Brazil’s politics: a small step toward stabilization

Brazil’s President Michel Temer at a Sao Paulo voting station
Parties allied with Brazil’s President Michel Temer scored a big political victory in the country’s October municipal elections (source: dpa)

Two months after Michel Temer was confirmed as Brazil’s president following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, his party and its allies scored an important victory in Brazil’s municipal elections. The new mayors and city council members will be inaugurated on January 1, 2017.

Mr. Temer’s coalition of parties will preside over 82.9 percent of the electorate. The president’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) lost some strategic state capitals, such as Rio de Janeiro, but will remain in control of the largest number of municipalities – 1,038 out of the country’s 5,570 registered.

Its main ally, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), the party of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), has emerged as the strongest winner in the races. The municipal budgets that the party will manage in 2017 add up to approximately $55 billion, 140 percent more than the party had under its control before the vote.

Crushing defeat

Clearly, the biggest loser was the Workers’ Party (PT) of former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). The number of cities under control of the PT shrunk from 644 to 254. The party received only 6.8 million votes – in 2012 it received about 17 million. Only one state capital, Rio Branco in the Amazon, will be governed by the PT. Tellingly, the party lost in every city in Sao Paulo’s industrial beltway, where it had first emerged and which had been its stronghold for decades.

The election results show that Brazil, like other countries in the region, is veering to the right after 13 years of leftist populism. Well-established personalities and political groups are being rejected by voters wholesale, while candidates who present themselves as non-politicians are succeeding. Such has been the case with the new mayor of Sao Paulo. Also, evangelist churches are making inroads into politics; the head of such a church won the mayoral race in Rio de Janeiro.

However, for at least two reasons the elections do not open a secure path for President Temer to lead the country for the remaining two years of his term. Firstly, it is local concerns that usually dominate in municipal politics. The latest elections have been uniquely influenced by national issues, but the winners’ focus is bound to change as they begin to work for their local electorates. Secondly, party alliances tend to be weak in Brazil, as Mr. Temer’s PMDB and Ms. Rousseff’s PT have again proven this year, with the rift that set them apart.

Alienated Brazilians

Importantly, the number of non-voters, and those who cast blank ballots or nullified them broke records. In the runoffs, only about 55 percent of eligible voters turned out and cast valid votes. This appears to validate the pollsters’ reports of a growing mistrust in politicians and the political process among the Brazilians over the last three years.

With these qualifiers, the elections have been a shot in President Temer’s arm as he pursues his economic agenda and attempts to contain the country’s grave fiscal crisis. The outcome gives the administration some legitimacy and weakens the opposition’s claim that the president’s rise to the office was part of a “coup.”

But the challenges facing Brazil’s leader remain huge, due to the severity of the crisis, the volatile political environment and the revelations that continue to flow from the anti-graft Car Wash Operation. The investigations may hurt many of Mr. Temer’s allies and, perhaps, even the president himself.

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