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.

El Salvador: Storm or calm ahead?

By CLALS Staff

Embed from Getty Images

The post-election crisis in El Salvador has been tense but generally peaceful – and, despite some tough talk and street scuffles, both sides appear prepared to accept the final vote tally when certified.  FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén still holds a tiny lead of about 6,000 votes of 3 million cast.  The last polls released before the runoff contest last Sunday gave him a 10- to 15-point lead, obviously failing to reflect the success of a well-structured campaign of fear by ARENA to rebuild support for its candidate, Norman Quijano.  The campaign, facilitated by mainstream media long sympathetic to ARENA, claimed that four more years of “leftist” FMLN rule would result in the sort of political instability and economy shortages that Venezuela is experiencing.  ARENA proclaimed, “El Salvador, otra Venezuela.”  Voting analyses suggest that the campaign and an energetic ground strategy rebuilt ARENA’s traditional base among the middle- and upper-middle class, enabling it to close much of the gap.  Specifically, the first-round votes that went to former President Tony Saca – who had moved away from the ARENA hard right and even flirted with alliance with FMLN moderates – tacked back to the right.  The FMLN won an additional 150,000 votes.

The FMLN has been behaving as the reasonable incumbent and ARENA as the noisy opposition.  Sánchez Cerén has pledged to accept “any results announced by the TSE.”  Quijano and other ARENA officials have accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of “Chávez-style fraud.”  He said he was “not going to allow the citizens to be robbed of an election” and told party faithful to “fight, if necessary, with our lives.”  He called on the Army, which he claimed “is tracking this fraud that his occurring,” to “defend the results.”

ARENA’s heated rhetoric – Quijano’s invitation to military intervention was unprecedented in recent years – has been alarming, but most reports indicate that the TSE has retained credibility throughout the vote count and crisis.  The TSE may soon be able to determine a winner, but the hard fact remains that his legitimacy will not automatically be accepted across party lines.  If certified the winner, Sánchez Cerén will enjoy fairly solid party support but will have to moderate his approach from the start.  A victorious Quijano, on the other hand, will sit atop a divided party – of which he represents the more conservative wing – and probably will also feel pressure to move toward the center.  The campaign to portray the FMLN as the equivalent of Chávez’s party succeeded without a shred of evidence because, despite the FMLN’s relatively democratic and transparent governance over the past four years, many Salvadorans still lean right when afraid.  Quijano’s suggestion that he has an inside track with the Army – harkening back to the days that ARENA indeed enjoyed near lockstep cooperation from the armed forces – may haunt him if he doesn’t restate his confidence in civilian democratic institutions.  The U.S. Embassy has called on all parties to respect the TSE’s count and accept the final results.

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.