dollars) over the last four years. The argument was absurd on one level because Lula traditionally used it to barter new deals and economic agreements with countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia (such as a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia which netted Brazil 500 million dollars in trade deals). It was also equally absurd because the PSDB’s last president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002), flew all over the world as well, and it was often simply to see countries on political visits, with not much economic return for Brazil. Finally, as I said, “he’s REALLY making an issue of a president traveling? He has nothing better to criticize Lula on?” Yet the answer seemed to be, “no, he doesn’t.” While he raised other issues, Lula usually deflated them, and Alckmin kept coming back to the presidential jet issue, even relying on it in his concluding remarks. Certainly, Lula was not perfect either, not always having a good answer or presenting himself well, either, but in comparison to Alckmin’s performance, Lula looked pretty good.

Overall, though, what really left an impression on me was the sheer difference between debates in the U.S. and in Brazil. In the U.S., as we know, they are canned – the candidates know the questions that are coming, they are asked by a third party, and each candidate can give a list of topics that are off-limits. As a result, you rarely ever see any moments of personality or spontaneity. Not so in Brazil. The direct questioning, the personal insults, and the heated and edgy nature of the debates made them far more fascinating, not only on the level of issues, but on the level of personal presentation and behavior within the political process in Brazil. And it certainly makes me eager for the second round of debates.