RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Just two months ahead of Brazil’s presidential election, leading candidates are struggling to find anybody willing to be their running mates.
Big names who have shunned offers to run for vice president include generals, businessmen, an astronaut, a famous actor and even a descendent of Brazil’s royal family.
Even though three of the last five Brazilian leaders came to office as vice presidents, potential candidates this year have cited reasons ranging from family matters to opposition by their parties, all saying effectively, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The apparent disinterest in hitching one’s reputation to any candidate comes at a time when the political class in Latin America’s largest nation is deeply unpopular after years of corruption scandals.
The race is also up in the air because poll-leading former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is in prison and likely to be barred from running.
The candidate struggling most to find a viable running mate appears to be Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who presents himself as an outsider despite being in Congress since 1991. Promises to crack down on corruption and crime have gained him a large following and put him second in the polls, but he has come under strong criticism for numerous racist, sexist and homophobic comments over the years.
Bolsonaro was fined for telling a female member of Congress in 2014 that she was so ugly she “didn’t deserve to be raped.” More recently, in April the attorney general charged him with racism and discrimination for comments about blacks, indigenous people, refugees, women and gays. Bolsonaro often defends himself by arguing the press takes his statements out of context.
“The cost of associating with a candidate like him, homophobic and machista, is very high,” said Sergio Praca, a political science professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and university in Rio de Janeiro. “Being Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate and losing (the election) would be bad for anybody.”
That apprehension was on display with one of Bolsonaro’s early picks, reserve Gen. Augusto Heleno. After a public courtship by Bolsonaro, Heleno said last month that he had to decline because his party didn’t approve the alliance.
Coalitions are vital in Brazilian politics because there are more than three dozen parties — more than 20 of them large enough to have some representation in Congress.
Presidential candidates often seek to cement those alliances with a vice presidential hopeful from a separate party. The size of the allied party also matters because the free campaign air time granted by law is based on current seats in Congress.
Alliances can be risky though. Current President Michel Temer took over as vice president in 2016 when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed for illegal management of the federal budget. Rousseff and others from her left-leaning Workers’ Party accused Temer, from a large centrist party, of being part of the plot against her. Temer denies the accusations.
Bolsonaro, who has promised to fill his government with current and former military people, has courted a second reserve general, Hamilton Mourao. Disagreements between the two men’s parties initially nixed an alliance, though local reports say they are still discussing the possibility.
Bolsonaro has also reportedly courted Marcos Pontes, who was Brazil’s first astronaut; Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Braganca, an heir to Brazil’s last emperor; and lawyer Janaina Paschoal, who wrote impeachment legislation that eventually led to the removal of Rousseff.
A spokeswoman for Bolsonaro declined to comment on deliberations for a running mate.
Bolsonaro is not the only one struggling. Marina Silva, a former environmental minister running third in the polls, reportedly tried to recruit actor Marcos Palmeira and was rejected.
Geraldo Alckmin, former Sao Paulo governor, publicly tried to court Josue Gomes, who apart from being a successful businessman is also the son of former Vice President Jose Alencar. Gomes published an opinion piece in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo supporting Alckmin but declining to run for personal reasons.
“In the case of Alckmin, he is struggling to show electoral viability,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro’s state university. “He has not been able to convince people he is a good bet.”
Potential running mates can’t be blamed for being skeptical. Silva ran for president in 2010 and 2014 and came in third both times. In his 2006 bid for president, Alckmin got fewer votes in the second-round runoff with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva than he did in the crowded first round.
Alckmin’s campaign declined comment on the search, and Silva’s did not respond to messages.
The race has a huge wild card in da Silva, who in April began serving a 12-year sentence for a corruption conviction. While he is barred from running by law, da Silva’s Workers’ Party insists he will be its candidate.
However, many analysts believe party leaders may name former Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad as the vice presidential pick and then make him the presidential candidate once Brazil’s electoral court officially denies the candidacy of da Silva, universally called Lula by Brazilians.
“The prospects for this election are still murky,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper, a university in Sao Paulo. “The question mark is Lula, who should not be a candidate, but we don’t know what will happen.”