Municipal elections in Brazil were rarely the subject of international media attention before 2016. That year, growing political unrest culminated in President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August, and the October elections brought in a wave of far-right politicians aligned to the rising power of Jair Bolsonaro. Rio de Janeiro elected an evangelical bishop, Marcelo Crivella, and Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Carlos Bolsonaro, won the city councilor run-off by over 100,000 votes, a record for Rio.
The world watched in awe as the “Tropical Trump,” as Jair Bolsonaro is often referred to, went from strength to strength and took power democratically in Latin America’s largest economy. This was the impact of local elections in Brazil.
If only interesting to the world because of the global surge in far-right politics that contaminated Brazil (arguably aided by social media) in the 2010s, the country’s municipal elections are extremely important because most social policies are enacted within municipalities, which are guaranteed ample managerial autonomy. Consequently, it is also at the municipal level that most resources are embezzled by corrupt officials who understand that perfect oversight by the federal government is nearly impossible in such vast territory.
Voter turnout is generally over 80%, and cities witness months of electoral campaigns on radio, TV and in print media. Mayoral candidates in the country’s largest cities end up being recognized state and nationwide, and many will go on to resign their office and run in state and presidential elections.
The Bolsonaro Family’s Downward Spiral of Corruption
Brazil just held its largest elections ever to choose mayors, vice mayors and city councilors in 5,567 municipalities. Over half a million candidates ran for 67,840 political offices. On November 15, in the first round of elections, 113 million of the nearly 148 million eligible voters went to polling stations, with 34 million claiming one of the exemptions to abstain from mandatory voting.
High abstention rates were expected due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and were the highest in 20 years. There were fewer blank and null ballots than in the last municipal elections in 2016, but these surpassed the number of votes for the winner in 483 municipalities, including state capitals.
On November 29, 57 municipalities with over 200,000 inhabitants, including 18 state capitals and the two largest cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, picked their winners in the second round. These municipal elections were the first since Bolsonaro — not representing any party — took power in January 2019. Some observers expected that the elections could push the country definitively into the hands of the far right as polls showed a 40% approval rate of Bolsonaro’s government. Others saw how important these elections were for Bolsonaro’s hold on power — and how uncertain his victory.
Blood on the Campaign Trail
Three political fields were vying for power in municipalities all over the country: the far-right, headed by the president and his supporters; the left, including center-left parties, which have been facing a crisis since Rousseff’s impeachment; and the traditional right, including center-right parties, which have lost some power with the arrival of the far-right wave. With 33 official political parties, alliances are crucial to winning office, and parties with apparently conflicting ideologies often join forces in municipalities all over the country.
The Brazilian political spectrum is so complex that a 2017 report by the BBC tried to fit the country’s parties onto a political map by analyzing how their members voted in the national congress. The report confirmed that most left-wing parties vote for progressive ideas, that the majority of right-wing parties adopt more conservative views, but that centrist parties change between progressive and conservative positions depending on the state of (power) play.
The 2020 campaign season saw a record number of candidates representing Bolsonaro’s anti-political ideology, posing with guns for campaign photos and advocating violence. There was a 34% increase in evangelical candidates, usually representing the far right, and a more visible presence of priests of Afro-Brazilian religions with more progressive ideas, who faced aggressive resistance from evangelicals. On the other hand, there were record numbers of women, LGBTQI+ as well as black and Indigenous candidates, with the number of black and mixed-race candidates surpassing the number of white candidates for the first time.
Analysts explain these numbers as an effect of Bolsonaro’s rule: While far-right candidates feel empowered to expose their extreme ideology, oppressed groups form social movements to fight back from a position of power.
Violence in municipal elections has always been a common occurrence on the campaign trail in Brazil, and a record was reached in 2016 with the surge of the far right. This year again witnessed unprecedented political violence, with 25 candidates assassinated during the campaign season, in a phenomenon caused, according to researchers, by the current administration’s normalization of political violence. In Guarulhos, in Greater Sao Paulo, a shooter fired several bullets into a city council candidate while he was live streaming on social media. If one counts militants also killed during the campaign, the number of casualties rises to 82, with militias allegedly involved in a number of cases.
Violence has been used by conservatives against women to limit their political participation. This has come as a reaction by the religious right to the implementation of the law that mandates that a minimum of 30% of all candidates must be women. Political violence continued past the first round and plagued run-off disputes, with some murders happening after the polls closed. The increase in violence was particularly pronounced in states where rich landowners are involved in politics as well as in the poorer states of the north and northeast regions.
Disinformation was broadly used as a campaign tool, a trend that started with the 2013 protests. With over 140 million internet users, Brazil suffered an epidemic of fake news before the elections, with progressive politicians being the target of misleading information being spread on social media. In 2018, a congressional commission uncovered a large operation headed by Carlos Bolsonaro to spread disinformation, the so-called “Cabinet of Hate,” responsible for organizing demonstrations against the federal supreme court.
The security chief of the president’s office and former head of the infamous UN peacekeeping forces in Haiti, General Augusto Heleno, floated the idea that Indigenous peoples, with the help of foreign powers, were sabotaging the elections in a plot to topple the president. To add to the problem, Bolsonaro himself raised doubts about the electoral system — without citing any evidence — the day following the first round of voting. He also pushed for printed voting receipts, a move that many suspect would make it easier for corrupt politicians to bribe voters who would photograph printed receipts as proof of loyalty.
Despite these issues, elections ran in relative order even though the results were delayed due to incidents provoked by militant Bolsonaro supporters all over Brazil. The results of the first round already pointed to a defeat of Bolsonaro’s political allies. From his ex-wife and his cousin, who were both not elected, to the slim margin of victory for his son Carlos, who was elected with a small percentage of his record win in 2016, Bolsonaro’s picks lost major positions in key cities. At the same time, traditional parties regained power, with progressive candidates winning seats all over Brazil and the wife of murdered councilor and activist Marielle Franco securing a seat on Rio’s city council.
