Life has changed for Brazil’s television audiences. For the next six and a half weeks, from Monday to Saturday, they will be invited to sit through an avalanche of campaign broadcasts by candidates running for president, federal deputy, senator, state governor and state deputy – no less than 100 minutes a day, in two 50-minute blocks.
Even if viewers and listeners switch off, they are unlikely to escape the additional 30 minutes of mostly 30-second advertisements slotted into daily programming from 8am to midnight – with no respite on Sundays.
Before the onslaught began on Tuesday, voters were offered their first chance to weigh up the candidates for president in a series of television interviews and, on Monday night, the first of two scheduled television debates before election day on October 1.
It was not the most uplifting spectacle. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, running for re-election, came under tough questioning in two television interviews. Asked about an alleged cash-for-votes scheme in Congress said to have been run by his aides, he argued that, as president, he could not be expected to know everything that was happening in his government. Pressed on this and on the slow pace of reform under his time in office since January 2003, he appeared to put the blame on Congress, the state governments and members of his left-leaning party, the PT.
He opted out of the televised debate altogether. The other candidates in the debate refrained for the most part from attacking each other’s policies, instead taking the opportunity to criticise the president for what they said was a lack of respect for voters.
Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist PSDB, who stood down as governor of São Paulo state to challenge Mr Lula da Silva, did not fare much better. Mr Alckmin, in sharp contrast to Mr Lula da Silva, lacks the common touch and his earnest manner is unlikely to have excited the interest of the many voters for whom he enters the race as an unknown quantity.
He also faced unwelcome questions on his record on public security in São Paulo state where, in spite of a sharp reduction in homicides and other crimes during his time in office, his image has been tarnished this year by an eruption of violence against security and civilian targets by an organised crime gang.
The most animated performance was delivered by Heloísa Helena Lima de Moraes Carvalho, a senator who is leader of the leftwing P-SOL, a party formed by PT dissidents upset by the Lula administration’s economic policies and its alleged corruption. Like Mr Lula da Silva she has worked hard to rise from poverty to public prominence, and made much of her record as mother and worker.
Yet the interviews and debates are unlikely to have much impact on Mr Lula da Silva’s lead in opinion polls. He has a commanding majority, with 46-48 per cent in the latest polls compared to 20-24 per cent for Mr Alckmin and 9-12 per cent for Heloísa Helena (as she likes to be called).
Marcos Coimbra of Vox Populi, a polling organisation, says party broadcasts and television news coverage of the election are seen by only about 20 per cent of the population. “Of the people who do see the broadcasts,” he says, “80 per cent have already decided how they will vote.”
Nor will Mr Lula da Silva’s failure to take part in the debate make much of a dent in his lead in the polls – though Mr Coimbra says it will have a negative effect on his image which other candidates will seek to exploit.
Much more influential will be the shorter advertisements. Of 12 slots for president broadcast on television each day, Mr Alckmin gets five, compared with three for Mr Lula da Silva and just one every other day for Heloísa Helena.