While casting a cursory glance over the U.S. presidential debates of recent weeks, Brazilians could be forgiven for feeling a little smug. The “shitshow” of constant interruptions and rule breaches in both the presidential and vice-presidential showdowns would be unthinkable in Brazil, despite its own penchant for off-the-wall and over-the-top political spats.
Indeed, were the September 29 debate in Cleveland, Ohio between Donald Trump and Joe Biden to have taken place in Brazil, Mr. Trump would have had his microphone cut on several occasions, both candidates would have been granted the right of reply, and they would be flanked by at least half a dozen other competitors representing a selection of Brazil’s 33 (!) political parties.[restricted]
Granted, Brazil’s pluralist approach to political debates is far from ideal, though it is marginally more intriguing than equivalents in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, featuring less than a handful of candidates from never-changing parties. And with municipal elections on the horizon, Brazil is going through its own debate season, which — as has been the case in the Trump v. Biden race — has been cut short due to Covid-19.
One and done
Major cities around Brazil held their first televised mayoral debates at the beginning of October, broadcast by major network Band. However, with a large number of candidates present and increased Covid-19 risks, four broadcasters have canceled their future debates in São Paulo, a decision repeated in several other cities.
Members of campaign teams are resigned to the fact that no more debates will take place — which, in Brazil’s biggest city São Paulo, is seen as favorable to the Bolsonaro-backed frontrunner Celso Russomano.
Candidates driven round the bend in Porto Alegre
One of the strangest solutions was tested in Porto Alegre, the largest city in Brazil’s South region. With a grand total of 13 candidates, local radio station Rádio Gaúcha gathered the whole baker’s dozen into what appeared to be the parking lot of a seedy motel. Each competitor remained inside their own cars — except for Júlio Flores, the candidate for the Trotskyist PSTU party, who was given a lift to the debate and sat in the passenger’s seat — while they fired questions at each other.
Arguably this wasn’t the most glamorous of settings for frontrunner Manoela D’Avila, going from being the would-be vice-president to 2018’s defeated presidential candidate Fernando Haddad to sitting behind the wheel of a Kia Sportage SUV asking for votes.
However, beyond the scripted automobile puns — one candidate was asked if he was prepared for “rough terrain” after turning up in a 4×4 — the debate largely went off without a hitch.
TV network Band went for a slightly more conventional approach in their debate the following week, though kept candidates waiting in a green room-cum-classroom, calling two at a time to ask questions.
The future of the political debate
With Covid-19 drastically changing how politicians are able to campaign, the cancellation of debates may see this long-held institution of pre-election politics be put to bed for good. In the U.S., amid the constant rule-breaking in Trump v. Biden and a fly stealing the show in Pence v. Harris, the electorate may well be wondering whether they are simply better off canceling debates for good.
Indeed, televised debates that are productive in any political sense are very few and even farther between. Platforms and proposals are rarely discussed in any depth or detail, with the content of the debate far more likely to descend into a slanging match or a mutual back-scratching session between allied candidates.
Politicians know that debates are one of the least effective ways to present their proposals and get their points across. Indeed, their main campaigning front has gone online. Candidates in the São Paulo mayoral debate illustrated this perfectly, constantly referring viewers to log onto their YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter feeds for more in-depth explanations.
Clearly, however, scrapping debates altogether is removing a level of accountability to which candidates should be held. In the 2018 presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro floundered during his only debate appearance — at which a television camera spotted crib notes written on his hand, reading “opinion poll, Lula, guns” — and then point-blank refused to attend any future discussions, using his health as an excuse.[/restricted]