November 2016

By Sarah Tralins

For over a decade, Brazil’s popular politician and former president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva has led the Workers Party (PT) to electoral success and implemented of a far-reaching social agenda aimed at reducing poverty while increasing spending on education and healthcare. However, this October, Brazilian voters dealt a sweeping rejection to the country’s former ruling party in municipals elections across the country.

The PT’s losses reflect widespread mistrust of the PT party and of the country’s political system. The deep economic crisis, the impeachment of Lula’s successor President Dilma Rousseff for alleged budget violations, and the ongoing Lava Jato (‘Carwash’) corruption probe that led to investigations of over 40 politicians, including Lula himself, have contributed significantly to this splintered environment.

As the political tides shift in Brazil, it remains to be seen whether political and economic discontent will lead to the decline of populist rhetoric appealing to the middle class as well as to impoverished and rural voters. More than 114 million Brazilians voted in 5,568 cities for a total of over 16,000 candidates for mayor and over 460,000 candidates for city council. Tellingly, the PT’s share of mayoralties fell by more than 50 percent this year compared to 2012.

In parallel with the PT’s decline, the country has seen a sharp increase in support for right-wing candidates as well as elevated numbers of absenteeism and null or blank protest votes, which is surprising in a country where voting is mandatory from ages 18-70.

The election’s clear winners were current President Michel Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and the center-left Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB). The PMDB gained the most mayoralties in local elections, thus increasing the prospects of passing crucial fiscal reforms to cut spending and address increased levels of inflation, debt, and social spending burdens.

The strong party alliance that the PT had forged with President Temer’s centrist PMDB and the PSDB in the hopes of solidifying a foundational base for the legislative agenda of both the Executive and Congress is now defunct. This will make passing new legislation more difficult because the PMDB-PSDB alliance now lacks the numbers required to block opposition alliances in Congress. As a result, the Palácio do Planalto, the official workplace of the President of Brazil, may become paralyzed from responding effectively to the macroeconomic and political challenges the country faces.

The elections also saw the rise of less ideologically mainstream and non-traditional candidates as voters exposed growing political fragmentation among over 30 parties vying to capitalize on a desire for political renewal. Additionally, this was the first election in which the Supreme Court campaign finance ruling from last year that eliminated corporate campaign financing was in place. The funding gap was filled by wealthy candidates who declared up to 10 percent of their income to campaigns and evangelical churches that increased their personal donations.

For example, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s fourth-largest city, a former chairman of a local football club will face the team’s former goalkeeper in a run-off at the end of the month. In Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical missionary and gospel singer who supports condemning homosexuality, toughening abortion laws, and privatizing education and who is associated with the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), is heavily favored to win the mayoral contest against Marceo Freixo, a member of the left-wing breakaway faction of the PT, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, mayor-elect João Doria (PSDB), a celebrity businessman with no background in politics, contributed over $900,000 USD to his own campaign.

This apparent tilt to the right, seen as an increasing trend in Latin America, has made national elections in Brazil more unpredictable than ever. Open discontent about and low expectations for politicians have altered the political arena and subsequent rhetoric, furthering divisions among politicians. In a country that faces deep macroeconomic challenges and endemic corruption in its political class, it is proving increasingly difficult to implement structural reforms and to respond efficiently and effectively to societal dissatisfaction.

Strong leadership and long-term political and economic strategic planning can effectively shift Brazil’s future. The question now is whether the electoral success of centrist and conservative parties and candidates can take on this role successfully.