Left-wing parties advanced in many of the 100 largest cities across Brazil and went on to dispute the second round in many capitals, notably in Sao Paulo. In two state capitals, Fortaleza and Rio de Janeiro, a candidate supported by Bolsonaro reached the second round, while the traditional right won seven capitals in the first round.
The Workers’ Party (PT) lost in bigger cities despite reaching the second round in some capitals, but managed to get 183 mayors elected across Brazil, down from 630 in 2012. Losses were expected for the PT since the rise of antipetismo, the political resentment fed by an intense right-wing media effort that led to the poor performance by the party’s presidential candidate Fernando Haddad in 2018. At the height of antipetismo, voters rejected candidates from traditional parties in favor of electing unknown faces not yet involved in public corruption scandals.
The second round of elections confirmed the loss of PT’s strength, with the centerists winning in the biggest cities and a growth in other left-wing parties, such as Socialism and Liberty Party and the traditional Democratic Labour Party. Center and center-right parties that were strong since Brazil’s return to democracy, like the Brazilian Democratic Movement and Brazilian Socialist Democratic Party (PSDB), took the place of far-right ones such as the far-right Social Liberal Party (to which the president was affiliated when elected) and Patriotas. On the other hand, PT lost 11 of the 15 state capitals in the second round.
Special attention was given for the second round in the two largest cities of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. In Rio, Marcelo Crivella suffered a “humiliating loss” against the Democrats’ party candidate Eduardo Paes, although the evangelical pastor, an ally of Bolsonaro, launched a barrage of fake news against Paes, connecting the centrist politician with “pedophiles in schools.” Crivella’s defeat was a severe blow to Bolsonaro, whose political career began in Rio.
In Sao Paulo, “old politics” won again, with incumbent mayor Bruno Covas securing his position. His victory was not that surprising. Traditionally conservative, the richest city in Brazil has kept the PSDB in power for decades, with the exception of two left-wing mayors in 30 years, both from the Worker’s Party at a time when Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was president with an 85% approval rate. Surprising was the presence of the former leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, Guilherme Boulos, in the second round, showing that the grip of conservatism is not working, at least in Sao Paulo’s suburbs.
Bolsonaro is in open conflict with Sao Paulo’s state governor, Joao Doria of the PSDB, a former ally-turned-political-enemy, especially in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Doria is one of the presumptive candidates against Bolsonaro in 2022, and his management of the wealthiest state in the country during the pandemic can give him a chance at victory.
There are many reasons for the catastrophic suffered by Bolsonaro and his supporters in the 2020 elections. Bolsonaro’s anti-political rhetoric, anti-democratic displays and illogical obsession with a mythical left bound to destroy the country’s youth did not sit well with voters. The far-right wave was a reflection of antipetismo, not of connivance with extremist ideology or lack of decorum. With a more progressive population becoming politically active this year, attitudes changed, and people were able to display their discontent with the current administration by wearing anti-Bolsonaro slogans on their shirts to go to the polls, something that would been impossible in 2018.
Bolsonaro’s loss of support also involves the spiral of corruption he and his family descended into in recent months, including the involvement of his eldest son, Flavio Bolsonaro, in an embezzlement scheme using his employees’ government salaries. The president’s response to the coverage of these scandals was a threat to beat a journalist and indirectly censor news agencies.
Mismanagement seems to be the trend in the administration, bringing with it serial economic, social and environmental crises. The state of Amapa, on the border with French Guyana, has had a power outage for almost a month. Elections were postponed to December 6, and the capital city, Macapa, will decide the second round between center-right or center-left candidates on December 20.
Bolsonaro’s catastrophic incompetence to address the COVID-19 pandemic may well have been the most crucial factor in his defeat. The president dismissed scientists’ warnings and condemned the country to a disaster of unparalleled proportions. State governors rebelled and took their own emergency measures, and the people sided with them. The federal government continues to ignore the pandemic and did not secure a national vaccine, with Bolsonaro announcing that he will not get vaccinated. Governor Doria is in a race to bring vaccines to the state of Sao Paulo in January and, if successful, will increase his chances in the presidential bid.
Political defeat seems to follow those governments that are mismanaging the pandemic and may have been a factor in the November US election. Bolsonaro’s political power was voluntarily tied to Donald Trump, whose defeat was predicted to affect Brazilian politics. After Joe Biden’s victory, Bolsonaro displayed his loyalty to Trump by not recognizing the election results, at least for a while.
European far-right parties openly sided with Donald Trump but are losing power in Germany, Austria and Italy, perhaps indicating a global return to traditional political attitudes and a rejection of the chaotic, violent and bigoted ways of proto-authoritarian governments. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the importance of progressive politicians and, even if a new progressive era does not dawn in the wake of the largest public health crisis in a century, the conservative anti-scientific stance is not up for consideration either.
Personal views also influence people’s perception of the pandemic and how they respond to it. For example, there is a clear political divide in Brazil, as elsewhere, when it comes to protective measures such as mask-wearing, with conservatives less likely to follow public health guidelines.
There is a long road before the 2022 presidential elections in Brazil, but the trend is not favorable to Bolsonaro’s destructive politics. With all the political agitation in Brazil and around the globe, and with the end of the pandemic still out of sight, there is hope that Eliane Cantanhede’s analysis of “Bolsonarismo” is right in stating that this era of political incompetence is just a “hiatus” in Brazil’s young democracy and that the country will move forward toward a less chaotic political future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.