By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The first televised presidential debate prior to elections took place in São Paulo on August 5th, organized and broadcast by Rede Bandeirantes, with the participation of the four candidates whose parties are represented in the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies); Dilma Rousseff (PT), José Serra (PSDB), Marina Silva (PV), and Plínio de Arruda Sampaio (PSOL).
The debate, which was free of heated arguments and surprises, as well as a clear “winner”, was crushed in ratings by the soccer game that took place concurrently; the debate grabbed only five percent of audience share, while the game was viewed by 37 percent.
During that week, opinion polls showed Dilma holding an unwavering lead, with one poll conducted by Sensus putting her as much as ten points ahead of her principal rival, Serra. As a result, the consensus among the viewers, journalists and political pundits that no candidate emerged as the debate winner was interpreted as favoring the PT candidate.
As expected, the debate was dominated by the discussions and exchange of questions and answers between the two leading candidates, Dilma and Serra, as they verbalized their polarization on various key issues, such as health care and agrarian reform.
While Dilma referred to the accomplishments of the Lula administration on many occasions, Serra refrained from mentioning the eight-year rule of his party and Fernando Henrique Cardoso that preceded the Lula government.
It has been widely observed that Dilma, whose campaign focuses on promises of the continuation of President Lula’s successful policies, has been making an effort to label Serra as “anti-Lula”, as opposed to “post-Lula”, which is Serra’s own choice of words.
“Serra represents the opposition, and they have been against the government of President Lula since the beginning,” Dilma said when asked to evaluate the debate.
The focus on the two main candidates during the debate angered PSOL candidate Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, who protested openly by saying, “Until now there has been discrimination; Marina and I are asked fewer questions.” Plinio currently has around one point in polls compared to Dilma’s forty.
Despite being the least favored among the four candidates, Sampaio emerged as the most aggressive in the debate and attacked the other candidates, referring to Serra as a “landlord” and “hypochondriac”, claiming that Silva is an eco-capitalist, and sarcastically calling Dilma “the mother of the poor”.
Dilma and Serra remained firm yet cordial with one another, while Silva chose not to criticize or attack anyone and largely went unnoticed, even though she has secured the admiration and support of filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who attended the event. Silva is in fact Lula’s former Environment Minister, sharing a similarly humble background to the President and was illiterate until the age of sixteen.
Lula has expressed his satisfaction with the debate overall, telling the press that it is the quality of the questions that one candidate asks another that determines the value of a debate. “In this respect, it was of good quality,” he said. “I think all of them have passed the test.”
The event was the first of four presidential debates that were approved by the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (Supreme Electoral Court), in addition to an unprecedented internet debate that is scheduled for August 18th.