Brazil proudly boasts the biggest democratic elections in the world. I have no idea what the authors of the phrase make of India and the United States, but nevertheless this myth is widely circulated there, particularly as people are preparing to vote. Such was the case this month.
The biggest country in South America might have the most efficient and tamper-free vote casting and counting systems of any large country in the world. Well over a decade ago Brazil computerised all elections – from local council to president – to surprising results. People now choose their candidates in an electronic box, fraud is now kept to a minimum and most results are announced within just few hours. This makes the United States look like the most bankrupt and savage of nations (think Florida 2000).
Sadly the same cannot be said about campaigning, where Brazil remains the anti-model of morality, civilisation and democracy as a whole. I visited my hometown of Salvador earlier this month just before the first round of local council and mayoral elections (the runoff is took place last Sunday). I encountered pandemic, dirty campaigning. Dirty in the literal sense: the city is littered with posters and placards, even the cars are covered with window-size stickers and pamphlets.
Expect delays if you are meeting a friend, as motorcades often block the already choked traffic arteries of the city. Even the air is fair game: my ears got chuffed with the incessant loudspeakers of campaigning cars. They blast the tackiest campaign jingles at full volume, typically tacky forró or axé songs with ingenious lyrics like “Vote Agenor, he will change Salvador”. Campaigners use songs in order to lure new electors as well as to provoke their challengers. A few days ago ACM Neto and Pelegrino (the two mayoral candidates for Salvador in the runoff) embraced the strategy during the televised debate. Instead of presenting their programme or manifesto, they started singing songs live on TV with the sole purpose of vexing and humiliating their opponent. I have always bragged about the boundless musicality of Brazilians, but this is hardly what I meant.
But the best election gimmicks are in the countryside, and I had the dubious privilege of witnessing some of them firsthand. During my short visit to Salvador, I travelled to see my friend Ricardo in Riachão do Jacuípe, a municipality with just 35,000 inhabitants in the dry and impoverished hinterlands of Bahia. The nice three-hour coach journey from Salvador almost made me forget about the election hell in Salvador. Had I only known what I was about to encounter. Most houses in Riachão are so poor that they lack painting. Many also lack basic amenities such as water and sanitation. But very few lack campaign material, and most are adorned with flags or have their walls painstakingly crafted with the names and numbers of the main candidates. Two poll results feature amongst such wall paintings, each one showing a different candidate ahead. Both exhibit their supposed regional TRE registration number, the regulator’s official authenticity stamp.
Loud campaigning cars drive past the tiny town centre every ten minutes or so. Now campaigners have devised a new strategy in order to outperform their opponents. It defies the meaning of democracy, turning the otherwise peaceful town into a warzone. Campaigning cars are typically four-seaters with very potent sound-systems. So campaigners began hiring minivans fully equipped with even more powerful loudspeakers on top. But instead of bawling their ideas and proposals, they follow their smaller adversaries screaming “vai perder, vai perder!!!” (“you’re gonna lose, you’re gonna lose!!!”) in reference to the desired election results. The larger and louder vehicle pursues the opponent throughout the day and during their entire route, virtually muffling them. Such ingenuity is unprecedented. It simply beggars belief.
I went for a walk with Ricardo in the evening in Riachão, but we were promptly advised to change course. A nice lady friend told us that the neighbourhood was very dangerous. I was saddened, thinking that robbery was becoming so widespread in Brazil that even small and quiet towns like Riachão were no longer safe. She then explained that someone had been killed in the past few days because they were distributing pamphlets in their opponent’s stronghold. The murder was committed with “utmost cruelty”, and the victim has his nails and eyes pulled out, she alleged. So the crime had nothing to do with robbery. What a relief!!!
Years ago, it was common for council and mayoral candidates in Riachão do Jacuípe to chase voters in order to buy their votes. The price could be anything ranging from R$10 (£3) to a bottle of cachaça. But chasing voters is now a thing of the past. Now citizens actively sell their votes instead. The day before the elections, entire families put their chairs out or simply sit at their doorstep waiting for the best offer. Candidates no longer need to hunt their electors at inconvenient times and places. So civilised!!!
I sincerely hope that contenders in Salvador and Riachão won’t hone their campaigning tactics for the next elections. I shudder to think what these could be. Brazilians are highly vibrant and colourful beings. It’s a shame that sometimes their use their creative potential in such sick and perverted ways.