The road to municipal elections starts here

. Mar 05, 2020
municipal elections Polling station in Recife (2016). On the floor, several campaign flyers. Photo: Sumaia Villela/ABr

In seven months’ time, Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities will head to the polls to elect new mayors and members of city councils. Coming two years before the next presidential election in 2022, this will be the first true test of President Jair Bolsonaro’s clout with voters since he was elected in 2018. Furthermore, these midterm elections are crucial for politicians around the country, as they seek alliances and support bases to leave them in good standing for 2022.

</p> <h2>2020 elections: dates for your diary</h2> <p>The <a href="">official electoral timetable</a> begins today, with the opening of the so-called &#8220;party window,&#8221; in which candidates have one month to freely transfer to another political party without reprisal. The window closes on April 4, which is also the cut-off point for any new parties to register in time to dispute the election.&nbsp;</p> <p>Political party conventions will be held between July 20 and August 5, and all candidates must be registered by August 14. Campaign advertising may begin on August 16, and the first round of voting is scheduled for October 4. If a run-off is required to choose between the two best-voted mayoral candidates in a given city, this will be held on October 25.</p> <h2>No party? No problem!</h2> <p>Coming at the half-way point of <a href="">Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s first term as president</a>, these municipal races will be seen by the government as a way of putting their popularity to the test—but not in the traditional sense. Usually, the government&#8217;s performance in municipal votes is measured by the number of mayors the president&#8217;s party is able to elect. This time around, however, Jair Bolsonaro doesn&#8217;t even belong to a licensed political party.</p> <p>After months of rifts and fallouts, Jair Bolsonaro abandoned the Social Liberal Party in November to <a href="">create the Alliance for Brazil party</a>, a brand-new overtly far-right organization that the president intends to be the vehicle to institutionalize &#8220;Bolsonarism.&#8221; The problem, however, is that even though Brazil currently has <a href="">33 registered parties</a>, creating a new one is <a href="">not a straightforward process</a>.</p> <p>In order to dispute the municipal elections in October, the Alliance for Brazil party will require 500,000 notarized signatures from supporters all over the country, as well as having its statute approved by the electoral court, all before the &#8220;party window&#8221; slams shut on April 4.</p> <p>Thus, Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s performance in the midterm elections won&#8217;t be measured by the results of his non-existent party, instead, it will be based on the performance of the candidates he chooses to endorse.</p> <p>The failure to finalize the registration of the Alliance for Brazil party may be seen as a defeat for the president, however, it actually puts him in a fairly comfortable position, according to his allies. Being unable to put up candidates for municipal races means that Jair Bolsonaro &#8220;can&#8217;t lose&#8221;—after the electoral period, he can simply attract as many winning candidates as he likes, leaving the unsuccessful ones by the wayside.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-scatter" data-src="visualisation/1368898"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Proxy elections</h2> <p>Besides acting as a yardstick for the president&#8217;s popularity among the electorate, October&#8217;s vote will allow for a peek at who may be Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s leading challengers in 2022 with a number of &#8220;proxy races&#8221; going on across the country. São Paulo Governor João Doria was one of the first to lay out his presidential aspirations in 2019, just months after openly endorsing Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s election as an attempt to piggy-back on his wave of support.</p> <p>Now, Mr. Doria calls the shots in the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the traditional party of <a href="">Brazil&#8217;s well-heeled center-right</a>. Openly contesting the government at every turn, Mr. Doria&#8217;s PSDB will run against Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s candidates in several major cities, hoping to retain the party&#8217;s status as the political group with the highest number of mayors among Brazil&#8217;s 96 most populous municipalities.</p> <p>In São Paulo, PSDB looks set to back the incumbent Bruno Covas, health problems permitting. The 39-year-old was diagnosed with cancer in his digestive tract last year and is currently undergoing immunotherapy. In Rio de Janeiro, their pick is more controversial, announcing this week that Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s former cabinet minister and advisor Gustavo Bebianno will be running for mayor for the PSDB.</p> <p>Mr. Bebianno was a crucial figure in Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s campaign but had a very public falling out with the president and his sons in 2019, leaving the government and joining PSDB. He is expected to run against Congressman Hélio Lopes, another of the president&#8217;s closest advisors.</p> <p>Elsewhere in Rio de Janeiro, Governor Wilson Witzel will also be setting out his stall for a presidential run in 2022. In similar circumstances to João Doria, Mr. Witzel was elected governor in 2018 after endorsement from the Bolsonaro campaign but quickly veered away from the president to promote his own brand of hard-right law-and-order politics in Rio de Janeiro.&nbsp;</p> <p>Economist Paulo Rabello de Castro, former president of the Brazilian Development Bank, will be the candidate for Mr. Witzel&#8217;s Social Christian Party.</p> <h2>Spoilt for choice</h2> <p>As a result of new rules coming into force this year, the 2020 election is set to break records in terms of the number of candidates across the country. Electoral courts have banned so-called &#8220;party affiliations,&#8221; which previously saw a large number of Brazil&#8217;s 33 registered parties latching on to larger slates in a bid to piggy-back off their votes and win seats. Now, even the country&#8217;s smallest parties will need to stand on their own two feet if they want to survive.</p> <p>Almost all parties are set to run candidates for the mayoral races of medium to large cities—not necessarily to win, but to gather votes that they can use to gain a higher proportion of city councilor seats. As a result, the electorate is likely to be forced to choose their picks for mayor and city councilor from a much longer ballot, with every party looking for a piece of the action.</p> <p>This change was introduced as a way of shaving down the number of parties in Brazil&#8217;s democracy, and it overwhelmingly favors a handful of large parties who will be hoping to pick up several municipal victories.&nbsp;</p> <h2>What about the Workers&#8217; Party?</h2> <p>The center-left Workers&#8217; Party was routed in the last municipal elections in 2016. Of Brazil&#8217;s 96 biggest cities, the party won only one mayorship, down from 18 in 2012. Marcus Alexandre managed to win in the city of Rio Branco, the capital of Acre state, but then left his post for an unsuccessful run for governor in 2018. As things stand, among all Brazilian cities with over 200,000 voters, there is not one Workers&#8217; Party mayor.</p> <p>While the party will certainly be expecting to improve on these results this year, there is no indication that the Workers&#8217; Party will come away with many big victories. The <a href="">center-left party is far down</a> the pecking order in Brazil&#8217;s biggest city of São Paulo, while it is studying the possibility of abdicating from the race in Rio de Janeiro, supporting left-wing member of Congress Marcelo Freixo, from the Socialism and Freedom Party instead.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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