Elected mayors face big challenges in major Brazilian cities

and . Nov 30, 2020
mayors bruno covas Mayor Bruno Covas of São Paulo: four more years. Photo: R Voltan/Shutterstock

Municipal elections finally came to an end in some of Brazil’s biggest cities this evening, as runoff votes decided who will be sworn in as mayor on January 1. There is an argument, however, that victory in this weekend’s elections is a poison chalice for the new mayors-elect. The Covid-19 pandemic has served to lay Brazil’s social challenges bare, and the incoming municipal leaders will face immense tests over the next four years.

Despite polls on the campaign home stretch suggesting that we were set for nail-biting vote counts, there were few surprises on Election Day. In São Paulo, incumbent Bruno Covas beat left-wing activist Guilherme Boulos soundly, with 59 percent of valid votes. Mr. Boulos performed best in the city’s poor east and south zones, but lost the state capital by a significant margin — mirroring São Paulo’s results in the 2018 presidential election between Jair Bolsonaro and center-left opponent Fernando Haddad.

</p> <p>In Rio de Janeiro, polls correctly predicted a landslide win for former Mayor Eduardo Paes, who obliterated incumbent Marcelo Crivella and finished almost 30 points ahead.</p> <p>Recife was meant to be the race to watch, as all major pollsters had João Campos and Marília Arraes tied at 50-50, just days before the vote. In the end, Mr. Campos continued his family&#8217;s dominance of local politics and defeated the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s Ms. Arraes in a 56-44 vote.</p> <h2>Decades-long dilemmas in São Paulo made worse by pandemic</h2> <p>The largest and wealthiest city in the country, São Paulo is hampered by perennial problems of inequality, healthcare, and education, always brought to the fore during election campaigns. Many of these have been aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and will require urgent attention during Bruno Covas&#8217; four-year term.&nbsp;</p> <p>An Ibope poll from the beginning of the electoral campaign showed that São Paulo residents believe healthcare is the city&#8217;s most pressing problem. Sixty-three percent of respondents mentioned health as one of São Paulo&#8217;s priority issues, followed by education (40%), public security (32%), and public transport (27%).</p> <p>However, with these and other common complaints among the population, experts believe they are all underpinned by the city&#8217;s gaping inequality levels. According to <a href="">a recent study</a> by civil society organization Rede Nossa São Paulo, residents of the city&#8217;s wealthiest neighborhood are expected to live 23 years longer on average than those in São Paulo&#8217;s poorest areas.</p> <p>&#8220;If this is the case in the country&#8217;s richest city, imagine what happens in other areas,&#8221; says Jorge Abrahão, coordinator of Rede Nossa São Paulo and the Sustainable Cities Institute. &#8220;It is fundamental to look at inequality because, to reduce it, administrators are obliged to carry out a series of fundamental actions in health, education, infant mortality, violence among young people, and housing.&#8221;</p> <p>There is no concrete data to illustrate changes in São Paulo&#8217;s <a href="">inequality levels</a> since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, but the main bottlenecks have been seen in the municipal health system. Waiting lists for consultations, medical exams, and surgeries on São Paulo&#8217;s public network have been the leading complaints among residents.</p> <p>Another major challenge comes in the field of education, where the coronavirus pandemic completely disrupted the 2020 school year. Mr. Covas will be tasked with ensuring that students in the public education system are able to keep up with their classes — even if that means distance learning — and recover lost time from this year.</p> <p>The entire schooling network was completely closed for seven months, with only high schools offering in-person classes in the city since October. Schools offering other levels of education have been shut since March.</p> <h2>Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s endless crisis</h2> <p>Brazil&#8217;s most famous tourist destination has been repeatedly neglected by its municipal administrators, turning Rio de Janeiro into the country&#8217;s most problematic metropolis by some distance. Pressing issues with finances, housing, and urban violence will have to be addressed by Eduardo Paes, returning for his second spell as mayor after running the city between 2009 and 2016.</p> <p>With roughly 6.7 million inhabitants, Rio de Janeiro is in the middle of an <a href="">unprecedented fiscal crisis</a>, compounded by immense inequality, a lack of investment in transport and infrastructure, and high unemployment. And this desperate situation is further intensified by the institutional decay of the surrounding Rio de Janeiro state, with corruption allegations hitting all levels of the public administration.</p> <p>Before the <a href="">Covid-19 pandemic</a> hit, Rio was already undergoing a severe economic crisis, with a budget deficit of BRL 1.2 billion (USD 220 million) in 2019. This is expected to rise to BRL 2 billion by the end of this year.</p> <p>Similarly, health has been a major issue for Rio de Janeiro, even before the city was hit by a particularly acute Covid-19 epidemic, with the highest mortality rate among all Brazilian state capitals. Rio faced a health sector crisis last year, with strike action from outsourced employees who had gone without salaries for four months.</p> <h2>Sanitation the biggest problem in Recife</h2> <p>One of the biggest cities in Brazil&#8217;s Northeast — the poorest region of the country — Recife has had a <a href="">historic problem with basic sanitation</a>. Until the mid 2000s, neighborhoods such as Brasília Teimosa were largely made up of <em>palafitas</em>, houses on stilts propped up in the water above open sewers. In 2020, some palafitas still exist in Recife and the city has the second-worst coverage of basic sanitation services out of Brazil&#8217;s state capitals.&nbsp;</p> <p>Over 56 percent of Recife residents have <a href="">no access to sewage systems</a>, only Manaus (87.6 percent) ranks worse.</p> <p>The situation has improved since the beginning of a public-private partnership signed between state sanitation company Compesa and BRK Ambiental seven years ago. Basic sanitation coverage has almost doubled since 2013, but it is expected to take another 17 years for the city to reach 90 percent coverage.

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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.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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