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Brazil’s Recent Election Was a Blow to Jair Bolsonaro

Ana Carvalhaes
Todd Chretien

The political situation in Brazil remains quite reactionary, even after Jair Bolsonaro’s party lost ground in Sunday’s election. But the far-right president’s violent agenda took a hit — and that’s worth celebrating.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro at the presidential inauguration ceremony at National Congress on January 1, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil. Bruna Prado / Getty

Although traditionally fast and efficient, the electronic vote count from Brazil’s local municipal elections last Sunday was delayed by more than three and a half hours. Yet this alarming development did not prevent the electorate’s general mood from making itself clear well before midnight: President Jair Bolsonaro and the far right suffered the worst defeats of the day.

Seven mayors of major capitals were elected outright, avoiding a runoff, including in Florianópolis and Curitiba, in the south; Belo Horizonte, in the southeast; Salvador and Natal, in northeast; and Campo Grande and Palmas in the mid-west. Each of these mayors hail from right-wing parties, but none were supported directly by the president and his sons.

Of twenty-seven state capitals, eighteen held mayoral elections. Only three had candidates directly identified with the neo-fascist president; these included Capitão Wagner in Fortaleza in the northeastern state of Ceará, Delegado Pazolini in Vitória in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo, and in Rio de Janeiro, where the incumbent mayor Marcelo Crivella, the bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, is running for reelection. Results indicate that only Pazolini may emerge victorious in the second round (the incumbent Crivella scraped into the runoff with just 21.86 percent of the vote).

In other words, the Brazilian electorate has replaced the extreme right with the more traditional right. Right-wing mayors who “followed the science” were returned to office, or at least made it into the second round. These conservative mayors enacted various measures such as closing down schools and gyms, encouraging the use of masks, and enacting social distancing orders, all of which Bolsonaro opposed vigorously with threats of prosecution, crude public pronouncements, and even the firing of his own ministers. In the open conflict between Bolsonaro and state governors over the pandemic — which has killed 165,000 Brazilians and infected more than 5 million — the far right has suffered a blow.

The Opposition and the Left

Despite the solid results for opponents of Bolsonarismo, the situation remains overall quite reactionary. There remains a deeply rooted anti-Workers Party/anti-left sentiment among the middle classes (who were largely won over to the idea that the party was particularly corrupt during Lula and Dilma Rousseff’s three and a half terms in office), and the neo-Pentecostal churches, allied with the president, enjoy widespread influence among the poorest parts of the population. Overall, the left parties lost seats at both the mayoral and city council level.

Still, the election results demonstrated that the Brazilian left is very much alive, and Election Day brought some encouraging wins.

Opposition candidates competed in nine of eighteen capitals holding an election. Three were from the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB, a party more to the center than to the left), including in Recife and Maceió (in the northeast) and Rio Branco (in Amazonia in the north). In two important capitals (São Paulo and the Amazonian city of Belém), the left-wing Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) reached the second round. Two more are from the PT, including Vitória (in the state of Espírito Santo) and Recife, and two are from the social-democratic Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT), in Fortaleza and Aracaju (Northeast). In Porto Alegre, the young Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) candidate Manuela D’Ávila won a spot on the runoff ballot.

In the twenty-five largest cities (of the fifty-five holding elections), the PT elected forty-eight city councilors, of which twenty-two are women, and the PCdoB won councilors in six cities. PSOL elected councilors in twelve of the twenty-five largest cities (thirty-three elected altogether, seventeen women, the majority of them black). Among these are the first two elected transgender people in Brazil, including Linda Brasil, who won the most votes of any councilor in Aracaju, and the black transgender candidate Benny Briolly from Niterói in Rio de Janeiro. Alongside these candidates, two openly eco-socialist councilors won their races. PSOL also captured the mayor’s office in five small cities: Ribas do Rio Pardo (in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul), Potengi (Ceará), Janduís (Rio Grande do Norte) and Marabá Paulista (São Paulo).

Perhaps the most surprising outcome was PSOL’s success in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. After joining PSOL in 2018 to run for president, Guilherme Boulos, an activist and leader of the Movement of the Homeless (MTST), along with his running mate, the former mayor of São Paulo Luíza Erundina, were polling at just over 4 percent in the mayor’s race in September. On Election Day, they garnered more than 20 percent and reached the second round, where they will face off against incumbent mayor Bruno Covas (PSDB), who is close to the right-wing state governor João Doria. Meanwhile, the PSOL regional parliamentary group jumped from two to seven councilors in São Paulo, the nation’s most important political and economic capital.

Unfortunately for PSOL and the entire left, Rio de Janeiro, the second most important capital, experienced a very different electoral result. There, the runoff will pit the Bolsonarista and neo-Pentecostal mayor, Marcelo Crivella, against the former mayor of the corrupt Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MDB), Eduardo Paes. Although it enjoys a large and long-standing political profile in the city, PSOL lost its best candidate, federal deputy Marcelo Freixo, who left the campaign in May on the grounds that it would be impossible to win without uniting the whole opposition behind him. Nonetheless, a young black state (provincial) deputy named Renata Souza represented the party, running a vigorous campaign that helped elect or reelect seven PSOL city councilors.

Will There Be a Left Front for the 2022 National Elections?

The idea of diversifying political representation — that is, running more women, black, indigenous, and transgender working-class candidates, has gained traction on the Left. And PSOL was the biggest beneficiary of this. As BBC Brazil pointed out, the election marked a general thirst for renewal in every sense. Boulos himself, 38, and Manuela D’Ávila from Porto Alegre, 39, best exemplify this phenomenon. Still, the reality is that the Left (that is, excluding the bourgeois center-left of the PDT and PSB) has regressed in terms of parliamentary representation due to a sharp decline in PT and PCdoB councilors (see the table below). PSOL saw the most gains among all the parties, but the PT is still far and away the largest left party.

Mayoral posts held by the Left. Overall, the Left declined from 337 to 223 mayoral posts (-33.83 percent).
City Council seats held by the Left. Overall, the Left declined from 3,881 to 3,337 City Council posts (-14.02 percent).

Looking ahead to the 2022 elections, the most likely development is that the progressive electorate — with its concern for social, environmental, anti-racist, and feminist demands — will coalesce around an openly anti-Bolsonarist identity and pressure the Left parties (PSOL, PT, PcdoB) to seriously consider an electoral alliance capable of defeating the Right. The absence of the Left in Rio’s second round will only reinforce this dynamic. In order to cohere this bloc, it will be necessary to negotiate an alliance that doesn’t take for granted the PT’s dominance.

Perhaps even more important, the Left must use this campaign’s victories (both large and small) to act as raindrops fertilizing the ground, reviving people’s willingness to join resistance struggles against Bolsonaro’s plans as well as those hatched by all right-wing, neoliberal governors and mayors. The pressure for unity among the Left is coming mainly from below, from the social movements and communities, and we must achieve it in order to defeat Bolsonaro’s violent agenda.