Brazil’s elections dealt a blow to Bolsonaro, but the left continued to struggle to assert itself. Hugo Albuquerque, publisher of Jacobin Brazil, reports from a complex political picture in a crucial emerging power.
Brazil is a country of continental size and it holds elections for mayor and councillors every four years in its more than 5,000 municipalities. This includes gigantic cities like São Paulo, the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere, and small towns in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Now, in 2020, the first municipal elections have taken place since Jair Bolsonaro, almost a Donald Trump cosplay, came to the presidency
Basically, the politics of small and medium-sized municipalities express a reality of poverty and dependence, because these places depend on federal resources and state governments, which makes their disputes a portrait of the present and the near past; however, in large municipalities, in which elections are held in two rounds, there is a projection for the future: new leaders, political forces and processes are generated with an impact on national politics.
The result of the last election, which ended with the runoff on November 30, has a clear sentence: Bolsonaro lost (winning just five mayors and none in the major cities), but the left suffered important defeats, while a large center-right wing, highly fragmented into several parties, secured victories. What does this mean?
First, it is a consequence of years in which the president of the extreme right lives in permanent conflict with the Supreme Court and the National Congress, with an advantage for the traditional forces of the right that control these two institutions: Bolsonaro dreams of taking power completely, changing the state regime, but he can only get weaker and depend on the financial market, applying a radical austerity economic policy. On the other hand, the same center-right forces agree with austerity and seek to control Bolsonaro on his insane journey.
So, Bolsonaro served to block the left from winning the 2018 elections and functions as a populist clown, at the same time bearing the political costs of economic austerity that he is forced to maintain in order not to lose his position. Meanwhile, the left bears the cost of conflicting with the government, while it needs to protect its parties and institutions from persecution. Meanwhile, the traditional centre-right appears as a third element, prudent and exempt both from the costs of an economic policy that is, in essence, its too, but also exempt from opposition activity, or from the hardest part in it.
In São Paulo, the largest municipality in the country, a colossus of more than 12 million inhabitants, center-right mayor Bruno Covas was re-elected against Guilherme Boulos, from PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) a small left-wing party that overcame even the powerful PT (Workers Party) of former president Lula, who supported him in the run-off.
There is much positive in the political process that led Boulos, a charismatic and unifying socialist leader, to the second round, but the final stretch taught hard and important lessons for the left: how the traditional right manages, even under a democratic and friendly discourse, to cheat with impunity, distributing food to the poor just a few days before the vote.
Still, it must be mentioned that the second wave of Covid-19 was hidden by the governor of the state of São Paulo João Doria, a close ally of Covas, so that his candidate would not be harmed. The day after the vote, even liberal right-wing newspapers spoke of “sanitary fraud“.
In Porto Alegre, a communist and former-candidate for vice president for the 2018 Workers Party ticket, Manuela D’ávila, reached the runoff, but was defeated by a broad fake news campaign with misogynist content. The winner was a member of the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement), party of former vice president Michel Temer, a central figure in the 2016 coup d’état, when Dilma Rousseff was illegally removed from power.
In Recife, an important city of the northeast, a dispute between Marília Arraes, from PT, and João Campos, from PSB (Brazilian Socialista Party), a third-way party usually associated with the left rallies across the country, was tough, but Campos also won by making a highly criticized campaign, full of fake news and equally misogynist, not unlike the radical right.
In Rio de Janeiro, the disunity of the left made the incumbent mayor, Marcelo Crivella, a Christian fundamentalist ally of Jair Bolsonaro, run in the second round against a liberal, former mayor Eduardo Paes, who defeated him easily.
The current scenario is complex. An incoming Biden government in the United States has robbed Bolsonaro of his great ally Donald Trump, and added to his domestic woes. But the left is blocked, victim of judicial plots and the bias of the mainstream media, and unused to operating in a context of low-intensity democracy. This situation could push Brazil towards an center-right government in 2022 – and administration with a programme of very strong economic and social austerity. Yet, the pandemic and the chaos of the Brazilian economy, can still produce surprises and opportunities. 2021 will be a crucial year.
Image: Jeso Carneiro