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Brazil Local Elections: Thousands of Municipalities, Wide Alliances

This is a guest article from our sister project America Elects, covering the local elections taking place on 28 November in Brazil. As such, the labels and colouring of parties in this article may differ from Europe Elects’ labelling.

By Humberto Benedito Domingues Filho and Liam Meisner

Electoral System

On November 15th, more than 110 million Brazilians went to the polls to elect almost 68,000 positions (mayors, vice-mayors and city council members) in 5,570 municipalities for Brazil’s 2020 local elections—the first major electoral event in the country since President Jair Bolsonaro’s (ApB|Right) upset victory two years ago.

To elect council members, each party presented a list of names and the population was able to choose between voting directly for a party or, as in most cases, for a specific candidate. The votes of each party are added together and the seats distributed proportionally.

Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities // Image: Public Domain

To elect mayors and deputy mayors, the Brazilian electoral system creates a differentiation between the 5,475 small cities (those with fewer than 200,000 voters) and the 95 medium and large cities (with more than 200,000 voters). In the small cities, the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter the percentage. In large cities, a candidate must have won more than 50% of the valid votes to win outright in the first round. Otherwise, the top two candidates advance to a runoff, which will take place on November 29.

The strange alliances of Brazilian politics

Cross-ideological alliances have long been a feature of Brazilian electoral politics. In both the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT|Centre-left) relied on the support of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, MDB, formerly PMDB|Centre-right), for her candidacies, with party leader Michel Temer serving as her running mate. Even at its most dominant the PT had to work with right-wing parties in Congress to pass its agenda. At the local level, however, these alliances become even more seemingly counterintuitive, with ideological differences mattering less than at the federal level, especially in smaller municipalities. The 2020 election features members of the Communist Party running with members of the Bolsonaro’s old party, the misleadingly-named Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal, PSL|Right), Green Party (Partido Verde, PV|Green) members running with those from parties that have been behind efforts to cut environmental protections, and the candidates from the PT running in alliances with nearly every party out there, including in some instances those which have received the backing of the Bolsonaro family. 

Instead of ideology, the issues at the local level are often related to day-to-day maintenance issues like infrastructure projects—for instance revolving around plans to build a certain road or school, making the city grow, and more efficient management of the city. Parties find it beneficial to ally with normally antagonistic parties because of Brazil’s system of allocating public campaign funding and airtime to parties based on their results in the 2018 federal elections. Getting the support of parties that performed well in 2018 gives you access to more funding and airtime, making victory much more possible in a crowded field.

PT wants to rebuild Brazil (and itself)

After a gigantic defeat in the 2016 municipal elections, falling third place to tenth by number of elected mayors, and suffering its first loss in a presidential election in the 21st century, the Workers’ Party is trying to make a comeback. 

With a mix of old, well-known candidates and newer ones, the PT has run a campaign to rebuild the Brazilian economy based on increasing social welfare. The party is advocating anti-racism, a gradual transition to a model of free inter-city transportation, the installation of free Wi-Fi networks in public spaces and participatory budgeting, in which the population decides which projects and works should be done. 

A rally of Workers’ Party supporters in 2015 // Photo: Partido dos Trabalhadores (CC BY 2.0)

After two years without governing any of the 100 largest cities in the country, the PT is looking to rebuild itself this year, betting on former popular mayors to recover several large cities. In eight of these cities, PT managed to put former mayors from the party through to the second round. It also has candidates in the second round in seven other cities, and lead the polls in four of them. If PT can win in most of these 15 cities, it will have re-established itself as an important political agent in Brazil’s urban centres. 

However, the party has also taken some hits. While its nationwide vote share slightly increased from 2016, it lost several dozen mayors it had in smaller municipalities. Other parties of the centre-left, including the Brazilian Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Brasileiro, PSB|Centre-left), the Democratic Workers Party (Partido Democrático Trabalhista, PDT-Centre-left), and the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil, PCdoB|Left) also suffered losses, mostly to the benefit of the establishment centre-right.

Number of mayors elected by party in the first round

Power shifts

The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, PSDB|Centre-right) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement, traditionally the main parties on the Brazilian right, are seeing their influence wane. The two came out far ahead of all other parties in terms of votes and mayors elected in the 2016 local elections, but suffered poor results in the 2018 presidential and legislative elections. Both parties took hits again in the first round this year, with the MDB remaining in first place by number of mayors but losing around 250 and the PSDB falling from second place to fourth. They were largely supplanted by other parties on the centre-right, particularly the Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrático, PSD|Centre-right), Progressistas (PP|Conservative), and Democrats (Democratas, DEM|Centre-right). 

