WITH his reversed baseball cap and facial fuzz, the style of 29-year-old Daniel José Oliveira (pictured) is hardly typical for a Brazilian politician. Nor is his background: he was one of 11 siblings brought up in a small town by a domestic servant and an office porter. After winning a scholarship to a Catholic school, he studied economics at a fine São Paulo campus. That led to a job at J.P. Morgan, a scholarship to study at Yale University and a job offer from another American investment firm.
But in 2015, with Brazil’s economy crashing and its politics mired in scandals, he instead came home. Inspired by En Marche!, the French liberal party which propelled Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, he hopes to be elected next October as a federal deputy for São Paulo state.
Until recently, politics was a turn-off for his generation. The average age of lower-house deputies elected in 2014 was 50, 19 years above the national mean. Brazil’s old-timers are discredited: after more than three years of the Lava Jato (car wash) corruption probe, 40% of congressmen are under investigation. Politicians are unloved. Just one voter in 20 admires them; only 3% approve of President Michel Temer.
Confidence in congress has been sagging for ages. In 2010 Tiririca (Grumpy), a professional clown, was elected to Brazil’s lower house under the slogan “It can’t get any worse.” It did. On December 6th he told his congressional colleagues he would not seek re-election in 2018. “Only eight of the 513 actually show up here,” he moaned. “I am one of those eight and I am a clown.”
Young Brazilians are fed up. “Four years ago someone like me running for congress would have made no sense,” says Mr Oliveira. But renewing Brazil’s congress will not be easy. Independent candidates are banned and parties are unwelcoming to newcomers. In some states seats stay in the hands of well-known families.
Dislodging them may get harder. In 2015, after a series of scandals, Brazil’s supreme court outlawed corporate campaign contributions. In October congress created a “special campaign-finance fund” for next year’s election. But the fund, and airtime, will be allocated in proportion to parties’ current representation. That frustrates newcomers. “Congress is like a cancer,” says Mr Oliveira. “It’s not working in the best interests of the body and it’s defending itself to survive.”
People are trying to find a cure. Mr Oliveira has applied to RenovaBR, a programme to support young Brazilians who want to run for congress. Financed by entrepreneurs, it offers 150 “scholars” courses on Brazil’s institutions plus advice on campaigning and policy. It has thousands of bidders for a half-year programme starting in January. Scholars will get a monthly stipend of 12,000 reais ($3,645).
They will be selected by written tests and interviews. They can belong to any party, but cannot hold extremist views. In return the scholars vow to complete their mandate, justify their voting decisions to their constituents and avoid hiring family as staff members. Eduardo Mufarej, who started the project, hopes to see at least 45 scholars elected.
Other groups are working to make congress more representative. Bancada Ativista (Activist Group) is a left-leaning outfit, formed to fight São Paulo’s city-council election in 2016. Rather than creating a party, it chose eight candidates from two established ones. Only one was a heterosexual white male. “By definition, a black woman is more representative than a white graduate from Harvard,” says Caio Tendolini, a 33-year-old member of the group. It arranged “speed-dating” events for candidates to meet voters and offered social-media training and public-policy contacts. It started working: the candidates drew a total of 75,000 votes and one got in. It will scale up its operation next October.
Agora! (Now!) was founded in 2016 to coax into politics young Brazilians who had shown leadership skills in other fields. Until now it has largely focused on developing policy ideas. “Politicians here think about getting elected first and then worry about their agenda…it should be the other way around,” says Marco Aurélio Marrafon, one of the group’s 150 members. Agora! has working groups on everything from health to homicide. It initially had no plans to run for congress, but “things are getting out of control”, says Ilona Szabó, a co-founder. Next year it plans to field 30 candidates for congress by persuading two parties, Partido Popular Socialista and Rede, to be vehicles. “We want to be a new political force,” says Ms Szabó.
October’s elections are perhaps the most important since democracy was restored in 1985 after 20 years of dictatorship. They are also unpredictable. Fewer Brazilians than ever identify with the old left-right model. Most want to try something new. That can favour extremists: Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman who says harsh things about gays and women, is second in the polls for the presidency. But it could also help moderate newcomers. Four out of five Brazilians say they want “ordinary citizens” to run for congress next year.
Their efforts may fail. New candidates fret about finances and some are already running low. Mr Oliveira used to help his parents out with the bills. Since deciding to run for office he has had to stop. With corporate donations banned, the candidates must rely on individual contributions, and no one knows how generous Brazilians will be. Lack of broadcast time will hurt.
“Next year might not be the tipping point,” warns Mr Oliveira. “But we have to open a trail. If not, there will be no hope of renewal in 2022.” Political renewal may not happen overnight. But Brazil’s Young Turks are making a start.