Brazilian voter at the polls

A Brazilian voter casting her ballot. (AP)


AS/COA Insider: Brian Winter on Brazil's Municipal Elections 

While President Jair Bolsonaro’s favored candidates underperformed in the first round, new faces on the left attracted attention.

On November 15, Brazilians voted in municipal elections for the first time since President Jair Bolsonaro took office. Amid a pandemic that has killed over 166,000 Brazilians in nine months, almost 148 million voters were eligible to elect mayors and councilors in the country's 5,568 municipalities. In 57 cities, including larger ones like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, a November 29 runoff will define the elected local officials who did not receive more than 50 percent of votes in the first round.

We spoke with Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief and AS/COA Vice President Brian Winter, who shared some takeaways from this first vote, hinted at what to watch for in round two, and reflected on how the pandemic actually played a minimal role in the elections.

AS/COA Online: On November 15, Brazil held its first round of countrywide municipal elections for mayors and councilors. What are some takeaways? 

Brian Winter

Winter: The first thing that sticks out is that it was a rough day for President Jair Bolsonaro and his candidates, very few of whom did well. Let’s keep in mind that all of Brazil’s municipalities elected mayors, that’s over 5,000 cities—Brazil is a big country, as everyone knows—so sometimes it can be difficult to draw conclusions, but that was certainly one. Especially in the big cities, like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Bolsonaro’s candidates generally suffered. The other thing we saw was that young candidates did well, particularly young candidates on the left, there are new faces out there who will be interesting to watch in the next few years. 

AS/COA Online: You mentioned it was rough for Bolsonaro’s candidates. To what extent do these results reflect his government’s performance? 

Winter: That’s a really good question, and the honest answer is, probably not much. I don’t think it really reflects Bolsonaro’s popularity—which remains reasonably high—so much as it reflects his inability to transfer votes to his supporters. This, by the way, is a phenomenon that we have seen in other places in Latin America, where you have these presidents and leaders who are very personally popular, but they don’t always have these structures that enable them to then transfer votes. In the case of Bolsonaro, he doesn’t even have a political party right now, he literally does not have one, he is without a party. I guess it’s no mystery that he would be unable to transfer that popularity which is above 50 percent—quite high by Brazilian standards—to some of these municipal candidates. 

AS/COA Online: What are some key races to watch for in the November 29 runoff and why are they significant? 

Winter: I think the most interesting race is going to be the one in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo. This will be a race between Bruno Covas, the incumbent mayor, and a really interesting figure of the Brazilian left, Guilherme Boulos. Boulos is quite young, he is in his thirties, he is very charismatic, and he also comes from a portion of the left that is quite leftist, let’s put it that way. You know, my feeling is that Boulos may be too far on the left to be elected in São Paulo at this time, where you still see so much rejection of the Workers’ Party in particular because of the role it had in Brazil’s economic relapse last decade, but Boulos is such a charismatic figure, he speaks so clearly to the working class, that he may be able to get past it. It will be really interesting to see. 

Rio is interesting, you’ll see the incumbent Marcelo Crivella facing off against a previous mayor, Eduardo Paes, that will be a kind of barometer for how strong the evangelical vote still is, because that is what brought Crivella to power last time. And then, there’s an interesting race up in Recife, in northeastern Brazil, between two left leaning candidates from the same family, actually. One was the son of Eduardo Campos, the former presidential candidate who died in a tragic plane accident back in 2014. It’s a big country, there’s lots of interesting races, but these new figures on the left I think are just as much a story as the struggles of some of the candidates that Bolsonaro had embraced. 

AS/COA Online: From what you’ve seen, how has the pandemic affected these elections? 

Winter: Unbelievably, perhaps, I don’t think the pandemic had that big an influence on these races. The pandemic has hit Brazil very hard. The death toll has been among the world’s highest, even on a per capita basis, controlling for the fact that Brazil is big. But, you know, people seem to be thinking more about factors like the economy, what they see as good governance, candidates who they identify with for religious or ideological reasons, and that may be partly a function of the fact that these municipal races and a lot of the policy toward the pandemic has been controlled at the state level in Brazil.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.