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Letter From Brazil: Don't Vote, It Only Encourages Them

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Corrupt politicians are as much a part of Brazilian life as exquisitely skilled soccer stars, carnival queens and scantily clad beach babes. One post-war politician in Sao Paulo state won three terms as mayor and governor with the dubious endorsement that "he steals, but he gets things done." Former president Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 over a corruption scandal, and in 2001 it was revealed that fraudsters had bled an astonishing $2 billion from two government agencies established to help the country's poor.

Disgusted by the country's traditional political class, voters in 2002 turned in droves to the Workers Party, and installed the socialist former blue-collar worker Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president. But last year, Lula's reputation as a politician above reproach was shattered when investigators found that his government had handed out envelopes stuffed with cash to anyone who would support it in Congress. When it was revealed last month that scores of the country's deputies were skimming money off government contracts to purchase ambulances, it was hard for the citizenry to work up anything more than disgust-as-usual.

Still, the ambulance affair — locally dubbed the ôbloodsuckers scandalö — may have a significant effect on October's elections for President, Congress and 27 state governors. With more than 100 of the legislature's 513 deputies implicated in the scandal and further revelations emerging almost daily, distrust of politicians has reached record levels. But even if many voters now believe that whomever they choose will be corrupt, they can't simply stay away from the polls, because voting is compulsory under Brazil's constitution. That's why campaigns aimed at convincing people to spoil their ballots are gathering pace. "There is widespread disappointment," admits Marco Aurelio Mello, the president of the country's federal electoral court. "People are apathetic. That is why there are campaigns to annul the vote."

Those campaigns appear to be making headway. In an Ibope poll taken earlier this month, 9% of respondents planned to annul their vote for president, making it the third most popular option behind incumbent President Lula and his main rival, Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). In races for state governor the annulment option was even more popular, with 13% in Sao Paulo and 17% in Rio de Janeiro saying they would vote for none of the declared candidates. And although there are few polls available for parliamentary elections, voters and analysts expect the percentage of annulments to be even higher in those races. "The credibility in the political system is damaged," says Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst at the Brazilian Institute for Political Studies. "People see so many candidates involved that they don't know who to vote for."

The campaign to annul the vote is not a mass movement, but a loose network of grassroots campaigns that began on the Internet and spread like a virus through the wired middle classes. The popular Orkut dating site has dozens of pages devoted to urging annulment; Brazilian MTV ran a spot that was criticized as encouraging youngsters to spoil their ballots; and rock stars have amplified the sedition with passionate pleas from the stage. The idea took hold so quickly that the federal electoral court rushed to counter it with radio and TV ads appealing to voters to make their decision count. "We have to make people realize that they are responsible for the future of Brazil," the court's Mello says of the campaign. "If there is a crisis, the solution is to improve things — and that means getting people to choose the candidate that best represent them."

Although much of the discontent surrounds a Congress so putrid that even the president of the Congressional Ethics Committee classed it "the worst in the country's history," the presidential candidates are the most visible targets. Many Brazilians feel they simply aren't being given a choice. There are seven candidates in the field but only two, Lula and Alckmin, have a serious chance at winning, although a third far-left candidate is starting to gain ground. Alckmin embodies the neo-liberal PSDB rejected by voters in 2002 and Lula, the odds-on favorite, is leading only because he has given large handouts to the country's poor. Even many of his supporters say they will vote for their erstwhile great hope with a heavy heart. "There are no messiahs any more," says former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "People don't believe there is anyone who can change the system and so they think it's not worth voting. The campaign to annul the vote is one of desperation."