Opinion by Michael Royster

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The last pre-election debate will occur tonight (September 29th), broadcast by TV Globo at 10:30PM local time, after its moribund novela. It’s as eagerly awaited by Brazilian voters as was that between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to American (and international) voters.

Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.
Michael Royster, aka The Curmudgeon.

The main difference is that here in Rio, most participants in the debate are running for second place. First place has long been conceded to Senator Marcello Crivella, a former Fisheries Minister and Bishop of the evangelical Igreja Universal. The latest polls show him winning around one third of the popular vote.

That is well short of a majority, and the Constitution calls for a second round of elections when the leading candidate does not receive a majority. The runoff election, to be held Sunday, October 30th, will be between the two top vote-getters from this coming Sunday (October 2nd).

Therefore, the battle is now for second place, and the chance to enter the runoff election. Astonishingly, there are no fewer than seven candidates who are within the three percent margin of polling error—the top have ten percent, the bottom have four percent.

These far-from-magnificent seven come from all over the political spectrum, from right to left. Alone on the far right is Flavio Bolsonaro, scion of a family that remembers fondly the military dictatorship and wishes it could return. Off on the far left are three candidates—Jandira Feghali, Marcelo Freixo and Alessandro Molon—who remember fondly the Soviet Union and wish Lenin could return.

Scrummaging in the center are three other candidates—Pedro Paulo, Carlos Osório and Índio da Costa—who hope they can convince voters they are best qualified to carry on the work of outgoing Prefeito Eduardo Paes. They are all from political parties that form President Temer’s governing coalition: PMDB, PSDB and PSD. None of them is bothered by anything so trite and boring as ideology; they just want power.

Given this rainbow-like spectrum, the big question for each candidate at the gunfight tonight has to be: whom do I shoot at? Do I concentrate my fire on Crivella, hoping to show I’m the candidate with the best chance of defeating him in the runoff? Do I concentrate my fire on those on the other side of the political spectrum? Do I concentrate on the personal foibles of other candidates, hoping to discredit them?

Or, do I take a big gamble and talk about the important post-Olympiad issues facing Rio de Janeiro? Regulation of Uber? Connecting bus, metrô, BRT, VLT for one fare? Subsidizing Escolas de Samba and Blocos de Rua? Taking over public health facilities from a bankrupt state? Instituting a progressive real property tax?

In Rio, there are parts of the city where militant factions have great control—“currais eleitorais” or electoral corrals, where voters are rounded up, paid and herded into polling stations to vote as the bosses order.

The TV debate can be viewed as an attempt by all eight participants to enter into the others’ corrals and influence the votes of those penned within. That’s called democracy and it’s OK.

The Curmudgeon offers no prediction on the topics of the debate nor the election results this Sunday.

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