Brazil’s October 7 presidential election is rapidly approaching, and perhaps its most remarkable aspect is the utter lack of clarity about the likely outcome. The world’s fifth-most populous country is mired in so many sustained and entrenched crises — economic, political, judicial, cultural, and an endless corruption scandal — that all previous rules for understanding political dynamics seem obsolete. And for that reason, and several others, the dynamic of Brazil’s presidential race has international relevance: it illustrates the chaos and extremism that can ensue when a large sector of the population, for valid reasons, loses all faith in institutions of authority and in the political class.
Mixed into all of those crises is enduring anger, and growing regret, over the 2016 impeachment of the elected center-left President Dilma Rousseff, in favor of a center-right coalition that has proven to be criminally corrupt, led by an installed President Michel Temer (pictured, right), who got caught on tape ordering bribes to silence witnesses yet was protected from investigation by the same Congress that impeached Dilma in the name of fighting corruption. Temer is now, far and away, the most unpopular president in Brazil’s history.
The head of the center-right party who was backed by the establishment in the 2014 election and almost beat Dilma, Sen. Aécio Neves, has since been caught receiving bribes and even suggesting violence against witnesses. Disgraced even within his own party, Neves is running for a seat in the lower House just to stay out of prison (federal lawmakers in Brazil are immune from criminal prosecution while in office), and recently launched that desperate campaign to a crowd of 20 people. Meanwhile, in a cruel irony, Dilma is running for the Senate seat Aécio was forced to vacate, and polls show her likely to win (provided her candidacy isn’t banned by the judiciary).
Add to all of that the bizarre fact that the clear poll leader — Lula, the country’s former two-term president — is virtually certain to have his candidacy judicially barred due to the fact that he’s currently in prison after a criminal corruption conviction: the result of a judicial process that even many of his critics who believe him to be corrupt regard as a highly flawed and politically motivated trial and appeal. If Lula were to run, it is close to certain that he would win.
Trying to leverage that popularity, Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) continues to pretend that he will be their candidate, hoping that once he is barred by the courts, as everyone knows is inevitable, then he will be able to use the resulting anger to anoint former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, now officially Lula’s vice presidential candidate. But there are great doubts about whether Lula will have the power — from a prison cell in Curitiba, barred from giving press interviews — to simply transfer his votes to his chosen candidate who lacks Lula’s singular charisma and national name-recognition.
All of this confusion and uncertainty has created a huge opening for an actually fascist member of Congress, former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro, whom the western media often refers to as “Brazil’s Trump” but is, in fact, far closer to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte or even Egypt’s Abdel el-Sisi in his fondness for military rule, indiscriminate police violence, torture and summary executions. The conventional wisdom is that Bolsonaro’s 20 percent of the vote will be enough to bring him to the run-off, but that his high disapproval ratings ensure he will lose to anyone who makes it there with him (similar to Marine LePen’s dynamic in France). In the era of Trump and Brexit, such confidence is misplaced, but even if Bolsonaro does not enter the Presidential Palace this year, he will wield significant influence with his 20 percent support and his three equally fascist sons in public office, one of whom is currently in Congress and the other on his way to the Federal Senate this year.
The widespread expectation is that Bolsonaro will make the run-off (the only candidate who can stop him — the center-right, corruption-tainted, establishment-backed, charisma-free Governor Geraldo Alckmin — has stagnated all year despite every institutional advantage). The real race, then, is for second place: everyone is eager to be the alternative to Bolsonaro, behind whom all non-extremists will presumably coalesce.
One of the leading contenders for that second spot is the Democratic Labor Party (PDT)’s Ciro Gomes, a mostly left-wing politician who insists, for strategic reasons, on being called “center-left.” Gomes is a remarkable paradox in many ways. For one, he has been at the highest levels of Brazilian politics for decades — as mayor, as governor of Ceará, a large and poor state in the Northeast, a minister in two prior presidential administrations, including Lula’s successful first term — yet has the comportment of, and is widely perceived as being, an outsider and somewhat of a rebel. He is also extremely erudite and well-educated, a professor of Constitutional Law who has studied at Harvard, yet styles himself as a plain-talking “man of the people” who has become notorious among Brazil’s conservative media for his “unpresidential” behavior and temperament.
Despite all this chaos, polls have been remarkably stable over the past several months. Without Lula, Bolsonaro is the clear leader with roughly 20-22 percent of the vote, while second place (in the range of 8-10 percent) has been jointly occupied by Gomes along with Marina Silva (pictured, below), the hard-to-ideologically-pigeonhole, black evangelical environmentalist from the Amazon with a remarkable personal story (growing up in great poverty, she was illiterate until the age of 16, then became a highly effective college professor and policy expert who served as Environmental Minister under Lula but then, after being eliminated before the run-off in the 2014 presidential election, endorsed Aécio over Dilma). Both Gomes and Silva have run for President twice before.
Over the weekend in São Paulo, I sat down with Gomes for a wide-ranging interview about Brazil’s political dynamic, its various crises, the situation with Lula and the corruption probe, and other controversial social issues such as drug decriminalization, gender inequality, and teaching children in public schools about homophobia and LGBT equality. We also discussed the similarities between Brazil’s political climate and its rising far-right movement with those in Europe and the U.S.
We have edited the interview with English subtitles into a 15-minute video that features the discussions most relevant to an international audience, precisely because Brazil’s election — aside from being inherently important due to the sheer size of the country — offers insights for the challenges of western democracies. We will do the same for the other interviews of Brazil’s presidential candidates we do, including the one I did previously with the left-wing socialist candidate Guilherme Boulos of the PSOL party.
Whatever else one might think of him, Gomes is a very astute and insightful thinker, and his answers offer insight not only into the Brazilian election but the challenges of liberalism and democracy generally throughout the western world: