Bolsonaro stumbles in Brazilian mid-term elections

Allies of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, fared badly in last month’s municipal elections, but the president remains standing and highly dangerous. Meanwhile, socialist candidates advanced after a year of community organising to protect lives from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marcelo Badaró Mattos is a professor of history at Brazil’s Universidade Federal Fluminense, in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil, and a founding member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), active in the Resistência tendency within PSOL. This article was translated by Max Stein.

Jair Bolsonaro carrying out an inspection of soldiers. Photo: Victormferreira/Flickr

Any assessment of Brazil’s recent round of mid-term local and municipal elections, the second round of which took place on 29 November, naturally requires that the elections be put in the context of the year in which they took place. This was a year marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, which acted as the trigger for a global economic crisis, both of which have had a great impact on global politics.

In Brazil, the adversities of 2020 have manifested with a particularly savage force.

Overlapping crises

Brazil has so far consistently been the second worst-affected country in the world by the pandemic, in terms of absolute numbers. More than 175,000 people have died of Covid-19, and 6.5 million people have been infected. This is according to official figures, which are widely known to understate the reality, given that Brazil is also one of the countries that has carried out the fewest tests, and there have been tens of thousands of deaths from Severe Accute Respitory Sindrome that have not been diagnosed as Covid cases, but which were most probably were. While Europe is facing a ‘second wave’ of the pandemic, Brazil is seeing the curve of cases and mortalities grow steeper without ever having seen off the ‘first wave’, and without even the façade of a serious policy to contain the virus.

The global retraction of the capitalist economy is particularly acute here, resulting in an official rate of unemployment close to 15%, in a labour market characterised by informal, precarious work and low salaries. However, the unemployment figures only show one aspect of the situation, as they ignore the many unemployed workers who have desisted from even seeking work in recent months. The two groups combined make up a majority of the potential workforce. A clearer sense of the mounting social tragedy is given by the fact that only a record low of 46.8% of people of working age are in meaningful employment.

An emergency monthly assistance payment of a little over $100 (in Brazilian terms, the equivalent of roughly half of a minimum-wage salary) has been provided by the federal government since April. It has now been cut in half for the last three months of the year, and is not slated to continue beyond then. This was the only safety net for the more than 60 million people receiving it. During that period, all of the emergency legislation put into place to ‘save the economy’ focussed on cutting taxes, pushing down wages, and stripping away the labour rights of those still working, on behalf of large businesses.

The health and economic impacts of the crisis have been greatly magnified by the nature of the federal government, which is characterised by the malign combination of Jair Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist political project with the ultra-neoliberal economic vision supported by the team around him (and by a broad majority in Congress).1

Since March, Bolsonaro has downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic – just as he does with the fires in the Amazon, and with the racist violence that convulses Brazilian society. He has described the virus as ‘a little flu’, has baselessly endorsed chloroquine as a remedy, and has twice changed his minister of health, settling in the end on a military general with no experience of medical issues, who has followed the president’s instructions to paralyse any move towards a nationally coordinated policy for confronting the pandemic.

With his insistences that Brazilians should face the pandemic ‘like men’, and that the economic crisis poses a bigger danger, Bolsonaro has contributed decisively towards a mass bloodbath, in a country which – despite catastrophic austerity and privatisation policies – still possesses a free and universal healthcare system whose public health expertise has been internationally recognised (the Sistema Único da Saúde, or SUS). The SUS, which in other circumstnaces could have greatly reduced the casualties of the pandemic (and which, even in the event, has played its part in preventing an even worse impact), has repeatedly collapsed due to the federal government’s insistence on ‘opening the economy’, as well as the state and municipal governments’ laxness on the issue. The result is that there have been few attempts at effectively enforcing social distancing.

Throughout the first half of the year, Bolsonaro attempted to make inroads against the country’s formally democratic political regime, inciting street and online demonstrations against the National Congress and against the Federal Supreme Court, and deploying rhetoric that clearly threatened an institutional power-grab. His more authoritarian ambitions were contained, however, when the judiciary brought forward prosecutions against some of his most radical supporters, and against his sons, for ‘antidemocratic acts’ and for the dissemination of ‘fake news’, as well as for the misappropriation of public funds.

