World Cup spurs political impact

Like many of you, I'm already glued to the TV watching the soccer World Cup. But while enjoying every minute of the world's biggest sports event, I can't help wondering whether its outcome will help or hurt governments in several soccer-crazy countries.

Judging from history, the World Cup has a big short-term impact on countries' national mood, creating a climate of euphoria that allows governments to claim that things are going well when their national teams do well, and collective depressions that tend to help opposition parties when their teams do badly.

As I was reminded by Ciro Murayama, an economics professor and soccer industry analyst from Mexico's National Autonomous University, Argentina's military dictatorship got a second wind when the national team won the 1978 World Cup. Conversely, Spain's conservative government's claim that the country was doing great suffered a big blow when the Spanish team fizzled in the early stages of the 1998 World Cup.

Now, the World Cup's outcome could affect several upcoming elections in Latin America. Among them:

Colombia will have its presidential runoff vote today, in which government-backed candidate Juan Manuel Santos is expected to win. Although Colombia did not qualify for the World Cup, much of the country will be watching the games on Election Day -- defending champion Italy plays New Zealand, and five-time champion Brazil plays Ivory Coast. Pundits expect a huge abstention rate, which -- given Santos' comfortable lead in the polls and his well-oil political machine -- is likely to hurt opposition candidate Antanas Mockus.

Brazil, one of the world's most soccer-obsessed countries, will have presidential elections in October. Left-of-center government candidate Dilma Rousseff and centrist opposition candidate Jose Serra are tied in the polls, but a Brazilian victory in the World Cup would undoubtedly help the government-backed candidate.

Brazil is already on a roll. The economy is expected to grow at a robust 6.4 percent this year -- its best performance in fifteen years. Also, the country has won the bids to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of the world's most popular leaders.

If Brazil wins, Lula will say that Brazil is going through one of its best moments, and his hand-picked candidate will enjoy a big boost.

In Argentina, populist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has already channeled soccer TV broadcasts to the government-run network, will have a chance to bounce back from her dismal popularity ratings if the national team wins the tournament.

"If Argentina does well, Fernandez de Kirchner would get a political oxygen tank in the short-term," Murayama told me. But by the October 2011 presidential elections, much of the World Cup's impact will have faded away, he added.

In Mexico, it's highly unlikely that a good performance by the national team would create a feeling of euphoria strong enough to last until the 2012 election. But President Felipe Calderon, who attended Mexico's well-played 1-1 tie with South Africa in the opening game, could get some much-needed help if the team does well.

The celebrations would help Mexicans temporarily forget the economic and drug-related crime problems that have rocked the country over the past two years, and drive many Mexicans to see the future with more optimistic eyes, the theory goes.

My opinion: The World Cup's outcome will have a short-term political impact in countries that hold elections in coming months. That means that it will influence Brazil's elections, but probably not Argentina's nor Mexico's.

But perhaps its biggest political impact will be the "window of distraction" it will provide some governments to do questionable things while the rest of the world is watching the championship. I can already imagine advisers to authoritarian or corrupt leaders telling their bosses when discussing legally-questionable measures: "Great! But we must do it now since nobody is paying attention."

There is already talk that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will launch new measures against freedom of the press, and to further bend the rules of the September legislative elections to his advantage. He'll not be alone.

I suggest that we keep one eye open for sneaky leaders will use the "window of distraction" to their benefit.

Contact Oppenheimer at oppenheimer@miamiherald.com.