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2020 Election: What is at stake in São Paulo and Rio

History suggests that the municipal election can anticipate trends in national elections. We explain what you should look out for

Brazil’s mid-term municipal elections are often seen by parties as a dress rehearsal for national races. History suggests that local disputes often anticipate trends that we will observe two years later, when presidential and gubernatorial candidates square off. In 2020, the municipal election will be as national as ever, with all the main presidential hopefuls using the November 15 vote to set up alliances that could carry them over the finish line in 2022.

In this game, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are disproportionately important, as the country’s two most-populated and wealthiest cities — with a combined GDP of nearly BRL 1 trillion (USD 190 billion), or 10 percent of the Brazilian economy. These two cities alone, account for over 9 percent of the Brazilian electorate.

Both races, however, are up in the air, less than two months before Election Day. We explain what is at stake in each of them.[restricted]

Key points in the 2020 election

  • While reelection rates are extremely high in state and national races, the same doesn’t happen for municipal disputes. The percentage of mayors who were granted a second term has continually decreased since 2008 to an all-time low of 21 percent in 2016.
  • The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) will try to preserve its dominance in major urban centers. Of Brazil’s biggest 96 cities, the PSDB is the ruling party in 30 of them. That is thanks to its continuous shift towards a “hard right” after leaving power in 2002 (especially on crime-related issues) and consolidating itself as the main opposition force against the Workers’ Party until Jair Bolsonaro emerged on the national scene. It remains to be seen how the rise of  Mr. Bolsonaro will disrupt PSDB’s prestige among conservative voters.
  • Meanwhile, the Workers’ Party is toothless and its power resides in smaller, poorer cities. Back in 2008, when then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had 80-percentish approval ratings, the party snatched up 25 of the country’s 96 biggest cities — more than any other political group. But in the 2020 election it held none of these cities. Both in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, however, the party has picked veteran candidates who lack the capacity to galvanize its own militants, let alone disillusioned voters in two cities where the Workers’ Party has become a bogeyman for large parts of the electorate.
  • We also must keep an eye on what role President Jair Bolsonaro will play in the election. As we anticipated in September 15 Daily Briefing, the president has refrained itself from publicly endorsing any candidate before the runoff stage, but is engaged in backstage negotiations with the goal to hurt his political enemies — i.e. the Workers’ Party and former Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta. However, as a Bolsonaro aid told The Brazilian Report, “the president is unpredictable, and could decide to do a photo op with a candidate of his choice out of the blue.”

São Paulo’s mayoral race

The São Paulo mayoral race still has no clear-cut favorite, according to consultancy Atlas Político. The first major poll of this electoral cycle shows incumbent Mayor Bruno Covas polling at 16 percent — with left candidate Guilherme Boulos and Congressman Celso Russomano tied in second place, with 12 percent each. Meanwhile, 13 percent of voters in Brazil’s largest city still don’t know who they will vote for in November. 

Mr. Covas apparently has the inside lane, but it remains too early to slap him with the favorite tag. With the pandemic, the election has remained as a background subject — and early polls usually reflect more name recognition rather than popularity. He is backed by Governor João Doria — who has been quite open about his own presidential ambitions. A display of strength in São Paulo could help enhance his profile with voters outside of his home state.

Meanwhile, Mr. Russomano has tried all sorts of alliances over the past few weeks, but has come out still empty-handed. Still, he enjoys Mr. Bolsonaro’s sympathy — and could have his support should he reach the runoff stage, which is far from a certain thing. “Celso Russomano usually has strong polling numbers at the start of the mayoral race, but then his candidacy loses steam,” says Cristiano Noronha, a political scientist at consultancy Arko Advice. 

“However, support from Jair Bolsonaro could change his fortunes.” In 2018, the president won 60 percent of São Paulo votes in the runoff election.

The race in Rio de Janeiro

It is no overstatement to say that Rio de Janeiro is facing a municipal election while it descends further and further into a true political hell. Mayor Marcelo Crivella has just escaped his fifth impeachment, amid investigations that he ran a mafia-like scheme within City Hall to embezzle public funds — and launder money through evangelical churches.

But corruption allegations are not even the biggest obstacle in Mr. Crivella’s way. His administration has been rated as “disastrous” by most observers, and only 14 percent of voters approved of his job, according to a March 2020 poll. The city is nearly bankrupt, and most basic services are subpar at best. For 68 percent of voters, the municipal healthcare system is the city’s biggest problem — topping by far concerns about urban violence. 

Don’t expect any push for renewal in Rio, as the race’s head-and-shoulders favorite is Eduardo Paes, Mr. Crivella’s predecessor, who is vying for a third term as mayor. However, he has been recently accused by state prosecutors of pocketing BRL 10.8 million from construction group Odebrecht during his 2012 re-election campaign. He dismissed the probe as an attempt to interfere with the upcoming municipal elections.

But even Mr. Paes has not been able to excite voters. His leading 19-percent polling is below the 22 percent of voters who intend to spoil their ballots on November 15.[/restricted]

By 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.