Frustrated in his ambitions of absolute power, Bolsonaro has abandoned his discourse of a ‘new politics, and his reorganised his base of support in Congress, assembling a majority through the disbursement of positions and funds. The majority of his new supporters, although they take right-wing positions on the issues under discussion in parliament, do not hail from the ‘new right’ which rode into parliament on Bolsonaro’s coat-tails in the 2018 elections, but rather from the old ‘Centre’ – the networks of politically dull and unremarkable members of Congress, belonging to various more traditional strands of right-wing politics, who have always held the balance of power in rendering the country ‘governable’ since the reintroduction of democracy in the 1980s.

Bolsonaro has had his ups and downs throughout the year, first taking a severe knock in the early months of the pandemic, but then recovering, in large part due to the impact of the ‘emergency assistance’ programme among the poorest parts of the population. He has lost a lot of ground among residents of the big cities, but has had surprising political resilience in maintaining an approval rate close to 50%.

But neither the oscillations of Bolsonaro’s personal autocratic temperament, nor the reconfiguration of his congressional base of support, nor even his ability to maintain his popularity ratings, can explain why a president who is responsible for dozens of crimes, who is the principal author of the cruelty of Brazil’s (non-)policy of (non-)management of the pandemic, and whose family have been implicated in a range of criminal scandals, remains in post, despite the dozens of attempts at impeaching him via Congress (where the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who daily declares his opposition to Bolsonaro’s statements while nonetheless supporting his economic programme, has been quietly refusing to table them). The key factor which explains his continuation at the head of the government is the support for Bolsonaro by the representatives of big capital, who are committed to an economic policy of austerity as the only acceptable rescue plan for this crisis of capitalism.

This is the context in which the municipal elections took place.

Elections amid the chaos

The corporate media have repeated with one voice a single assessment of the elections: the ‘extremists’ – meaning both Bolsonaro and the left (especially the Workers’ Party) – lost, while the ‘centre’ won.

However, what they call the ‘Centre’ is the array of right-wing parties which have traditionally dominated Brazilian politics since the end of the 1980s, and who kept control of the same set of mayoralties and local governments which they won in the previous set of municipal elections, in 2016. These include the PSDB (Social-Democratic Party of Brazil), which will continue to govern São Paulo, the biggest city of the country, with a larger population and a larger governmental budget than any other; the MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement), a political brand dating back to the military dictatorship of 1964-85, and which governs more cities than any other party; the PP (Progressives), direct successors to the party that supported the dictatorship of the generals (then known as ARENA, and later as the PDS, or Democratic Social Party); and the DEM (Democrats), which originated in a split from that same political lineage. The greatest advance of any of these parties, proportionatlly, was had by the PSD, a formation that has existed for less than a decade, but which brings together prominent former discontented members of the PSDB and DEM, allied parties which controlled the federal government during the two presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002).

In that sense, there is nothing new to report. And, despite winning in the municipal elections of 2016, those parties mustered a paltry 6% of votes between the two presidential candidates they put forward in 2018 (one of them supported by PSDB, DEM, PP and the PSD, and the other by MDB and its auxiliaries). Moreover, in 2020, especially in the state capitals and in cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants, the performance of the municipal government incumbents in fighting the pandemic was a major determining issue for voters, and the most widely supported candidates in this milieu opted to specifically dissociate their candidacies from the national political debate.

Guilherme Boulos (left), PSOL mayoral candidate in São Paulo in 2020, making a visit in 2017 to the long-running occupation of an empty building in Belo Horizonte, which provided shelter to 200 homeless. families. Photo: MídiaNinja/Flickr

