Brazilian elections: Two candidates dogged by controversy

The general elections in Brazil on October 7 come amid recent upheavals which have resulted in a sharp political divide, with a large portion of the population either defending the idols they see as persecuted, or turning to the right in an attempt to escape the left they see as fully responsible for corruption and graft.

Meanwhile, a large percentage of the electorate are reeling in horror at the thought of voting for either of the two frontrunners.

Fernando Haddad, former Mayor of São Paulo and a former minister of education, who carried only single digits in the polls a few weeks ago, and is now above 22 per cent for the first round.

A descendant of Lebanese Christian immigrants, Haddad is a lawyer with a Master’s degree in economics and a PhD in philosophy, and has won international awards for his initiatives regarding food, land use, and transportation as mayor of São Paulo. Haddad was never in the limelight within the PT, the Workers’ Party, until recently, when he was chosen to be the party’s candidate.

He replaces former President Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva, who appeared to be the one who would finally lead the eternal “country of the future” to fulfill its destiny.

Corruption uninterrupted

But Lula today sits in a jail cell on a corruption conviction, having led polls for the 2018 elections, before being barred from running. Haddad may look good on paper, but many simply will not vote for someone they see as a puppet whose strings are being pulled from behind bars.

Just a few years ago, economic growth skyrocketed, and Brazil’s train finally seemed to be getting on track. Winning bids to host major events helped bring the country into the spotlight, and the discovery of massive offshore oilfields in 2007 ensured future success. In Brazil and abroad, Lula received the credit for most of these developments, and for finally addressing the extreme inequality that had long plagued the nation.

As the dollar began to climb in 2012, however, and as the economic boom started to lose steam, corruption, mismanagement and disastrous fiscal policies took their toll.

The World Cup and the Olympics went without a hitch (except for Brazil’s staggering 7×1 loss against Germany), but brought no social or economic returns, with most of the investment disappearing into the pockets of the organizers, and the infrastructures built were left to rust.

Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was at the helm when things went downhill. The former Catholic schoolgirl turned urban guerrilla had been head of Petrobras, Lula’s minister of energy and his chief of staff, but the discovery of corruption on a massive scale revolving around a kickback scheme at Petrobras had Brazilians taking to the streets en masse demanding her removal.

Rousseff inherited a very prosperous Brazil, but the global financial crisis and the rise of the US dollar battered her economic plan into recession in 2015 [PPIO]

The red star of the Worker’s Party was tarnished: Lula, along with many of his close advisers, was jailed for involvement in the same scandal, and he and his party are now despised by many. Investigations into corruption allegations are ongoing, and have uncovered widespread graft all across the political spectrum, something not new to Brazilian politics.

But for some, the star still shines: there is still widespread support for the claim that the convictions were politically motivated. Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment is still considered my some supporters to  amount to a coup d’état, and many believe Michel Temer, the successor she herself chose as her running mate in the 2014 elections, is an illegitimate president.

Deft, but controversial

In this political climate, controversial figures such as Jair Bolsonaro, a former military man whose chief political strategy seems to be making outrageous statements and stoking fears of the “Venezuelisation” of Brazil, are making waves.

His high name recognition was earned by making outrageous remarks disparaging blacks, natives, women, and the LGBT community, and his unpopularity is increased by his calls for intervention by the armed forces and his idolatry for the military, praising infamous characters of the former regime, including Colonel Carlos Alberto Ustra, who had personally tortured Ms. Rousseff and many others with electric shocks and beatings.

There is little to recommend him, but he has deftly positioned himself as the law and order candidate. His reputation for probity, which he has managed to uphold even as he has admitted receiving payoffs and employing family members in do-nothing jobs in his cabinet, hangs in the balance as serious questions about his finances begin to surface.

Many of his staunch supporters tout him as the only defense against the return of the left, and he claims nearly 30 per cent of the vote, but up to 60 per cent of voters reject him. Against any other candidate but Haddad, he’d lose the runoff.

Few are the voters who decidedly vote for Bolsonaro for his own qualities, but many would be persuaded to cast a vote for him if the alternative is a PT win.

With a disorganized campaign marked by aggressive rhetoric, he relishes the comparison with US President Donald Trump.

He is not a political newcomer, having spent 27 years in the senate, but in all that time, he has passed only two bills. Bolsonaro’s hate speech recently turned against him, and he was stabbed at a political rally in early September, an attack which many of his supporters still claim was orchestrated by the opposition to end his candidacy, and some of his detractors still claim was a false flag operation.

