As he had done in all previous presidential TV debates this election, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t show up for the last one last night.
He didn’t have to. As expected he became the favorite target of the other three candidates who ended up directing their questions and frustration to an empty stand with a plate with Lula’s name.
Soon after the debate, which ended after midnight, senator Cristovam Buarque, one of the candidates in the encounter called Lula’s absence a disrespect to public opinion, to the other candidates and to the young Workers Party backers.
Why doesn’t Lula come to the debate he asked and immediately answered himself: "He doesn’t come because he has nothing to show and because he wants to hide."
Like Buarque the other two candidates – former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB) and senator Heloísa Helena (PSOL) – several times addressed the empty stand where Lula was supposed to be and demanded explanations about old and new corruption scandals that occurred to his party and during his government.
In his first intervention Alckmin called Lula’s absence "not a disrespect to me as a candidate, but to the voter." Buarque echoed the same feeling calling it an "aggression against democracy.
The whole day Lula had maintained the suspense if he would participate or not in the debate. Several newspapers even announced that he had decided to go to the TV encounter.
The final word with an official letter turning down Globo’s invitation came around 7 pm, about 3 hours before the start of the debate.
The hope of the other candidates is that the television discussion will force Lula to a runoff. The hope of Lula is that his absence will guarantee that he wins on the first round, Sunday, October 1st, as all polls have been predicting for months.
The scandal theme was explored extensively by the three candidates. Alckmin stated that scandals had become an everyday scourge in the Workers Party government implicating several close aides to the president.
Heloísa Helena was the harshest of the three in her attacks: "I, in my house, teach my kids to not steal. It is a shame that the president is not here to explain how he does exactly the opposite, at his home, his party and his government."
As for programs, Cristovam Buarque, always the dreamer. asked for a "revolution" through education. Alckmin talked about a "management shock," which would make the state more efficient. Helena, on the other hand, preached morality and an immediate cut in interest rates. This would allow the government to invest more in social programs, she reasoned.
The debate was for the most part well mannered verging on boring. Only Heloísa Helena showed some passion mainly when attacking the policies of both Lula and his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso. For all this criticism against Lula, Buarque was always the gentleman finding points in common between himself and the other two candidates.
In one of the few fiery moments, Helena told the audience referring to president Lula: "He had the obligation to get down from his throne of corruption, arrogance and political cowardice to be here to answer to the Brazilian people. But I also know that he is not here because he does not have the moral authority to face me. I survived his implacable persecution. I was born like him, in a humble family, in the interior of Alagoas, a northeastern like him, but in contrast to what he did, I haven’t sold out my origin class."
The senator, who was expelled from the PT, went on accusing Lula of heading a gang installed in the presidential office, the Palácio do Planalto. "Inside the PT there are still honest, socialist militants, who are embarrassed by the criminal organization structure headed by the President of the Republic, which is able to annihilate anyone who might threaten his power project."
Cristovam Buarque during the whole debate including the final considerations addressed the electorate asking them to do everything to avoid a first-round victory for Lula.
He had started the debate talking to the empty space where Lula was supposed to be: "You are a candidate under strong suspicions of using public funds and other resources whose origin is a mystery in the electoral process. If you are elected and the suspicions are proved, will you resign from your position?"