With regard to the setback for Bolsonaro, this has to be understood via a different set of parameters to that employed by the corporate media. Bolsonaro won election in 2018 on the party line of a small party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party), which succeeded electing three governors (out of 27), four senators (out of 54), and the second-largest party contingent of representatives to the Chamber of Deputies, on the back of the reactionary wave that lifted Bolsonaro to the presidency. Other candidates who supported Bolsonaro were elected as candidates for other parties. In 2019, Bolsonaro left the PSL, with the ambition of creating a party that he could control completely, and that could give a more organic expression to his neofascist project. Without that new party, pro-Bolsonaro politicians have scattered among the various other formations. Bolsonaro gave endorsements (in live videos posted on social media) to 18 mayoral candidates and 44 candidates to be city councillors. Of those, only 5 were elected mayor and 11 were elected as city councillors. The president’s political difficulties, however, cannot be discerned solely from these numbers, as he does have a much broader base of support than these figures suggest. Bolsonaro’s failure to launch a new party – whose proposed name is the ‘Alliance for Brazil’ – which could unify his electoral base, has been his bigger problem. It cannot be ruled out that, in 2022, the far-right Bolsonaro will run for re-election as a candidate for one of the various parties that the corporate media defines as representing the political ‘Centre’.

With regard to the left, the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), the largest party of the Brazilian left, retained largely the same set of seats that it won in the 2016 municipal elections, when it suffered a huge electoral defeat. In that year, the number of mayoralties held by the PT fell from 638 to 254. This year, the party won 183 mayoralties (there are 5570 in total), although the numerical fall is compensated for by wins in larger cities. It is important to underline once again, however, that the municipal elections cannot be used directly to predict what will happen in the presidential elections in two years’ time. Despite its severe defeat in the 2016 municipal elections, the PT reached the run-off round of the 2018 presidential elections and received 45% of votes cast, despite fielding a candidate with little name recognition at the start of the campaign, due to the party’s leading figure – Luís Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva – had been imprisoned and disqualified from running. Beyond that, the PT also elected more governors and more members of the Chamber of Deputies than any other party.

The new development on the PT’s left flank has been the growth of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which emerged in 2004 from splits in the PT and other left-wing forces, during Lula’s first term as president. PSOL’s previous best electoral showing in municipal elections was in 2016, when it elected just two mayors, but managed to get into the run-off round in the second-largest city in the country, Rio de Janeiro. In 2020, PSOL elected 5 mayors, one of those, Edmílson Rodrigues, in Belém, the capital of Pará state and the largest city in the north of Brazil. Moreover, Guilherme Boulos, a leader of the homeless people’s movement for housing, who got less than 1% of the vote when he ran for the presidency in 2018, got into the run-off round for the mayoralty of São Paulo, the largest city in the Americas with a population of some 12 million people, and received 40% of the vote, with strong support from the working-class peripheries of the city. In the big cities, PSOL increased its number of councillors, electing seven in Rio de Janeiro (where it now has one of the largest contingents in the City Council) and six in São Paulo (where it has the third-largest contingent).

What the elections show

Analysts are already rushing to deduce the consequences of these municipal elections for the national elections of 2022. But, as we have seen, the victories and defeats of the 2016 vote had little to do with those of the general elections of 2018. The electoral performance of the traditional right-wing parties is generally determined by the performance of their devolved governments in the run-up period, by the political alliances that they form between themselves, and by the support that they derive through the private instruments of ruling-class hegemony.

Into this rigged system, Bolsonaro introduced some new elements of volatility. He presented himself as a ‘new’ political development, and a fighter against the ‘old corruption’ of Brazilian politics, despite having been in Congress for three decades. He mobilised the darkest of sentiments – fear, prejudice and hatred – through non-conventional means of propaganda such as massaging apps, and he rode a conservative wave that included street mobilisations by those layers of the middle class who the representatives of capital had already riled up to serve as the basis for the soft coup that overthrow Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Bolsonaro’s electoral performance in 2022 will not depend on the number of recently elected mayors who are inclined to support him. However, there will be a price to pay for his failure to build a party of his own, one that can give direction to his base of support in the population, bringing together the dynamic of mass public mobilisation with a unified block of pro-Bolsonaro political representatives.

The left’s performance also depends on voters’ impression of the performance of the local governments already in office – whether the left is in office or in opposition. But, particularly for those parts of the left which still aspire to a socialist horizon, electoral results are a distorted reflection of the social struggles carried on by the working class. In that sense, the recent period has been one of marked defeats. How to explain, then, the advances of PSOL, the principal party to the left of PT?

