Sunday, October 12, 2008

Things I miss about England #33: Elections. Despite all the fun that surrounds an election in Brazil, I've became increasingly disillusioned (as I'm sure many Brazilians already have) with how the democratic process is carried out. Although British politics is by no means a model of how to organise power, my main objections with the Brazilian way are:

1. Candidates are not elected for real policies. The general rule of thumb is "say what you need to say to get in to power". Doesn't sound wholly unlike British politics but here there really is a license to say almost anything. In the local election here in Natal the third placed candidate promised to build a bridge from Natal to the island of Fernando de Naronha. Sounds like a good idea? Not when the bridge would have to be over 350 kms long!

2. When candidates do have real policies - their campaigns struggle to gain traction unless they flower them in populist rhetoric. One candidate from Recife, a Sr.Henry, and the preferred candidate of Rachel's brother and Dad proposed a solution to the problem of violence in Recife which is the worst in Brazil. Henry suggested bringing experts in from Colombia who had run a series of urban community projects working with young people that had produced astounding results there. So, why not in Recife? It sounded like a great idea, but as Rachel's brother told me, Henry rarely had the opportunity to talk about it and even when he did he opted for a fairly meaningless populist pitch as per the norm.

3. Debate is often avoided. Some Politicians prefer not to turn up to debates for fear of being made to look like idiots. This is what Lula did in the first round of presidential elections in the last presidential contest. As the big man of Brazilian politics the best way for him to maintain his popularity was not to say anything to anybody else. And, generally, it seems to me that electioneering at local level is all about noise, parties (the non-political kind) and music and not about a series of debates with other candidates as is (occasionally) the case back in the UK, or even door to door discussion with constituents. I recall on my first visit to Brazil seeing the national football team playing in Fortaleza. A politician standing for re-election had organised the occasion and used the match to do several laps of the crowd before the game started.

The harsh reality is all of this may stem from the lack of education among the numerically massive contingent of Brazil's poorest. Politicians want them on board and aren't losing sleep over a handful of university professors.

3. Nepotism and Corruption. As Pastor Neto, one of my students and a very important man in Natalense Evangelicalism, told me with respect to Christians involvement in Politics - the further you go into politics, the dirtier you become. In order to gain credibility Christian candidates have to form coalitions across the board and often end up palling up with some disreputables in the process. In his opinion, Christians should steer clear - an unfortunate conclusion when involvement in Politics would surely be a good thing. But, he has a point - how far can Christians meaningfully make a difference and keep their integrity? Probably, this is the question all Christians have to circle when they enter political life in any country.

Even so, nepotism and corruption is a frowned upon but generally an accepted part of the political process in Brazil. Rachel's brother was telling me that politicians who are not in office lobby for harder and stricter rules about who can work for an elected official (namely, not the guy's wife, kids, cousins and school chums) but, not surprisingly, as soon as those politicians are elected they forget their election pledges and appoint their next of kin to the treasury. A ticket to office is, as is the case across the globe in countless so-called democracies, a free lunch for the family, relatives and associates of whoever just got elected.

4. It's too noisy! Elections are just plainly a big din. After our busy weekend in JP we got back last Sunday and crashed into bed at 9.30pm. 25 minutes later and a cavalcade went by blaring music at top volume and setting off fireworks. I would have been annoyed if I wasn't just numb - this has happened so much in the last few weeks.

5. Candidates would rather vote for a monkey. This may seem funny or a collectors item in the history of democratic elections but in 1996 450,000 Cariocas (people from Rio) voted for Tiao, a monkey from the local zoo to become mayor. Tiao (pictured above) garnered 9.5% of the votes and came third, significantly way above many other human candidates. As a monkey is not allowed to vote or be voted for, all of the ballots were nullified. Tiao died a few years later, a famous hero in a famous city. Its all a good laugh, but it doesn't say a whole lot for the development of effective democratic processes in Brazil if people feel they can waste their votes in this way. We have our crazy candidates in the UK but none of them have got as far as an ape has in Brazil.

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