Brazil municipal elections to signal where country is headed

Analysts say the municipal vote provides a strong signal for where Brazil is headed and where the government stands.

Women wait to vote during municipal elections along the Negro River banks in Catalao, Brazil [Bruno Kelly/Reuters]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Joao Santana is an admirer of United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

So when he decided to run for city councillor in the Brazilian municipal elections, which are being held countrywide on Sunday, he adopted a moniker: Donald Trump Bolsonaro.

“Bolsonaro and Trump think alike and defend the same principles I believe in: family, country and church,” Santana told Al Jazeera.

It is common for candidates in local elections to pick nicknames for their campaigns and Santana wanted to be sure voters in Brusque – a city in the southern state of Santa Catarina – knew he stands for conservative values.

He added that the nickname, which is stamped on all of his election pamphlets and used in television and radio campaign advertisements, has helped his candidacy stand out among 500,000 city council candidates and 19,000 mayoral candidates in more than 5,570 Brazilian municipalities.

“When Trump or Bolsonaro opens his mouth, it’s front-page news. What better publicity could I get?”

Santana is also not alone; at least 150 city council candidates in Sunday’s municipal elections named themselves after Bolsonaro and his political rival, leftist former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who governed Brazil from 2003 to 2011 and was imprisoned for a year on corruption charges.

The elections will be the first time Brazilians cast their ballots since Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, came to power in 2018. Analysts say the municipal vote cannot be considered a referendum on the president’s first years in office – but it certainly provides a strong signal for where Brazil is headed and where the government stands.

Polarised nation

The mandatory voting will happen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed more than 165,000 Brazilians – the world’s second-highest death toll after the US. Almost 148,000 Brazilians are apt to vote, but a high abstention rate is expected this year, due to the virus.

It is also the first time that Black and Brown people in Brazil, who represent 56 percent of the population, will outnumber white voters. Although they are a majority, people of colour endure much higher unemployment rates and poverty.

They are also poorly represented, partly because the campaigns of candidates of colour are underfunded. Brazilian political parties receive public funds and free TV and radio air time to run their campaigns, but party leaders have always distributed money as they saw fit.

Women wearing face shields against the spread of the new coronavirus, protest against crimes committed by the police against black people in the favelas, outside the Rio de Janeiro''s state government,
Women protest against crimes committed by the police against Black people in the favelas, outside the Rio de Janeiro state government, on Sunday, May 31, 2020 [File: Silvia Izquierdo/AP]

“During the last elections, 13 percent of the candidates were Black women, but they only received eight percent of the funds. Black men did better, but they still received half the amount of the average white male candidate,” lawyer Irapua dos Santos told Al Jazeera.

A Supreme Court decision, this year, forced parties to share the money fairly.

But racial equality is only one of the issues.

“The country is still very much polarised between Bolsonaro representing the right, and Lula, representing the left – but I think both are losing ground,” said 44-year old accountant Jorge Pereira.

Pereira said he voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 because he was tired of the corruption scandals, but he has been disappointed. “Bolsonaro promised he’d stop the wheeling and dealing with traditional politicians in Congress, but ended up forming an alliance with them,” he said.

The municipal elections will be the first time Brazilians cast their ballots since President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist, came to power in 2018 [File: Eraldo Peres/AP]

Mayoral candidates aligned with the far-right president appear unlikely to win in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in Sunday’s vote.

Despite not delivering on many of his campaign promises and downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, Bolsonaro’s popularity has gone up since March, largely due to emergency financial aide that benefitted half the population.

Recent polls show a slight decline for Bolsonaro after the monthly $120 handout was reduced by half, and the country’s unemployment rate rose to a record 14 percent.

“Brazilians will only start feeling the real impact of the coronavirus recession next year, when the money will run out and the government will be unable to continue overspending,” political analyst Mauricio Carvalho told Al Jazeera.

More Black, women candidates

Meanwhile, a movement has grown in the country’s favelas to get more candidates from those historically disadvantaged and marginalised communities into local office.

Beatriz Pereira Santos helped found the Favela Front, a movement born in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas that is on its way to becoming a political party.

The group’s members are backing candidates they say will prioritise issues that matter to them, including better housing and education, equal rights and an increased state presence in areas that are now controlled by drug cartels or armed militias.

“As a movement we don’t support a specific party; we back candidates that will represent those that live in poor neighbourhoods, who are mostly Black, and have been ignored for so long,” said Santos.

Edimara Celi is one of the candidates representing the Favela Front that she helped create.

“Black women like myself are extremely active, forming social organisations in the favelas – but to get things really done, we need legislative support. And we won’t get it if we don’t get directly involved in politics,” said Celi, who is running for city council.

Carvalho, the political analyst, said Brazil is seeing more members of disadvantaged groups enter politics, similar to what is happening in the US. “More women are entering politics, in many cases as a reaction to the macho politics adopted by these new populist governments,” he said.

“Whether they will do well in the elections and become mayors remains to be seen. But seeing Black people, women and minorities participate more is good news.”

Economic strain

The main challenge, once the elections are over, is deciding what path Brazil will take, according to economist Livio Ribeiro.

Ribeiro said the country’s economy minister, Paulo Guedes, is adamant about privatising state companies and reducing public spending since Brazil’s national debt is expected to reach 95 percent of gross domestic product by the end of the year.

“Brazil was already facing a recession before the pandemic made things worse,” Ribeiro told Al Jazeera.

“Resources are scarce, so a decision must be made. Either we redistribute what we have, which requires time and negotiation. Or we cut spending, which will certainly have a negative impact on Brazil’s poorest.”

Source: Al Jazeera