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Despite high popularity, Bolsonaro is no kingmaker

. Nov 07, 2020
Jair Bolsonaro 2020 municipal elections Jair Bolsonaro meets with supporters in Santa Catarina. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Unlike the U.S., where campaigns must buy their own ad time on television or radio – or France, where all candidates are given equal time for their political broadcasts – in Brazil, free TV and radio airtime is available for candidates, but it is distributed between all parties, in proportion with the number of legislative seats each party holds. For some municipal candidates, however, there is an additional platform: the weekly live broadcasts on the official Jair Bolsonaro Facebook page.

On November 5, ten days prior to the election, the head of state spent 20 full minutes asking for

supporters to cast their ballots for ten city council candidates (including his son, Carlos Bolsonaro, in Rio) and seven mayoral candidates from all over Brazil.</p> <p>Before the start of the campaign, Mr. Bolsonaro said he did not plan to engage in electoral politics before the municipal vote, fearing that failed endorsements could hurt his projected strongman image. He was probably right.</p> <p>In 2018, unknown candidates in major states&nbsp;— such as Wilson Witzel in Rio de Janeiro and Romeu Zema in Minas Gerais — simply had to <a href="https://gauchazh.clicrbs.com.br/politica/noticia/2018/10/quem-sao-wilson-witzel-e-romeu-zema-as-surpresas-que-lideram-as-pesquisas-em-rj-e-mg-cjmze4jig02yb01pi12rdmwmo.html">attach themselves</a> to Mr. Bolsonaro in order to leapfrog all competitors and win. But in 2020, the president&#8217;s kingmaking mojo appears to have waned.</p> <p>Popular presidents are traditionally able to boost their party&#8217;s chances in municipal races — which allows them to create local networks of support that will come handy two years later, when national elections take place.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1996, then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso helped his Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) triple its number of mayors. Eight years later, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made a similar push for his Workers&#8217; Party. &#8220;But the president has <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/10/15/president-bolsonaro-feud-psl-party/">no party of his own</a>,&#8221; says pollster and political scientist Antonio Lavareda.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro broke with the Social Liberal Party late last year, and has failed to bring <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/11/22/jair-bolsonaro-new-party-reshuffles-brazilian-politics/">his own political family</a> into existence.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro: growing popularity does not mean growing influence</h2> <p>A survey by news website G1 found that <a href="https://g1.globo.com/politica/eleicoes/2020/eleicao-em-numeros/noticia/2020/09/28/mais-de-150-bolsonaros-e-lulas-disputam-uma-vaga-em-camaras-de-vereadores-pelo-brasil.ghtml">82 candidates</a> on this year&#8217;s ballots will run with &#8220;Bolsonaro&#8221; as part of their <em>nom de guerre</em>, trying to surf on the president&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/08/18/jair-bolsonaro-has-never-been-safer-from-impeachment/">climbing approval ratings</a>.</p> <p>But, as polls show, it hasn&#8217;t worked.</p> <p>Mr. Lavareda explains that the transfer of support is not automatic, as Bolsonaro-backed politicians are spread across multiple parties. &#8220;In some state capitals, we have as many as four candidates pledging loyalty and support to Jair Bolsonaro — but each and every one of them has mediocre polling numbers.&#8221;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-scatter" data-src="visualisation/4264673"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>&#8220;The data proves that it is not viable for a president to be outside of the party system during an election cycle. It makes it impossible for voters to guide themselves when choosing a candidate. Without a party, Bolsonarism is disoriented as a political force,&#8221; adds Mr. Lavareda.</p> <h2>How important is the municipal election for the president</h2> <p>Municipal elections are considered by many as <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/03/30/coronavirus-brazil-municipal-election-2020-bolsonaro/">dress rehearsals</a> of the national races, as they can indicate political trends we will see in presidential and gubernatorial disputes. The downfall of the Workers&#8217; Party, for instance, was hinted at in 2016, before Mr. Bolsonaro won the runoff election in a landslide two years later.</p> <p>Being deprived of public office at the municipal level makes it harder to build a network of supporters in peripheral areas — where meet-and-greet campaigning remains important. While in 2018 Mr. Bolsonaro was able to <a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2018/12/06/brazil-election-social-media-democracy/">smash all conventional wisdom</a> and win the presidency while campaigning from a hospital bed, some experts — Antonio Lavareda included — bet that the 2022 election will be a more &#8220;normal&#8221; one.</p> <p>Those factors matter, but a president&#8217;s destiny also heavily depends on the country&#8217;s economic situation when voters head to the polls. &#8220;Municipal races set the tone but do not determine future results,&#8221; ponders Cristiano Noronha, an analyst for consultancy Arko Advice. &#8220;Extraordinary events [such as Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/09/06/jair-bolsonaro-stabbing-changed-brazil-one-year-removed/">stabbing in 2018</a> or the pandemic] can happen and shake up the chessboard,&#8221; he says.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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