Circus laughter that makes Brazilians cry

Electoral hour is the 60 minutes of free television airtime, writes Joseph Leahy

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Switching on the television the other night, I was expecting one of the sweeping telenovelas that dominate Brazil’s primetime airwaves.

Instead I encountered Tiririca, who is running for a second term in Congress in October’s elections.

“Are you fed up with politics? Vote for me,” ran one of Tiririca’s nonsensical lines. He made the transition from clown to politician in the 2010 election with a pitch that went something like: “Do you know what they do in Brasília? Neither do I – vote for me and I’ll find out.” He won a record number of votes.

Tiririca tapped into widespread disgust with the political classes that expressed itself most visibly last year when thousands descended on to Brazil’s streets to protest. The demonstrations were ostensibly against the football World Cup but were driven by a deeper, long-running frustration with the poor quality of public services and perceptions of endemic corruption.

Tiririca’s appearance the other night was owing to a Brazilian phenomenon – electoral hour. This is 60 minutes of free television airtime that is divided among politicians according to the weighting of their political parties and coalitions in Congress.

The result is a political circus as everyone from the presidential incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, to the lowliest Congress member competes to get their message across in the time allocated. This ranges from several minutes in the president’s case to seconds for backbenchers.

This is the opposite of “reality TV”. Here truth is the first casualty, replaced by fantasy and fiction. There is minor presidential candidate Levy Fidelix, who with his bushy moustache and bald head looks like an ageing Asterix. Bankers have bankrupted Brazil, he rails. He worries that the country owes R$2,000bn ($892bn). But at less than half of gross domestic product, such a national debt burden would be the envy of many other countries.

There is Pastor Everaldo Pereira, the presidential candidate for Brazil’s growing evangelical community. He assures the gay community he “respects everyone” but in the same breath decrees that “marriage” can only be applied to a union between a “man and a woman”.

Then there is Ms Rousseff, who dominates the show because of her party’s strong showing in Congress. She tells Brazilians there is no “recession” even though the national statistics agency only last month declared the country to be suffering exactly that, a technical recession.

Proof the economy is doing well is the stock market has risen, she says, failing to mention that most analysts believe investors are buying on the hope she will be defeated.

One of her main rivals, Aécio Neves, chips in with a surreal ad that features a health service he claims he built in the state of Minas Gerais when he was governor. The service would be the envy of many millionaires. A poor woman is picked up by a private chauffeur in the interior and taken to a public hospital in the city. This will be duplicated throughout the country he tells an unbelieving Brazil.

Marina Silva, the main upstart in Brazil’s presidential race, also has plenty of airtime, which she uses to claim she will increase healthcare spending from 7 per cent of tax revenue to 10 per cent. This comes as she is also reassuring markets she will control the budget deficit.

Paulo Maluf, a former São Paulo governor and mayor, also makes an appearance. He has been banned from standing for re-election after being convicted for corruption but is still encouraging people to vote for his party. “The only good criminal is a criminal in prison,” he says, without a hint of irony.

But Tiririca is the most brazen. In another skit, he appears alongside a “Brasília”, a Volkswagen sedan that was made in Brazil in the 1970s. “No one knows Brasília better than me,” he says. “With all . . . of the dents, all of the rot, it somehow functions. I want to make it better.”

The sad thing is Brazilians will probably opt for him again to show their discontent with politics. What they may not understand is that Tiririca’s party can use those votes to bring in other candidates. Brazil’s proportional representation system means a vote for a candidate means a vote for the party in that state.

For Brazilians, such paradoxes sustain a political circus many of them despise. In their view, while Brasília fiddles, the country is burning under the problems of poor education, health, public transport and a lack of security. Tiririca may make people laugh but for those who understand the political system, he is just one more a reason to cry.

joseph.leahy@ft.com

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