Brazil: Lula’s Conviction and Electoral Reforms Stirring Up Presidential Race

By Paulo Castro*

Large room in with many people at desks

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. Presidential candidates’ TV and radio time in the upcoming 2018 election will be proportionally determined by the number of seats they hold in the Chamber. / Edilson Rodrigues / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Already overshadowed by the Lava Jato corruption investigations, Brazil’s preparations for general elections in October are likely to take place amid rising tensions – and perhaps even some violent protests.  Early campaign maneuvering intensified last month when a regional federal court raised obstacles to former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s candidacy, and electoral reforms passed in 2015 promise to fuel further disruption as election day approaches.

  • Lula’s appeal to overturn his conviction on corruption and money laundering charges was rejected by the Regional Federal Court in Porto Alegre (TRF-4). The ruling does not automatically knock him out of the race, but it drastically decreases his chances of running in October.  His best hope at this point lies with the Federal Supreme Court (STF), which has the power to overturn the regional court’s ruling.  This is very unlikely, however, because (i) a recent change in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law allows a defendant to be arrested if the original conviction is confirmed ; (ii) STF Chief-Justice Carmen Lúcia, who unilaterally has the power to set the Court’s agenda, has stated clearly that “overturning the Federal Court’s ruling against Lula would undermine the Supreme Court”; and (iii) the Clean Record Act (Lei da Ficha Limpa) prevents candidates from running for public office for eight years if they have been convicted by a second instance court such as the TRF-4.
  • The campaign climate is also affected by changes brought about by the electoral reforms of 2015, which reduced the campaign period from 90 to 45 days (with TV/radio time reduced from 45 to 35 days) and barred corporate donations to campaigns. These changes are likely to shift the balance in favor of traditional political leaders who already have national name recognition and have more influence inside their parties to get the few resources available.

Lula’s likely disqualification and the reforms have thrown the parties, especially his Workers Party (PT), into uncharted territory.  After 30 years of internal deal-making with his “mystical” name at the center, the PT will have to produce new political leaders and policy platforms.  For all parties, reduced financial resources and less TV time will increase the role of “politics as usual.”

  • TV and radio time is allocated in proportion to the parties’ representation in the Lower House of Congress, so candidates will need a strong party’s support to build a competitive candidacy. This suggests that the rise in the polls of Jair Bolsonaro – an Army reservist and congressman with a penchant for populist, authoritarian rhetoric – doesn’t necessarily make him a strong candidate; the small party under whose banner he’s running controls only 3 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The center and center-right parties, such as PMDB and PSDB, will also have an advantage because in 2016 they elected the highest number of mayors, who can bring additional resources to bear.

 The final outcome of the Lula case and implementation of the reforms could ignite further political instability.  Lula’s arrest could very well spark a new wave of demonstrations, with possible violence.  Lacking resources, Bolsonaro – who has already advocated military intervention in civilian political affairs – will try to rally right-wing groups behind his candidacy.  Combined, these opposing movements create a dangerous political landscape that brings both sides of the spectrum to doubt the capacity of democratic institutions.  A recent survey by Latinobarometro already shows that only 13 percent of Brazilians are pleased with the current state of their democracy.  Perceptions that the Judiciary has been excessive in the Lula case and that election laws have only empowered traditional (and corrupt) forces are likely to feed into the sort of authoritarian rhetoric Bolsonaro espouses and cause turmoil that harms the overall confidence on Brazil’s democracy.

February 9, 2018

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia, where he is focusing on the political actions of the Brazilian Supremo Tribunal Federal.  He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations.  He is also a CLALS Research Fellow.