His time in hospital earned him some sympathy votes and underlined the devastating violence in Brazil, but most importantly, it allowed his name to remain in the spotlight without his having to say anything.

Rise, Women

He is avowedly ignorant about policy, economics, healthcare, governance and legislation, but claims he has no need to know any of that if his advisers do.

With government plans vague enough to easily defend, the candidate gained some market trust after putting forward his choice for Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, an economist with a PhD from University of Chicago, but he has barred him from speaking publicly about his plans after certain statements caused supporters to waver.

Bolsonaro, a captain in the army, also silenced his running mate, General Mourão, a hardliner who has called torturers “heroes” and called for military intervention, after he stated that households without a male head were “hoodlum factories,” hardly a wise choice of words in a country where over 11 million households are headed by women.

Unsurprisingly, he eschews television debates, having lost popularity each time he participated in them.

Women have spearheaded the opposition to Bolsonaro, and the #EleNão #NotHim movement quickly assembled millions of supporters over social media. Those close to him have called women who speak out against him “dirty, ugly and unhygienic,” and have brutally attacked his opponents.

A “moral conservative,” he has managed to unite the Catholic Conference of the Brazilian Orders (CRB), LGBTQ groups, popular artists, and even foreign celebrities in calling for a vote against him.

Public protests against Bolsonaro have gathered several million people, but may have galvanized his supporters, as he still rises in the polls.

The two candidates who advance to the second round will face each other in a runoff where whoever has 50 per cent of the valid votes plus one wins.

Gomes, the alternative?

Brazil only uses voting machines, and claims of fraud abound. Each candidate owes his position to resistance towards the other, but voters are not backing down.

Candidate Ciro Gomes, who is far behind in third place, with less than 15 per cent of the vote, would beat either one in a runoff.

As the former governor of Ceará, former government minister during Lula’s presidency, and congressman whose family has long been long involved in politics (and accusations of impropriety), Gomes has made it a habit to resign the offices to which he has been elected in order to pursue higher ones, and his reputation for being a bit of a hothead keeps his rejection rate high.

Planning to reverse privatization of public companies, but also close to industrialists, he seems to navigate from the left to the right of the political spectrum, and many Brazilians, disgusted by both front runners, are campaigning for him as a viable alternative.

Whoever comes out on top in the wacky races of Brazilian politics will inherit a country which has always had enormous potential but was almost destroyed by decades of catastrophic mismanagement, falling from what seemed like a meteoric rise straight into recession.

Over 200 million inhabitants are divided politically and socially, and the country cries out for structural reform. If Haddad wins, and manages to distance himself from the more ideological wing of the party, and to shake himself free of Lula’s influence, he might lead a moderate government that would give him a chance to right the mistakes of his party.

Bolsonaro is a trickier bet: he has already shown himself to be more radical than other populist authoritarian leaders such as Philippines’ Duterte or Venezuela’s Chavez were before their elections, and his lack of even the most basic understanding of public policy, as well as his abrupt persona, are obstacles to gaining necessary support and making allies in congress.

Border tensions highlight Venezuelans’ economic distress

Maduro is hoping that his new measures, including raising minimum wages by 3,000 per cent, will curb the economic downward spiral [PPIO]

Calm returned to the streets of the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima Monday after President Michel Temer ordered the military and security forces to the area.

On Saturday, Pacaraima residents clashed with Venezuelans who had streamed across the border, particularly through the border town of Santa Elena de Uairen.

The Venezuela authorities since 2016 opened the border crossings with neighboring countries such as Brazil and Colombia, to allow desperate Venezuelans to cross over and purchase their dietary and medicinal needs. But one of the challenges was the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar currency – now heading toward nearly 1,000,000 per cent devaluation.

Many Venezuelans have taken to staying in neighboring Latin American countries.

According to immigration officials in Pacaraima, at least 1,200 Venezuelans had slept on the streets and makeshift dwellings in the border town.

But they have now all been forced to return to the Venezuelan side of the border as the security situation returns to stable in Pacaraima.

Venezuela is now in one of the worst economic crises in the history of Latin America.

In just the past year, food protests have increased exponentially as prices skyrocketed. The crime rate has soared with violent robberies taking place including hundreds of looting incidents.