PSDB, once the dominant political force in opposition to PT, has been marginalized at the national level by the hard-right wave that brought Bolsonaro to power, while the MDB took a significant blow to its reputation after the extremely unpopular Michel Temer administration. Both parties have also fallen victim to a multitude of corruption scandals, which, while not unique to them, has had an outsized impact compared to other parties due to their high public profile. PSDB is looking to hold on to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, with incumbent mayor Bruno Covas having won the first round and now facing off in the runoff against activist and 2018 presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, PSOL|Left). 

Boulos, an organizer with a radical housing rights group called the Homeless Workers’ Movement, came from behind in the polls in the last weeks of the campaign to surpass Marcio França of the PSB and Celso Russomanno, the Bolsonaro-backed candidate of the evangelical party Republicanos (REP|Conservative). His advancement to the second round of the municipal elections is not only a major victory for PSOL, but indicative of some shifts within the left in São Paulo, a city where the PT is traditionally strong, whereas Rio de Janeiro has traditionally been a PSOL stronghold. Boulos is trailing Covas in the runoff polls but gaining, and if he’s able to pull off a victory on Sunday it would be a monumental win for the left.

Growth of evangelicals and the far-right

Evangelical Protestantism is growing at a rapid rate across Latin America, and particularly in Brazil, where evangelicals make up about 30% of the country’s population, while Catholicism—currently the denominational majority—is on the decline. Increasingly embracing right wing, social conservative politics, they were a driving force behind the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. According to one Datafolha poll from after the election, an estimated 70% of Evangelical voters voted for Bolsonaro in the second round, compared to just 51% of Catholics. 

Evangelical figures, from pastors to gospel singers, have entered into politics at the local and federal level. Rio de Janeiro mayor Marcelo Crivella is a bishop in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, an Pentecostal megachurch owned by billionaire Edir Macedo. 

President Bolsonaro embraces UCKG founder Edir Macedo // Photo: Palácio do Planalto (CC BY 2.0)

Crivella is one of the most prominent figures of Republicanos, which also counts two of Jair Bolsonaro’s sons—Flavio and Carlos—among its members. Crivella faces stiff competition from his predecessor, Eduardo Paes of the Democrats. Crivella finished a distant second behind Paes in the first round, and the former mayor holds a strong lead in the runoff polls. Paes is attempting to appeal to both moderate and right wing voters by not attaching himself to President Bolsonaro as Crivella has, but also refraining from criticizing him. For candidates on the left, the Rio mayoral race was an uphill battle they were ultimately unable to win—66% of voters in the city went for Bolsonaro in 2018.

Many other Bolsonaro endorsees also performed poorly. In Manaus (the largest city in the Amazon, where Bolsonaro won almost 66% of the votes in the second round of 2018) the candidate supported by the president came in 5th place with 11%. His candidates in Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, had similar failures. In Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará, Bolsonaro’s ally Captain Wagner (PROS, centre) made it to the second round but will very likely lose to the PDT candidate. The best chances for allies of the President are in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, with Abílio (PODE, right), and in Vitória, Espírito Santo, with Lorenzo Pasolini (Republicanos, conservative), both of whom lead the runoff polls.

Bolsonaro has been largely removed from the election as a whole, choosing not to endorse many candidates. His new political party, Alliance for Brazil, was unable to receive enough signatures in time to register as a party to compete in the elections. Without an official Bolsonaro party, the President’s allies have used several parties (mostly PSL, Podemos (PODE|Right) and Republicanos, but also centrist parties like PROS) as political vehicles. Bolsonaro’s campaigning has been largely limited to recording Facebook videos for his favoured candidates. Although many of those candidates fared poorly, his remote presence during the campaign ensured that the election is not as much a referendum on him or his COVID-19 response as it is a reflection of the local situations in different municipalities. 

With the vast array of candidates, parties, and alliances competing for so many different elected positions in different cities and contexts, it’s hard to assess what kind of nationwide impact, if any, the results will have. The unstable position of the Bolsonaro government won’t be changed by what’s happened, nor will we see any kind of clear indicator of what might happen in the 2022 Presidential election. But the local elections can give us a sense of some of the political shifts in Brazil. Has the PT been able to reestablish credibility with its old base? To what degree can the pork barrel parties of the centre-right establishment fend off more conservative, hardline challengers? These questions weren’t fully answered in the first round, nor will they be on Sunday, but the results might give us an inkling of where Brazilian politics is at two years after the 2018 election and where it might be going in the future.