2020 Mayoral Elections: Far Right Crumbles, Left Makes Progress

By Brian Mier

On November 29th, residents of 57 of Brazil’s largest cities voted on second round mayoral elections. In a process that was certainly influenced by the Covid 19 pandemic, the nation registered a historic low in terms of voter turnout, with a 30% abstention rate.

The two biggest losers of the day were President Jair Bolsonaro and the neoliberal Social Democrats (PSDB) of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In city after city, far right candidates runing on hate and conspiracy theories, supported by Bolsonaro – mostly prosperity gospel pastors or retired military and police officers – were pummelled at the polls. Only two candidates supported by Bolsonaro won final round elections and in many cities his support seemed to be a kiss of death. In São Paulo, Celso Russumano plummeted 10% in the polls the week after Bolsonaro endorsed him and he failed to make the second round. In Rio, after squeaking into the final round, Universal Kingdom of God “Bishop” and enemy of Carnaval, incumbent mayor Marcelo Crivella, was crushed 65-35 by the somewhat less sleazy former mayor Eduardo Paes, who was supported as a lesser evils candidate by the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and the Workers Party (PT).

The PSDB, perennial darling of the US Democratic Party, continued its downward slide that began in backlash to its support for the 2016 coup. Although it is still the political party with the highest number of big city mayors, it saw a reduction of 28% in number of mayors in cities over 200,000, from 35-25. The PSDB remains a powerful political force in its home state of São Paulo but it is rapidly losing influence elsewhere.

As the results began to stream in on Sunday night, the hegemonic media took the opportunity to try to spin a story of crushing defeat of the Brazilian left and this is echoing into the narrative of some Anglo journalists.

When looking at yesterday’s performance from the left and center left, it is important to know a few things about local government in Brazil. There has never been a moment in Brazilian history when left political parties came anywhere close to taking control of a majority of the nation’s big cities. Rio de Janeiro, for example, has never even had a left wing mayor. Secondly, years of national and international media character assassination against the PT party, culminating in the 2016 coup documented in Petra Costa’s “Edge of Democracy” took its toll in that year’s mayoral elections. In 2016, the PT dropped from 6th biggest party in terms of number of big city mayors to 10th, holding onto only one of the nation’s most important cities, Rio Branco (pop. 400,000), which has a GDP of around US $1.7 billion/year, plus 3 cities in the 200,000-300,000 range.

On Sunday, November 29th, the PT rose back up to 7th, passing center-left parties PDT and PSB to become the largest left party in Brazil in terms of big city mayor’s offices, with 4 cities over 400,000 which have a combined GDP of around US $17 billion/year: Contagem, Juiz de Fora, Maua and Diadema. It also won first round elections for mayors offices in 3 cities in the 200-300,00 range, including São Leopoldo, RS. In all, the PT party saw a 75% increase in number of big city mayors, while holding on to over 170 smaller town governments across the country.

Other left parties also had important victories. In Belem, Para, (population 1.5 million) two-term former PT Mayor Edimilson Rodrigues, running with a PT candidate for Vice Mayor, beat out the Bolsonaro supported, “Officer Eguchi” from the Patriots party (Patriota). This important victory has been misreported as PSOL’s first mayoral victory in a state capital. This may be because of the total disaster that happened the first time PSOL won a big city mayor’s office. In 2012, PSOL candidate Clécio Luis was elected to Macapá, the state capital of Amapá, and immediately formed a coalition government with the two biggest enemy parties of the Brazilian left: DEM (Former PFL/ARENA -the dictatorship legacy party) and PSDB. As mayor, Luis implemented deep austerity programs and conducted union busting activities with city workers, ignoring instructions from national PSOL leadership, who were either unable or unwilling to expel him from the party. Whereas Belem does not represent PSOL’s first state capital, it does represent an opportunity for a new start, to demonstrate that, 15 years since its founding, it can move beyond the vanguard left rhetoric and actually govern.

2018 center left presidential candidate Ciro Gomes’ Democratic Workers Party (PDT) won a close race against yet another former police officer supported by Jair Bolsonaro in Fortaleza (population 2.5 million), in a coalition that includes the PT. As Gomes has spent the last two years simultaneously insulting PT politicians while complaining that the PT does not want to enter in coalition with other left parties, the new city government will serve as a litmus test on the ability of both parties to work together in the hopes of launching a broad based left candidate for the presidency in 2022.

The two big losses for the left of the day took place with two personal friends of former President Lula, from two different parties in two of the nations biggest cities.

In São Paulo , PSOL candidate and housing movement leader Guilherme Boulos surprised many by edging out Bolsonaro’s candidate Celso Russomano and slipping into the final round against center-right incumbent Bruno Covas (PSDB) but despite support from the PT, PDT, PSB and REDE, lost the final round election by around 20%.

Porto Alegre, birthplace of participatory budgeting and the World Social Forum, hasn’t had a left mayor since 2001. The young and popular Communist Party of Brasil (PC do B) candidate Manuela D’Ávila, with a vice mayoral running mate from the PT, came closer but lost after suffering red baiting and sexist character assassination in the conservative local media during the campaign. Nevertheless, D’Ávila, 39, is a rising star on the Brazilian left and her future looks bright. It is no small achievement for someone openly referring to herself as a communist to make it this far in big city mayoral election in a country run by a right wing extremist.

Here are a few takeaways:

1) When Bolsonaro took office, many of us on the Brazilian left were worried that there would not even be municipal elections in 2020. The fact that they actually took place relatively smoothly is a sign that the rule of law has not deteriorated as much on the local level since the coup as it has on the national level;

2) Although a massive red tide did not sweep over Brazil, there was some progress made, with candidates from left or center left parties winning 12 of 57 of the big city mayoral offices. This moderate step forwards is symbolically important considering how horrible things have been in Brazil since the US DOJ/FBI supported coup of 2016; and

3) I say this every two years and will say it again: despite a decade long, international bourgeois narrative about the Brazilian left having to “move beyond the PT”, there is still no sign that any other party is capable of filling its shoes.

In January, we will have the pleasure of witnessing democracy deepening, increased social control over public budgets and participatory planning exercises kick off in 5 important cities. These include Diadema – the first city ever controlled by the PT – located in the heart of São Paulo’s ABC industrial region. Jose Filippi, who drew worldwide acclaim for policy innovation while bringing the homicide rate down from 140/100,000 to 20/100,000 during two terms as mayor in the oughties, is returning after a hiatus in Congress and as São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s Health Secretary.

In Juiz de Fora, leftist academic and former union leader Margarida Salomão, who has a PhD in Linguistics from US Berkeley, is promising full gender and racial equity in formation of her cabinet. In the polluted industrial suburb of Mauá (pop 480,000) on the impoverished periphery of São Paulo a young former auto workers union leader with a degree in social work named Marceo Oliveira will be governing for the first time. In Belem, the PSOL will have the opportunity to finally come out from the PT’s shadow and show the world its capacity for policy innovation.

Let’s do our best to pay attention to these cities, to see what innovations work, what we can learn from policies that don’t, and how the best practices can be replicated around the world. The Brazilian left’s democracy deepening tool of participatory budgeting has been replicated in thousands of cities around the World. It will be interesting to see what it can come up with now.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.