Despite some victories for the socialist left, last weekend’s Brazilian municipal elections saw the continued rise of the Right.
by Sean Purdy
Sunday’s elections for mayors and city councilors confirmed trends evident since the start of Brazil’s crisis last year. Right-wing parties made considerable gains, the Workers’ Party (PT) suffered massive defeat and the socialist left, represented by the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), made only modest gains in several large cities.
This was the first municipal election in which corporate donations were prohibited, favoring right-wing candidates who relied on significant “personal” donations from supporters or self-financed their campaigns. Investigations have already documented numerous infractions, including large donations from the deceased, the unemployed, and those on social assistance.
A new law, passed last year by the disgraced former president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, also stipulated that free television advertising time be allotted based on the number of parties in a particular coalition. This also benefited the right-wing parties and the PT who scrambled frantically to sign up as many parties as possible. The PSOL, which refused such tactics, had no such luck.
The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the neoliberal party of ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was the big winner at the ballot box. It increased its number of mayors from 695 in 2012 to 800, including the spectacular first-round win of João Doria in the country’s largest city, São Paulo. It also received the most number of votes for mayors of any party and will contest the run-off round for mayor in eight capital cities.
The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) of coupster president Michel Temer finished in first place in terms of number of mayors and city councilors as it has consistently since the 1990s. The PMDB has never elected a president (but its vice presidents have assumed the presidency three times), but cultivates local power brokers and serves as an “umbrella” party that accepts any and all without any programmatic allegiance. The party won over 951 mayoral races, one-fifth of the 5,568 municipalities in the country, including several large cities. Smaller right-wing parties also slightly improved their electoral representation, including far-right candidates associated with the evangelical churches and the police.
The Right, riding the coattails of the successful impeachment process in August and the PT’s utter demoralization and backed solidly by the corporate media and a politicized judiciary, certainly took advantage of the climate to advance its electoral prospects. In the case of São Paulo, the winning candidate, João Doria, also successfully appealed to a bizarre notion of “anti-politics,” claiming that as a successful businessman he was more of an “administrator” than a “politician.”
It is no surprise that this appealed to a sector of the population fed up with political scandals. Showing his true colors, however, Doria has already reneged on his promise to freeze transit fares during his mandate.
The Workers’ Party suffered its worst electoral defeat in twenty years. They lost 60 percent of the cities controlled by the party in 2012 and received only half the votes they won for city councilors four years ago. They retained only one mayor in a small capital city and qualified for the second round in only one more capital. In São Paulo, the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, only won 16 percent of votes, the party’s worst result in the city since the end of the dictatorship in 1985 and the first time that the party has never made it to a run-off.
It is abundantly clear that the involvement of leading PT figures in the Petrobras scandal severely harmed their electoral chances. The party was unable to shake the glaring unfairness of the judiciary, which has focused exclusively on corruption by PT members and not the PMDB or PSDB. Despite this, the PT formed coalitions with pro-impeachment parties in more than 1,400 cities.
Yet the wholesale adoption of the neoliberal agenda has affected the PT more significantly. Dilma Rouseff won the presidential election in 2014 promising labor and social reforms, but once in power implemented a massive cutback agenda that is now being expanded by the illegitimate federal government that overthrew her. These politics have demoralized many PT members and ex-voters of the party.
PT mayoral and city councilor campaigns in the 2016 elections were timid affairs with platforms hardly indistinguishable from the centrist parties. In the São Paulo case, Haddad, who implemented some decent environmentally friendly policies such as bike and bus lanes, failed to offer concrete proposals for all those suffering from unemployment, inflation, and poor public services. It is significant that his best showings in the mayoral race were in two middle-class neighborhoods.
The only significant showing for the party was the widely respected left-wing PT city councilor, Eduardo Suplicy, who received the highest number of votes of any candidate in the country. Despite his formal affiliation, however, he is heavily associated with the socialist left.
The Socialist Left
PSOL only won mayoral races in two small cities, but advanced to the second round in two large capital cities, Rio de Janeiro and Belem, and one mid-sized industrial city in the state of São Paulo. In several races, including São Paulo, there was a strong “lesser evil” argument, convincing PSOL voters to hold their noses and vote for PT candidates. Nationally, the party only increased its number of city councilors from forty-nine to fifty-three, but elected councilors in important capital cities, including six in Rio de Janeiro, two in São Paulo, three in Porto Alegre, and three in Belem.
These meager aggregate results, however, mask an important development in this election: in several large cities, PSOL candidates for city councilor were among the most voted. And those who were most voted were respected social movement and union activists.
In the large cities of Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, and Niteroi, PSOL elected three black women long active in antiracist and union organizing. In Porto Alegre and São Paulo, feminist candidates for PSOL won important victories. Given the fact that PSOL suffered unfairly from association with the PT, these results were positive.
But the overall situation is worrying: the Right is confident and will move fast to implement their neoliberal agenda. At the federal level, the Temer government is pushing through a bill that will set maximum spending limits for social services and has proposed legislation that will drastically cut pensions and labor rights. At the municipal level, these forces will continue privatization and cuts to social services.
Yet successive scandals and poor polling results continue to rock the illegitimate Temer government. It is still an open question for how long the honeymoon of the coupster right will last.
Sean Purdy teaches the history of workers’ and social movements at the University of São Paulo and is an activist in the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL).