Brazil’s Local Elections First Gauge of Impeachment Fallout

  • Workers’ Party fields fewer candidates compared with 2012 vote
  • Biggest local winners could sway 2018 presidential election

Eloi Pieta, a mayoral candidate for Brazil’s Workers’ Party, makes no secret of his decision to distance himself from his own political organization ahead of this Sunday’s local elections. As he tries to win over voters after the downfall of President Dilma Rousseff, Pieta has purged his campaign literature of all the party’s traditional symbols.

Once the proud emblem of its left-wing populist policies, the red star of the PT, as the Workers’ Party is known, is now associated for some with the accusations of economic mismanagement and corruption that led to the impeachment of Rousseff and the indictment of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Candidates who had nothing to do with that end up bearing the consequences,” said Pieta, who is running for his third term as mayor of Guarulhos, the second-biggest city in the state of Sao Paulo. “I’m not a candidate of the party. I’m a candidate of the people.”

Sunday’s nationwide elections for mayors and city council in over 5,500 municipalities will provide the first snapshot of Brazil’s politics in the aftermath of impeachment. They will indicate which parties are well-positioned to support candidates in the 2018 presidential race, according to Cristiano Noronha, vice president of consulting firm Arko Advice.

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“The PT made inroads with part of the middle class, but with the setbacks that the party has suffered there’s room for the PMDB and PSDB to win over those votes,” Noronha said of the country’s two main center-right parties. “Electoral gains this year will greatly strengthen those parties for 2018.”

In comparison with 2012, the PT will field a little over half as many candidates for local offices this year, according to data from the country’s top electoral court. While the PT won mayoral seats in four of the 27 state capitals in the last elections, Noronha said it is expected to hold on to only one this time around: the Amazonian backwater of Rio Branco.

But the PT isn’t the only party to lose popularity due to the widespread corruption investigation, known as Carwash, that has targeted politicians across the spectrum and left many Brazilians disillusioned with the whole party system. The fallout could create room for an outsider or an evangelical leader with support from Brazil’s growing churches, according to Carlos Pio, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

“Carwash can still do damage to all parties, and I don’t see a new crop of leaders coming up before 2018,” Pio said. “The political landscape will continue to be fractured, with no one party able to form widespread support, and no leader with the ability to mobilize.”

Electoral Prizes

Controlling state capitals has taken on added significance since last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court to ban corporate campaign donations, which has resulted in candidates scrambling to influence voters on the cheap, according to Noronha. The parties that prevail this October will have a strong network in place ahead of the presidential campaign in 2018.

The most glittering electoral prize up for grabs is Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. The current PT mayor, Fernando Haddad, is polling fourth, and an Ibope survey published this week in Estado de S. Paulo newspaper shows he has the highest rejection rating of all the candidates.

Contenders

The leading contender is Joao Doria, a celebrity businessman running for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, known as the PSDB. Though Doria’s selection has irritated some within the party, he is a close ally of Sao Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin, a potential presidential contender in 2018.

Aecio Neves, the national leader of the PSDB who narrowly lost to Rousseff in 2014, said he expects his party to make the most gains, given that it is fielding 30 percent more candidates in medium-sized cities this October compared with the 2012 elections.

With its broad range of ideology and capacity for local coalition-building, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party of President Michel Temer traditionally dominates municipal polls. The party expects to do well again, despite the fact many of its lead actors face investigation in the Carwash probe.

Yet given the widespread disenchantment with established parties, other groups are poised to capitalize on the disarray. Among them is the Brazilian Republican Party, known as the PRB, which has strong connections to evangelical churches. Polls show that Senator Marcelo Crivella is leading by a wide margin in Rio de Janeiro’s mayoral race, and his party colleague, Celso Russomanno, remains in contention in Sao Paulo.

Many voters, and even some politicians, clamor for reform of the whole electoral process. Pieta, the PT candidate in Guarulhos, said corruption investigations and the trauma of Rousseff’s impeachment has created a high degree of uncertainty.

"Today to be elected mayor you have to take into account that the whole party system is in crisis," Pieta said. "We need to change the whole Brazilian system because the parties are disconnected from the population.”

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