Bloomberg Línea — The first debate prior to the second round of Brazil’s presidential elections between President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), held on Sunday, saw the two candidates clash to the detriment of the discussion of their proposals.
Topics such as the fight against the pandemic, corruption, state-owned oil company Petrobras’ price policy, the environment and education were all on the agenda, but economic issues were left to one side.
The debate, organized by a pool of communication platforms, was the first among the presidents with the new format created by Band: instead of just answering questions, the candidates have 15 minutes at the outset and at the end, and can move around the studio.
The new format, proposed by journalist Fernando Mitre, Band’s editorial director, had already been tested in the debates among candidates for governor. The pool is formed by TVs Band, CNN, Cultura, the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, and the portal UOL, while the debate was broadcast by Band.
In the analysis following Sunday’s debate, Lula was perceived as having fared better than Bolsonaro.
Analytics consultancy AtlasIntel conducted a qualitative survey of 100 voters who did not vote for either candidate in the first round, and divided the into nine focus groups. For 54% of them, Lula won the debate, while Bolsonaro performed better for 32% of the survey participants.
After the debate, 59% of participants said they would vote for Lula, while 32% said they would vote for Bolsonaro.
The study is a qualitative survey, meaning that it is not intended to be an estimate of the entire population’s opinion. The goal, AtlasIntel said, is to “assess trends and inform analysis.”
The numbers were released by the Pollster website, in partnership with AtlasIntel.
On social networks, the results were similar. During the debate, Quaest monitored Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as websites and blogs that mentioned the Band debate.
Bolsonaro had more mentions: 54% of the comments on the profiles and addresses monitored by Quaest were related to the president, against 46% for Lula. But Lula had slightly more positive mentions: on average, 43% of the mentions of the opposition Labor Party (PT) candidate were positive, against 41% for Bolsonaro.
Lula’s best block was the first, when the debate was focused on the pandemic. Bolsonaro had more mentions in the first block (59% against Lula’s 41%), while Lula had 43% of positive mentions regarding this topic, against the president’s 39%.
The third block was the best for the president: he had 54% of the mentions in the profiles and comments monitored by Quaest, of which 51% were positive. Lula’s fourth block in the debate was seen as his weakest, with only 39% of positive mentions.
Following are highlights of the debate, by theme:
Bolsonaro’s bizarre claims, Lula’s accusations of pedophilia
Controversy emerged even before the start of the debate. with Bolsonaro telling reporters before entering the studio that he had spent the “worst 24 hours” of his life.
Over the weekend, an excerpt from an interview circulated on social networks in which the president said that “there was an atmosphere” between him and two “beautiful girls of 14, 15 years old” in a community in the outskirts of Brasilia.
Lula’s campaign then released the excerpt and called the president a pedophile, to which Bolsonaro responded to reporters. “An infamous, sordid accusation of pedophilia”.
Lula arrived at the debate wearing a brooch of Faça Bonito, a campaign to combat the sexual abuse of children and adolescents, on the lapel of his jacket. During the debate, Bolsonaro read out the decision by the president of the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), Alexandre de Moraes, which determined that social network platforms should take the video off the air.
Vaccination and fighting the pandemic
Lula began the debate with theme of the pandemic, saying that Bolsonaro delayed the purchase of vaccines against Covid-19, which delayed the start of the vaccination campaign. According to a survey by immunologist Pedro Hallal, of the Federal University of Pelotas, around 400,000 deaths from Covid could have been avoided if the federal government had followed the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations to fight the pandemic.
Lula said: “You debauched, laughed, said that whoever took the vaccine would become an alligator, a homosexual, and let people drown without oxygen in Manaus. You became a salesman of medicine that was useless. He did not respect Butantã and Fiocruz, which are laboratories of excellence.
Bolsonaro responded by saying that he bought “more than 500 million doses” of the vaccine and that Brazil was “one of the countries that vaccinated the fastest” - when Brazil began to apply the vaccines, on January 17, 2021, 57 countries had already started their vaccination campaigns.
“All the vaccines were purchased by the federal government. We are proud of this work. We saved millions of lives,” Bolsonaro retorted.
‘Auxilio Brasi’l and fiscal policy
One of the few moments when economics was discussed in the debate was in response to a question from journalist Eduardo Oinegue, who asked what the candidates would do to get their proposals off the ground, especially social programs, given that only 4% of the budget is free for expenditure, with the rest having already been assigned.
Bolsonaro said he intended to work for the approval of a tax reform that would enable the continuity of the payment of ‘Auxílio Brasil’, an aid package for Brazilian families
The aid was increased from 400 reais ($76) to 600 reais ($114) by Congress in August, after the approval of a change to the Constitution. For 2023, the budget foresees the return of the aid to 400 reais, but Bolsonaro has already said on previous occasions that the amount will remain the same.
