Brazil’s political brawler Ciro Gomes takes election fight to Lula and Bolsonaro

Ciro Gomes does not hide his disdain for his fellow candidates in this year’s presidential election in Brazil.

Incumbent leader Jair Bolsonaro is “crazy, criminal and genocidal, who operates through notoriety, being in the media daily, galvanising his radical base”, the veteran leftwing politician, who is third in the polls, said in an interview. “He creates chaos, always inventing an institutional enemy for whom he can blame for his failures.”

Former president and election frontrunner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, meanwhile, is “an expression of rotten, corrupt South American populism. If you consider that [Nicaraguan authoritarian president Daniel] Ortega is a corrupt populist, then Lula is the absolutely equal expression of Ortega or of [Venezuela’s president Nicolás] Maduro.”

They are the kind of fighting words on which Ciro, as he is known, has built his career. Hailing from a powerful political family in the northeastern state of Ceará, he is one of Brazil’s most recognisable politicians, having served in multiple governments, including a ministerial stint during Lula’s first administration in 2003.

He is a political brawler, known for his quick intellect and sharp tongue — traits that have won him a dedicated support base of about 8 per cent of voters. They have not been enough, however, to propel him to the presidency, which he is contesting for the fourth time in 24 years.

In each of the earlier attempts, he failed to make it past the first round of the two-round voting process. Polls suggest he has about 8 per cent support ahead of the first vote on October 2, meaning he represents the best chance to break the Lula-Bolsonaro polarity, despite the uphill campaign battle.

Brazilian elections have historically also been marred by black swan events that can upend predictions, such as the death of a candidate in a plane crash in the 2014 race or the stabbing of Bolsonaro in 2018.

Ciro says he is running again because neither Lula, who was president between 2003 and 2010, nor Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018, represent a genuine new vision for Latin America’s largest country.

“Lula is corrupt from the liberal, democratic camp, and Bolsonaro is corrupt from the fascistic camp. This is the distinction, but the model is strictly the same,” said Ciro, claiming his rivals both governed with economic policies to please the business elite and political manoeuvres to keep happy Brazil’s notoriously venal Congress.

Despite often being described as centre-left, Ciro has proposed a radical transformation of the Brazilian economy, pledging to abolish the country’s constitutionally mandated spending cap, central bank independence and the floating exchange rate.

Brazil needs a “completely new tax system and a new pension system” that works to improve the nation’s acute inequality, Ciro said.

“The system is not working,” he said. “It is working for a micro elite, but it is destroying the country. The minimum wage today offers the worst purchasing power [since 2008].”

He claimed 70 out of every 100 Brazilian workers today either are informally employed or unemployed, although official statistics suggest the figure is closer to 50.

But Ciro, 64, reserved his most potent words for Lula, his former ally-turned-adversary who leads the polls with support from around 47 per cent of voters to Bolsonaro’s 29 per cent. Any candidate who secures more than 50 per cent in the first round of voting automatically wins the election, without the need for a runoff.

Lula’s popularity is a result of “romanticised memories of his government, which have been exacerbated further by the extraordinary problems that the Brazilian people have been facing under Bolsonaro”, said Ciro.

Aided by a long global commodities boom, Lula presided over a period of breakneck economic growth and poverty reduction and left office with an approval rating of more than 80 per cent. He was then embroiled in the sprawling Lava Jato, or Car Wash, corruption investigation and spent almost two years in prison for graft before his conviction was annulled.

Ciro said the corruption revealed during the administrations of Lula’s Workers’ party is undeniable, recalling the duffel bags of cash that were regularly discovered by police and prosecutors.

“Lula presents himself, including in the international community, as innocent, that he was exonerated, that he was persecuted and such. This is all a lie,” said Ciro, who is running for the presidency with the Democratic Labour party.

“After a certain moment [in government], Lula was corrupted and discovered the key to perpetuating himself in power, which was to reproduce the conservative agenda of the financial community.”

Lula and Bolsonaro are polarising figures and both have suffered historically from high rejection rates among voters. In theory, this should open space for a third candidate, such as Ciro. In practice, however, the two frontrunners each have diehard support bases of some 15 to 20 per cent of voters, which stymies the emergence of a consolidated third candidate.

Ciro is also undermined by his own bellicose rhetoric, analysts said. “This aggressiveness, in a way, has made anyone who had any doubts about him flee to Lula,” said Carolina Botelho, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

“We know very well that in the second round the vast majority of Ciro’s voters will shift to Lula, right? So perhaps in order to avoid any possibility of getting Bolsonaro again, these voters might go for Lula in the first round.”

Ciro said he recognises the challenge ahead of him, but believes he will pick up votes when his campaign begins in earnest this month with TV ads and social media outreach. More than anything, he is concerned by the quality of the opposition he faces.

“Nowhere else in the world would these two be candidates. Brazil is sick.”

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