Venezuelans now face multiple daily power outages while businesses shut down and factory output drops significantly.

Even for those who can afford to buy food, staple scarcity has become a major challenge for the government.

Venezuela has been unable to sufficiently import its most basic needs as the drastic drop in oil prices since 2014 has created an enormous financial shortfall. Oil revenues have fallen from nearly $90 billion to about $20 billion as foreign debt has mushroomed to $140 billion or so.

Venezuela, like some emerging economies, has based nearly its entire GDP growth on oil exports. The recent surge in oil prices will provide some reprieve but Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday raised minimum wages by 3,000 per cent as he officially devalued the currency by 90 per cent.

The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies

Temer’s pension reforms face stiff opposition

Brazil’s unions have planned a day of struggle to protest Temer’s proposed social security reform bill. The president is already very unpopular in Brazil; polls show voters want him to be accountable for alleged corruption [Xinhua]

Brazilian President Michel Temer is facing a tide of opposition regarding his promise to reform the social security program.

Many among his supporters see the reform initiative as damaging to their relection bids in the general election next October.

But in an interview aired on Brazilian TV on Friday night, Temer said the reform bill had not been defeated.

According to the constitution, Temer’s already watered down proposal requires 308 of 513 votes in congress to pass. His supporters say they have around 270 right now, up by about 40 since October.

Some analysts expect Temer and his Democratic Movement Party to make further concessions in the first few weeks of the year to bridge the deficit in supporting votes.

In the meantime, Brazilian unions have scheduled street protests for February 19 as a “national day of struggle” – the day the lower house of Congress is expected to vote on the reform bill – to voice popular opposition to Temer’s reform package.

Temer has said that he wants to lift the retirement age, for example, well into the 60, easing the burden on the national coffers. Temer’s proposal would have men retiring at 65 and women at 62.

Most Brazilians in the public sector retire in their mid to late 50s.

In the rural industries, women will retire at 55 and men at 60, according to the proposal.

He also wants to reform the public pension regimen.

To be eligible for full pension, employees in the public sector will have to work 25 years; in the private sector, 40 years.

Temer has said that overhauling the pension system is necessary to cap government spending, which some economists say was overblown and a factor in the recession since 2014.

But most social activists are angry that Brazilian politicians are insisting on the need for cuts in benefits and public services even as evidence grows that they benefited personally from illegal kickbacks on overinflated contracts. President Temer is also facing charges of taking multimillion-dollar bribes.

The proposal to modernize Brazil’s labor laws, some of which date back to the 1940s, is backed by Brazilian businesses so they can lower labor costs that allegedly undercut their ability to compete in foreign markets.

By Firas Al-Atraqchi with inputs from Agencies

Brazil gov’t says GDP growth could hit 3% in 2018

Temer has vowed since replacing Dilma Rousseff as president that he will make sure austerity and reform packages are passed through the Senate in a bid to revive the economy and boost business confidence [Xinhua]

A combination of falling interest and inflation rates and a boost in consumer and business confidence is signalling that the Brazilian economy, one of the worst faring in BRICS for the past four years, is finally turning a corner.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, who promised economic improvements when he took over the presidency in 2016, praised Brazil’s growing industrial output and the positive performance of the stock market during a speech on Tuesday.

One of the critical challenges was how to lower rampant inflation. The Brazilian Central Bank has always maintained that a 4.5 inflation rate is ideal for growth.

In recent months, the rate fell from over 9 per cent to 2.46 per cent.

This may indicate that the Central Bank will have to cut interest rates again – it cut rates by 100 basis points just last week. Since March, it has cut rates from over 14 per cent to 8.25 per cent.

“I just want to say, if I may… To stop and compare. And I want, while we stop and compare, to show to you a little, after hearing that we have just left a very strong recession, how we have made progress in these 16, 17 months of government,” Temer said, according to an official government transcript.

In April, the International Monetary Fund said Brazil had the potential for the economy to move toward a more robust recovery.

At the time, it revised its 2018 GDP growth from 1.5 to 1.7 per cent.

But on the back of the recent economic indicators, Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles said that GDP growth could reach as high as 3 per cent as early as Q1 2018.

The economy had contracted a total of 8 per cent since 2014.

This would mark an economic coup for Temer, who has faced criticism for his draconian measures as well as a slew of corruption charges since he took office just a year ago.

The BRICS Post with inputs from Agencies