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Brazilians firmly rejected many local candidates their president had backed

The big test for Bolsonaro comes in 2022

- December 9, 2020

Brazil held two rounds of voting last month in local elections with thousands of mayoral and city councilor positions at stake across the country. The country’s right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, was not on the ballot. But many Brazilians viewed the elections as a referendum on Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic and a ravaged economy — and a check on his power.

The outcomes may cheer Bolsonaro’s opponents within the centrist establishment, as well as on the political left. Voters overwhelmingly defeated many of the 13 Bolsonaro-supported mayoral candidates — only two won, in the minor cities of Parnaíba and Ipatinga. Similarly, Bolsonaro supported 45 city council candidates, and only 10 won their races.

But Bolsonaro may yet secure reelection when he runs again in 2022. Here’s what you need to know.

The center-right fights back

The clearest winners last month were the traditional power brokers in the parties whose legacies stretch back to Brazil’s 1968-1985 military dictatorship. Brazil has a fragmented party system, which means coalition-building — and all of the “sausage-making” that one might expect — is endemic to the country’s politics.

These center-right parties, often referred to as the centrão, or “big center,” command large swing blocs in Brazil’s Federal Congress. Their approval is generally critical to get the legislature to push forward with new legislation.

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When Bolsonaro won the presidency in October 2018, his victory signaled voter rejection of both the incumbent center-left Workers’ Party (or PT, in its Portuguese initials) and the center-right establishment. Even so, the older parties of the center-right retained regional power bases in the Congress.

Bolsonaro began his term vowing to end the practice of coalitional wheeling and dealing for which the centrão had become known. However, Bolsonaro’s desire to short-circuit the political establishment became increasingly difficult. And he battled and eventually resigned from the party he had joined shortly before running for president, the previously uninfluential Party of Social Liberty (PSL), which represented a mix of libertarian economic and evangelical Christian views.

Seeking to shore up support in anticipation of his 2022 reelection campaign, Bolsonaro had already begun brokering an alliance with the parties of the centrão before last month’s municipal elections.

November’s election results leave the center-right with a choice: ally with Bolsonaro — or check his authoritarianism and vulgarities. If they make a deal to support Bolsonaro, their negotiating hand just got a bit stronger because of their show of electoral strength.

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Their regional bases of support will be critical for amplifying the national reach of Bolsonaro’s reelection campaign. The centrão parties have been much more willing to consider new social spending than the hard line free-marketers in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, like Finance Minister Paulo Guedes. They may also demand plum leadership positions in both houses of Congress, as well as spending directed at their regional power bases.

But the parties at the center could also decide to launch their own candidate. This would not only challenge Bolsonaro. It would also challenge the left, which has had a candidate of its own in every second round presidential runoff since the first direct presidential elections in 1989. If the centrão puts up an effective alternative — by no means guaranteed — the left could end up the junior partner in a “united front” against Bolsonaro.

The center-left fights to a draw

On the left, the recent electoral outcomes hold both a warning and promise. Since the 2002 presidential election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, his Workers’ Party (PT) has been the leader of the assortment of left parties in the Federal Congress and in states and municipalities across the country. Before taking national power in 2002, the PT had amassed electoral credibility first by winning and governing in strategic large cities such as São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte.

In 2020, the PT fielded candidates in municipalities across the country, but failed to win a single state capital. That means a number of smaller parties on the left can plausibly challenge PT’s pole position in their ideological camp. In particular, it isn’t clear whether a proposed “united front” against Bolsonaro in 2022 will feature a PT representative as the presidential candidate.

For other parties on the left, last month’s elections suggest new signs of strength. In São Paulo, for instance, Guilherme Boulos, of the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), ran a close race for mayor. Although he lost a second round runoff to the incumbent centrist Bruno Covas, he easily surpassed the PT’s chosen candidate in the first round.

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Furthermore, Boulos built a coalition of middle-class and working-class voters that seemed unlikely, given his reputation as the radical leader of the largest housing movement in the country, the Homeless Worker’s Movement (MTST). São Paulo has been the site of some of the PT’s most significant governing innovations over the past 30 years. These innovations in housing, sanitation and transportation policy have been influenced by the party’s historic social base in housing movements.

The big test for Bolsonaro comes in 2022

Boulos’s candidacy in São Paulo suggests the left faces the challenge of reconnecting with its historic base in the poor peripheries of Brazil’s cities, if it hopes to challenge Bolsonaro in 2022. Boulos drew on the PT’s historic strategy of focusing on the poor peripheries in São Paulo. This approach had been largely spurned by the party’s last mayor in the city, Fernando Haddad, who lost his reelection bid in 2016 before losing to Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential race. A second takeaway is that cross-party alliances — like those Boulos forged with all major left political parties in last month’s second-round elections — may be even more critical in the next big election.

In the lead up to the 2022 presidential elections, Bolsonaro will probably continue to stoke anger at the PT to maintain his own base. But the municipal elections reveal multiple pathways to challenge Bolsonaro. The results suggest much remains unsettled as parties on both the center-right and left try to plan a winning strategy ahead of the 2022 presidential elections.

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Benjamin H. Bradlow is a postdoctoral fellow in the Weatherhead Scholars Program at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Find him on Twitter @bhbradlow.