Tomorrow, people will be forced to decide whether to vote for what one group of voters is calling a “madman” (Jair Bolsonaro) and another group of voters often refer to as “a mafia” (the PT or Workers’ Party).
There is no least of these worst choices – they are both appalling. It is an anti-candidate election; the winner will be the candidate voters reject less, not the one viewed to be the better choice. It’s hard to predicate a solid democracy on a contest between “not him” and “not that party”, but that’s what Brazilian politics has come down to at the current juncture. The question is whether voters are willing to forgive the PT for its corruption and mismanagement – for which it has been conspicuously unrepentant – or whether they will take a chance on an insider whose extreme views give him the semblance of an outsider, with no consistent or admirable voting record during seven legislative terms, and a party with no clear roots or program.
For this election, voters can thank Brazil’s mad party system, a system with a goodly one-third more parties than the world’s second maddest party system – Indonesia’s. To maintain itself in power and get anything through the legislature, the PT bought votes in Congress (as verified by guilty verdicts in the Mensalão Trial [pt here]), stole public money, and sold cashflow positions in Petrobras and other parts of the Brazilian state to unscrupulous allies (as verified by Lava Jato indictments).
To make itself even less appealing to moderate, centrist voters, the PT originally paired its current presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad, to a running mate in prison. Regardless of whether Lula is innocent, he is a convicted felon under Brazilian law and should have never attempted to run for election. The maneuver was unquestionably disrespectful of Brazil’s institutions and it was a ploy that ultimately failed. Instead of admitting guilt and uniting under a candidate of the center-left (e.g. Ciro Gomes) who could bring together center and left – and easily defeat Bolsonaro – Lula and the PT fell victim to hubris. They are reaping just desserts and will likely lose the election. The fallout of the center-left has done a grave disservice to Brazilian democracy – no matter who wins the election.
Take a close look, and the logic of the party system thesis is clear. Bolsonaro came out of nowhere because he was able to hijack a party in a mostly party-less party system (parties, parties everywhere, and not a pittance of a party). The PT played by the rules generated by extreme multiparty fragmentation – buying votes from unreliable allies – and consequently finds itself on the brink of a historic rout.