SÃO PAULO — A fiery, final televised debate among Brazil’s top seven presidential candidates on Thursday night resulted in accusations of corruption and economic mismanagement, but lacked the substance or convincing attacks that could seriously sway Sunday’s vote.
The Globo TV network debate, traditionally regarded as the most important of the televised clashes, was the last chance for the hopefuls to lure undecided voters ahead of the 5 October first-round vote.
Experts say that although the debate was the most informative yet, no one candidate landed the kind of knockout blow that would dramatically alter the course of the election.
“The debate provided voters with the distinctions between the top three candidates on issues of public administration and the economy, particularly between [President] Dilma Rousseff and [Socialist Party candidate] Aécio Neves,” Lúcio Rennó, political science professor at the University of Brasília (UnB), told the Anadolu Agency (AA).
Rennó says a coherent, competent-sounding Neves is likely to have been viewed as the overall winner of the debate, a view shared by Carlos Manhanelli, President of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants.
“Neves used his time best, whereas Rousseff and Silva appeared tired and unable to improvise,” Manhanelli told AA. “Rousseff appeared somewhat nervous and overly reliant on her notes, whereas Silva was unconvincing, frail and lacked detail.”
Rousseff was attacked relentlessly and from all sides over a huge recent corruption scandal involving an alleged kickback scheme at the country’s state-run oil giant Petrobras; a number of senior politicians from her Workers’ Party and allies – including a serving minister – have been embroiled in the scandal.
However, the incumbent — whose former position on the Petrobras board of directors drew allegations that she must have known of the alleged scheme — argued her party had done more than any other to tackle corruption, and the revelations appear not to have dented support in the polls in the past weeks.
Despite the attacks, Rennó said Rousseff had “the upper hand” when challenging Silva, her main rival ahead of Sunday’s vote, and that Silva “didn’t make sense” when answering accusations over her plans for an independent or autonomous central bank.
Silva also looked visibly frustrated for having to reiterate her positions on the central bank and on her support for the country’s successful social programs, and the UnB professor believes Silva ran the greatest risk of losing votes in the debate, which could be decisive in terms of who takes second place to challenge Rousseff in a highly-likely runoff.
“Rousseff’s vote is already consolidated and the debate is unlikely to have changed her position; however, any undecided viewers — around 7-8 percent of those surveyed in the latest polls — could have been swayed by the contrast between Neves and Silva,” Rennó said.
Two pre-election polls released ahead of the debate showed Rousseff with a comfortable 16-point lead in the first round with 40 percent of the vote, and in a change to previous polls, both surveys gave Rousseff an outright win in a second round against Silva or Neves.
That fight for second place has narrowed significantly, the surveys showed: Thursday’s poll by Datafolha gave Silva 24 percent of support and Neves – 21 percent, meaning a technical tie, given the two percentage point margin of error. The survey by Ibope gave Silva a small lead over Neves.
Final polls are expected Saturday, and should reflect any change resulting from Thursday’s debate. But experts say the late-night broadcast time (beginning at 11pm and ending after 1am on Friday morning), and the distraction of fringe candidates and hot-button topics — such as the criminalisation of homophobia, and the legalisation of cannabis and abortion — meant that the debate’s influence on the elections was likely to be limited.
Many commentators ridiculed the debate’s highly-convoluted format and unnecessarily complicated rules.
“Most undecided voters would have been sleeping at that time,” Manhanelli joked. “If you had an optional vote, people might care more, but the forced nature of the elections turns people off.”
Rennó says that the debate was “instructive but disappointing” as it involved “too many candidates, many of whom simply shouldn’t be there.”
“Ultimately, there will be a frustration among Brazilians to see so many poorly-prepared candidates,” the UnB professor concluded.
The most dramatic moment of the debate came in clashes in which left-wing candidates Luciana Genro and Eduardo Jorge confronted conservative candidate Levy Fidelix over his homophobic rant at the previous debate, in which many consider he openly incited violence against members of the LGBT community.
Visibly enraged by the accusations, Fidelix argued he was defending “Christian and family values.”