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Brazilian voters sick of rampant corruption

October 6, 2018

They're furious and not going to take it anymore: Brazilian voters have had it with the corruption scandals that have plagued the country for years. With elections set for Sunday, the stakes are high.

Protesters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil display their fury after a disastrous fire gutted the country's priceless National Museum
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Pimentel

Representative democracies around the world are experiencing a crisis of confidence. In Brazil, there is a particularly high level of mistrust as a result of the corruption scandals surrounding the state-owned oil company Petrobras that have been uncovered since 2014. Virtually all major parties are affected. According to the Datafolha survey institute, 68 percent of Brazilians mistrust the country's political parties. And according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (Ibope) the figure is even as high as 87 percent.

"It's normal for voters to be disappointed by politics after being exposed to news of corruption on this scale for so long," says political scientist Carlos Pereira of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "It would be irrational if Brazilian voters did not react in this way."

Pereira believes that disillusionment opens the door to the demonization of politics. "And for the theory that all politicians are equal and therefore corrupt." This in turn leads to the belief that democracy is unable to solve society's problems and shakes democratic legitimacy, he says.

Read more: Brazilian judiciary hunts corrupt politicians

Brazil to go to the polls

Distance between citizens and politics

The distance between politics and the general public is not new. It already existed before the mass demonstrations of June 2013, when dissatisfaction with the political class was ignited by fare increases and millions of people vented their anger. It also existed before the disclosure of the "Lava Jato" affair (Operation Car Wash) involving oil company Petrobras in 2014.

Brazil's far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro
Populist Jair Bolsonaro sits atop the latest presidential polls, and his recent stabbing seems to have boosted his fortunesImage: Getty Images/AFP/E. Sa

The distance was particularly visible during the dictatorship (1964-85), says political scientist Marco Aurelio Nogueira. "Politics was something far away and foreign, also because it was not allowed to be practiced."

With the re-democratization that occurred in the mid-eighties following dictatorial rule, Brazilian society became politicized, Nogueira explains. "People accepted the invitation to join in and take care of politics." In recent years, however, there has been a deep disillusionment, "a renewed distance between citizens and politics," he says.

Unequal distribution of campaign funds

A further hurdle for any regeneration of the system is the new public campaign financing model. The party leadership decides whose campaign is to be financed. Most of these are long-established candidates. Political newcomers receive an average of 116,000 reais (€26,200, $30,200) for their election campaign, while veteran candidates receive an average of 766,000 reais ($199,500). A total of 67 percent of the state campaign fund goes to candidates who are already sitting or have sat in Congress.

Brazilian Workers' Party presidential candidate Fernando Haddad
Though Lula was somewhat of a folk hero, his protege Rousseff's mandate ended in disgraceImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Penner

Yet even the remaining 33 percent does not go entirely to new politicians, but rather to illustrious figures such as ex-president Dilma Rousseff and Danielle Cunha, daughter of former parliamentary president Eduardo Cunha, who has been imprisoned for corruption.

A majority has lost confidence

After the mass protests in mid-2013, political reforms were supposed to create renewal. At the moment, little change is visible. "The big parties were not able to carry out a process of renewal in their ranks. And the idea of electing a real outsider has not been carried through either." The most prominent such outsider has been ultra-right ex-military Jair Bolsonaro, the front-runner in the presidential election on October 7, after a court banned imprisoned ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's candidacy.

"Bolsonaro himself has been in the political arena for many years," says legal expert Michael Freitas Mohallem of the Getulio Vargas Foundation. "The parties have turned their backs on the public's desire for renewal because they were busy defending themselves. In total, 31 candidates tainted by "lava jato" will also run in the election. A new mandate would give them partial immunity.

Controversial vote-sharing good for parties, bad for representation

The concept of punishing politicians at the polls will remain an illusion. In addition to the parties' unwillingness, the institution known as "puxador de votos," (or vote pulling) is also jointly responsible. Candidates with more votes than they need can transfer surplus votes to party colleagues who have not received enough.

Brazil's Lula bows out of race

Tatiana Roque, candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) in Rio de Janeiro, is counting on her nationally known party colleague Marcelo Freixo as her "puxador de votos" (or vote puller), She considers vote transfers within the party to be positive. "If the voter gives his vote to the candidate, he automatically gives it to his party. The philosophy behind it is not bad, it gives the party a special meaning."

Roque explains that in contrast to majority voting systems like those in the US, where around half the votes are not represented in parliament, Brazilians want as many votes as possible to be represented. "Society must decide what it wants to win with the system and what it is willing to lose. Brazilian society has historically decided to aim for representation and inclusion," Roque says. The disadvantage is that your own vote can be given to candidates you actually did not select, she says.

But Roque is also aware that the "puxadores" damage representation when there is no cross-party ideology. "The system was created for an ideal scenario. I agree that this is no longer the case." The negative side effects have to be accepted, because argues Pereira: "There is no such thing as a perfect system."