SÃO PAULO – The “chuchu” is a Brazilian staple, a scaly green fruit often used in soups and sometimes served fried. Known as chayote in English, it is celebrated primarily for its inoffensive, somewhat pleasant blandness. Back in 2002, a columnist referred to São Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin as a “chuchu popsicle” – and the nickname stuck. In the years since, Alckmin has run Brazil’s largest and wealthiest state with a steady hand, neither beloved nor widely despised, gliding through crises and triumphs with the same affable smile.
Alckmin, 65, is seeking to prove himself this month as the candidate of choice for the pro-business establishment in October’s presidential elections. The proposition is that, with most of Brazil’s political class either in prison, under indictment or otherwise disgraced by the last three years of recession and scandal, enough voters will decide chuchu is not their favorite dish – but given the other options on the menu, it’ll do just fine.
I was in São Paulo last week and in certain circles, especially the city’s two main financial avenues, Alckmin’s victory was already being treated as inevitable. At the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Latin American conference, attended by Davos types from all over the region, Alckmin was welcomed with warm applause and a palpable sigh of relief. Brazil’s economy is recovering but fragile, expected to grow 3 percent this year but in need of further reform, especially to the social security system, to avoid lapsing back into chaos. Having kept São Paulo’s finances balanced at a time when other states, including Rio de Janeiro, were careening into insolvency, Alckmin clearly understands math – an underrated trait that recent history suggests is the key to a successful presidency in Brazil. While there have been some scandals under his watch, Alckmin has largely escaped the “Car Wash” probe that ensnared hundreds of other Brazilian politicians. If elected, he would probably enjoy good support in Congress and broadly continue the pro-business economic agenda of President Michel Temer.
There’s a problem, however:
There is no sign yet that Brazilians actually want to vote for him.
Most recent polls give Alckmin between 6 and 8 percent of the vote, putting him somewhere between third and fifth place, behind environmentalist Marina Silva, former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and statistically tied with others, including some who aren’t even running. Alckmin and his allies insist it is too early to panic: “Today, nobody even knows I’m a candidate,” he told reporters on a trip to Washington this month. But sharks are circling. If Alckmin fails to garner more support in polls by early April, other center-right types are likely to join the race, including Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles and perhaps Temer himself. The speaker of the house, Rodrigo Maia, already declared his candidacy this month.
Alckmin is a former anesthesiologist – “Never has a profession better suited someone,” a fan quipped at WEF last week – whose subdued demeanor plays well in São Paulo but comes off as aloof and uncaring in less buttoned-up parts of the country. He also has a more serious, potentially fatal flaw: Alckmin is the quintessential establishment candidate at a time when anti-establishment fervor is sweeping the world in general, and especially Brazil. Pundits focus on Temer’s single-digit approval ratings, but rage at the political class goes much deeper. Only 13 percent of Brazilians say they are satisfied with their democracy as a whole, the lowest rate in all of Latin America, according to a regional survey by Latinobarómetro. Other candidates, namely Bolsonaro and Ciro Gomes, who could be the standard bearer of Brazil’s left if Lula’s legal troubles bar him from running, have cast themselves as angry anti-corruption firebrands who will “drain the swamp” in Brasília – and have reaped the benefits in polls.
In public and in private, Alckmin betrays little concern at his stagnant numbers. Instead, he repeats old bromides about Brazilian politics that simply may not be true anymore. He says voters don’t begin paying attention until after the World Cup ends in July, when fanatic crowds have been gathering around Bolsonaro and Lula for months. He says his party’s ability to air voluminous TV ads will be decisive, when studies suggest the percentage of Brazilians who watch them has fallen as much as 80 percent over the past decade, while WhatsApp and Facebook (where Alckmin has one-fifth as many followers as Bolsonaro) have become more important platforms for politics. He says this year’s economic recovery will eventually cause public anger to fade, when recent experiences in Britain, Mexico, Peru and my own country show hatred for “corrupt elites” supersedes whatever is happening to people’s pocketbooks.
If I had a nickel for every time someone has told me over the past year that Brazil is not the United States, I wouldn’t be rich – but I wouldn’t need a job. Nevertheless, some of the similarities are striking. As in the Republican Party primaries in 2015-16, the absence of a strong moderate candidate is generating a large, unruly field that may well split the centrist vote. In Brazil’s electoral system, this could easily lead to a second-round runoff between candidates on the more extreme left and right – perhaps Gomes and Bolsonaro. The latter is openly following the Donald Trump playbook (immigrants bad; torture good; “law and order”; guns for all) and enjoys a solid 18 to 20 percent of the vote, good enough for first place in a field without Lula. Many elites remain dismissive of his chances, as if they’d slept through the past three years. “Just wait for the first debate, when they ask Bolsonaro a question about human rights or the economy, and he can’t manage a coherent response,” a prominent Alckmin supporter chided me recently. “Then his support will collapse.”
Some within Alckmin’s party are less sanguine – including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was so convinced of the need for an outsider that he spent months trying to recruit TV host Luciano Huck to run. Huck declined, and Cardoso will support Alckmin instead. But the complacency, and the sense that Brazil’s establishment may be sleepwalking toward disaster, is perhaps strongest in the business community. At last week’s WEF conference, one investor after another repeated the bizarre contention that it doesn’t really matter who wins in October, that the next president will have “little room for maneuver” and therefore have no choice but to pursue a pro-business agenda and entitlement reform. This at a time when Gomes is vowing to confiscate energy assets, raise taxes and alter the mandate of the central bank, while Bolsonaro once advocated shooting Cardoso for privatizing state-run companies.
In this environment, is it crazy to think Alckmin could win? Absolutely not. He could benefit if Brazil’s electorate returns to its traditional aversion to radical candidates. Alckmin could find his voice, especially on crime, where he has an interesting story to tell: São Paulo’s homicide rate has fallen 70 percent under his watch, though the reasons are complex. Bolsonaro could self-destruct, while the left could end up even more fragmented than the center. But ultimately, betting on Alckmin requires believing the country that has arguably suffered more than any other Western democracy in recent years will buck the global trend, and vote for the status quo. Alckmin has made clear he won’t change his style, even embracing the “chuchu popsicle” nickname. “It doesn’t bother me,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “The ones who have to be in the spotlight are artists. Politics is work.”