Amid the economic and health disaster of this tragic year, there have emerged, in all of Brazil’s major cities, powerful movements of community social solidarity. From the very start, efforts to collect together resources and provide emergency aid to millions of families in extreme vulnerability have been led by activists: the long-standing networks embedded into favelas and working-class neighbourhoods, but also activists belonging to new organising initiatives and movements – hailing from hip-hop and favela culture, from the world of popular media, from grassroots education efforts, from the women’s movement and Black anti-racist movements. These movements stepped in to provide food packages, masks and hygienic products, and even brought together autonomous educational initiatives to raise awareness of health issues, social distancing and the treatment of convalescents, with the backing of other, more established movements, like the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST, of which Guilherme Boulos is a leader). In Rio de Janeiro, an initiative of the local PSOL branch, with the support of a broader array of other groups and movements, set up an informational website linking together more than a hundred mutual aid initiatives, as well as aid networks of lawyers and health workers.

Anti-racist protesters in Belo Horizonte in June. Keywords: Brazil Bolsonaro fascist
Anti-racist protesters in Belo Horizonte in June. Photo: MídiaNinja/Flickr

In various cities, those organisations and initiatives which were developed as efforts to save lives through mutual aid in the face of the pandemic went on to become important agents in the street actions that took place under the banner of Black Lives Matter (or, in Portuguese, ‘Vidas Negras Importam’), which took place in late May and early June. These were not only a direct reaction to the chain of huge mobilisations which was set off in the United States by the murder of George Floyd, although this certainly did have an impact in Brazil, just as it did in other parts of the world. The protests which took place in Brazil had a dynamic and a motivation of their own, and followed on from a long history of Brazilian struggles against police violence. More people are killed by the police each year in Rio de Janeiro than in the entire United States. That showing in the streets in the middle of the year, complete with anti-fascist and anti-racist flags and banners, even managed to contain the momentum of the pro-Bolsonaro mobilisations of the previous months. On the eve of the second round of municipal elections, the murder of Black worker João Alberto Freitas by private security guards at a franchise of French supermarket chain Carrefour, in the city of Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, let loose another string of anti-racist protests in cities across the country. The women’s protest movement, which has been been growing since at least 2016, and played an important role in 2018 with its campaign against Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy under the slogan ‘Ele Não!’ (‘Not him!’), likewise reappeared amid the pandemic. In October protests were organised in various places around the country against the exoneration of the perpetrator in a high-profile rape trial, and in solidarity with the victim, Mariana Ferrer.

In great measure, it was success at connecting together these struggles, and giving expressing to the demands that have emerged from them, which accounted for the electoral success of Edmílson Rodrigues in Belém, for Boulos’ achievement of reaching the run-off in São Paulo, and, particulary, for the election of many councillors hailing from those movements – Black activists, feminist and LGBTQI+ activists, favela-dwellers and people from the marginalised urban peripheries – on PSOL’s ticket.

The elections of 2022 are still a long way away. The result of these municipal elections, with the traditioanl right presenting itself as the only force capable of defeating Bolsonaro at the polls, has already led to much discussion among the left-of-centre parties about the notion of a broad electoral pact, as a means of remaining viable in this political landscape. From the socialist left, that call to form a broad front is a trap to be avoided. Its path forward in 2020 was opened up by social movements that built up resistant from below. Between now and 2022, and thereafter, the task for socialists is to take part and give support (including through the positions it has won) to those and other movements of the working class. The political defeat of Bolsonaro will depend on the struggle on the streets, and only these have the potential to truly change our future.


Note: The author has this year published a book developing the notion of Bolsonaro as a neofascist politician (even while, as it is necessary to emphasise, Brazil’s political regime has not been transformed by his election into a fascist one), and of his government as the executor of an economic programme which escalates exploitation and the removal of rights from the working class to a new height, requiring greater amounts of violent enforcement from a state which already has a long history of autocratic politics. Marcelo Badaró Mattos, Governo Bolsonaro: neofascismo e autocracia burguesa no Brasil, São Paulo, Usina editorial, 2020.



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