What do Brazil’s Local Election Results Mean for Bolsonaro Going Forward?

Brazil held municipal elections on Sunday, Nov. 15, with a runoff round set to take place Nov. 29. The votes are a helpful way to assess the relative strength of Brazil’s right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who rode to victory on a surge of push-back against Brazil’s left in 2018.

Four Bolsonaro-backed candidates in the cities of Sao Paulo, Manaus, Recife and Belo Horizonte lost their races, leading Tom Phillips of the Guardian to characterize the results as a “setback” for the firebrand leader. In total the elections saw 5,500 mayors and 57,000 city councilors elected to power.

Despite the President’s son Carlos Bolsonaro winning re-election to city hall in Rio de Janeiro, the overall effect of this election is a resurgence of Brazil’s left-wing parties and a drift from Bolsonaro.

But naysayers should be careful about writing off Bolsonaro just yet, and the upcoming 2022 presidential election is still well within his grasp.

Bolsonaro’s Background

Brazil’s national populist leader — who holds the rank of Captain in the Brazilian Army — has been under sustained attack by mainstream media in the country before and after his 2018 election to lead the 209.5 million-population South American nation. Bolsonaro was almost stabbed to death in the summer of 2018 while running for office during a campaign stop in Juiz de Fora by a mentally ill, left-wing fanatic associated with Brazil’s Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Liberty Party, PSOL).

Bolsonaro lost around half of the blood in his body but survived, going on to win the presidency. He was boosted in part by feelings of solidarity from his sharing of his daily recovery process with voters.

Like US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro successfully engaged in a process of disintermediation, cutting out the middle man and the polite language of political discourse and communication, instead talking directly in whatever way he wanted through social media and in person. He shouted, swore and said whatever he felt like, ranting against Brazil’s ascendant left, and millions of Brazilians rose up and joined him.

While maintaining a friendly relationship with Trump and attempting to shore up Brazil’s economy from the effects of a coronavirus lockdown, Bolsonaro has been repeatedly smeared in the media and had his outlandish comments on race, homosexuality, crime and his support for extrajudicial killings of communist militants blared across the front page in frantic condemnation. He expressed a desire to punch a reporter for O Globo newspaper in the face this August and recently complained about the cowering attitude of the country in the face of the coronavirus, which Bolsonaro has previously survived.

So far 5.8 million Brazilians have contracted the coronavirus and 165,658 have died of COVID-19-related illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Brazil is Divided

Brazil is certainly divided between those who tend to be more pro-Lula (former left-wing President Luiz Lula da Silva) and those who favor Bolsonaro, but the country is also losing a lot of middle ground to center parties and a mixture of other candidates. Despite losing almost half of its prefectures, Brazil’s Marxist Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT) and similar left-wing parties still have considerable. Brazil’s 14 percent unemployment and high national debt coupled with hard choices ahead about deep cuts in spending that could be necessary may be keeping Bolsonaro up at night, however at the end of the day he is still in a very strong position.

The runoff round on Nov. 29 will provide a better snapshot, but at this time it’s clear that Bolsonaro can’t “coast.” Nonetheless, he’s still got millions of very energized citizens in his base and is likely to keep showing up for him. Even if Bolsonaro keeps losing power in urban areas, smaller cities and the countryside will – by and large – rally to his side for God and country when push comes to shove and those numbers are sure to add up. After all, as Bolsonaro has exclaimed: “God is Brazilian!”

Support for Bolsonaro Remains High

Although Brazil’s left would like to argue that Bolsonaro is a lame duck slated for the back pond come 2022, the truth is that support for him remains high. His 2018 campaign slogan: Brasil acima de tudo, Deus acima de todos (“Brazil above everything, God above everyone”) still has power to rally many Brazilians to the voting booth. The idea that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian statements and tendencies have alienated voters is far from certain and many still remember the corruption of Lula and past leftist politicians with bitter specificity.

Brazil’s PT party went too far for many citizens under Lula and his successor and former Marxist guerrilla fighter Dilma Rousseff who was impeached in 2016. The PT was seen by many center and right-leaning Brazilians to be too close to instituting a dictatorship and as a deeply corrupt money-laundering apparatus leeching off the nation.

Bolsonaro, despite scandals which have arisen with his sons and certain dealings in government, was widely regarded as a fresh start and a push back against the dominant left of Brazil which is often hard-line and informed by militant Marxist ideology, including parties who are friendly to terrorist organizations such as Colombia’s narco-terrorist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) group.

Although the state elections won’t have much direct effect on federal proceedings, Bolsonaro will be facing more headaches as his state governments continue to erode to the left and center. In addition, Trump’s apparent loss in the United States, the results of which Bolsonaro questions, puts him in a weaker position. Indeed, Joe Biden has directly threatened to punish Brazil’s government over problems in the Amazon. But to assume these local election results mean Bolsonaro is done in 2022 is far from a sure bet.