In Sunday’s debate, Bolsonaro said that “the origin of this money will come from a proposal that has already been approved by Congress, aiming at tax reform and which is now in the Senate. We will keep this extra expense permanently and for life.”
Lula also talked about tax reform: “The important thing is that if you [the government] know how to work, to plan, you will have the money to do things.
“At the same time, we are sure that Congress will approve a tax reform so that we can tax the poorest, the workers, less - that is why we propose an exemption of [salaries] of up to 5,000 reais from paying income tax - and charge the richest, who often do not pay taxes on their profits, on dividends. Then we will have money for the policies we have drawn up,” Lula said.
Bolsonaro also tried to attack Lula, asking him why Marcola [Marco Willians Herbas Camacho], a convicted frug trafficker, was not transferred to a federal prison in 2006 after 59 policemen were killed in São Paulo, and when Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s vice presidential candidate, was governor of São Paulo state.
Lula responded that during his administration he built five federal prisons and said that if Alckmin didn’t ask for Marcola’s transfer, “he had reason not to. The legislation that deals with the issue says that prisoners can only be transferred from state to federal prisons by judicial decision at the request of the state governor, or the prisoner’s own defense.”
Bolsonaro also tried to attack Lula when talking about corruption. He said that those accused of corruption in Operation Lava Jato [known as ‘operation car wash’] returned 30 billion reais ($5.68 billion), and that infrastructure work, such as on the São Francisco River, delivered by Bolsonaro’s government, was stalled for more than 10 years.
“It was a lot of money for corruption, everything had corruption in his government,” Bolsonaro said.
Lula replied that the fight against corruption should not destroy companies, something that, he claimed, was one of the effects of the investigations of Lava Jato. He also said that his government executed about 88% of the São Francisco works, while Bolsonaro’s government contributed 3.5%.
Journalist Josias de Souza, from UOL, asked the candidates how they would govern “without buying support from Congress”, citing a scheme uncovered by Operation Lava Jato and the so-called secret budget, a mechanism by which members of Congress determine the allocation of part of the money set aside by the executive for parliamentary amendments. The scheme is thus named because the person who asks for the money is not identified.
Lula said that never before had a president spent so much money to buy parliamentary support. From 2021 to the end of this year, the secret budget is expected to be around 30 billion reais ($5.68 billion).
“I have nothing to do with it,” Bolsonaro replied.
According to the president, the secret budget was created by deputies, approved by Congress and vetoed by him, and the veto was overturned by parliamentarians. After vetoing the project, however, the government sent a project of its own authorship to recreate the mechanism. The text was signed by Bolsonaro and General Luiz Ramos, then interior minister.
Bolsonaro said that 13 Labor Party (PT) deputies used money from the secret budget, which would be proof that he has no relation to the mechanism.
“I would never give money to this whole bunch here if they weren’t voting with me,” he said.
Petrobras was also the target of an argument between the two candidates.
Bolsonaro criticized Lula’s management of Petrobras, saying that the PT leader distributed the directorships among the parties, while Lula defended himself by saying that “the director of his party,” in reference to Paulo Roberto Costa, nominated by the PP, Bolsonaro’s former party, had been at Petrobras for 33 years.
“He was nominated by his resumé,” Lula said.
Bolsonaro said that Brazil was in its third consecutive month of deflation, which he said was achieved thanks to the government’s policy of reducing fuel prices, with the reduction of the ceiling of the corporate tax rate to 17% - which obeys a decision by the supreme court.
Bolsonaro also claimed that Petrobras’ debt during the PT governments rose to 900 billion reais ($170.4 billion).
Lula replied that Bolsonaro does not know the reality of the country.
“This country today only refines 80% of the gasoline it uses. We used to refine 100%, we used to refine everything we consumed,” Lula said.
Number of Supreme Court ministers
Journalist Vera Magalhães asked the candidates what they would do about the proposal of some congress members, such as Ricardo Barros (PP-PR), leader of the Bolsonaro government in the chamber, to increase the number of Supreme Court justices, from 11 to 16 or more.
The idea is seen by analysts as a maneuver to increase the government’s control over the Supreme Court, since the president in office could appoint five more justices.
“For my my part, the commitment is made: there will be no proposal [to increase the number of justices], as I have never studied this in depth,” said Bolsonaro.
Lula said that “trying to mess with the Supreme Court to put friends in it is a step backwards that the Brazilian Republic has already seen, and that he is against it.
In 1965, the military dictatorship passed a law to increase the number of justices from 11 to 16. Two years later, five ministers considered to be opposed by the military were removed, and the court went back to having 11 ministers, with a greater proportion of members appointed by the regime.
Translated from the Portuguese by Adam Critchley