Millionaires to Run Nearly Half of Brazil's Top 50 Cities

  • Wealthy candidates tout management skills in local runoffs
  • Almost half of top 50 Brazil cities to be run by millionaires

Millionaires were among the biggest winners in the second round of Brazil’s local elections on Sunday, as new campaign finance rules diminished contributions and many Brazilians grew disillusioned with career politicians.

Of the 50 most populous cities across Brazil, 11 elected millionaire candidates in the first round on Oct. 2. The second-round results confirmed this trend, bringing the total of wealthy mayors to 24 in those cities, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from Brazil’s top electoral court, known as the TSE.

A change in election rules banning corporate campaign donations, the downfall of Brazil’s largest left-wing party, and discontent over traditional politicians in the wake of a massive corruption scandal has fueled success for millionaire and evangelical mayors across Latin America’s largest country.

“In the context of the restrictions on campaign finance and a left that has suffered a significant blow, the profile of richer candidates tends to rise,” said Christopher Garman, longtime Brazil observer and managing director for political consulting company Eurasia Group. “The profile of candidates who come from working-class backgrounds tends to come from the left.”

The Brazilian Republican Party, which has ties with one of Brazil’s largest evangelical churches, elected 31 percent more mayors this year than in 2012, according to Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. Its main victory was the election of Marcelo Crivella as mayor of Rio de Janeiro.

In the closely-watched runoff in Belo Horizonte on Sunday, voters elected a former soccer team president and millionaire, Alexandre Kalil. Belo Horizonte was one of five cities where both candidates had assets of more than 1 million reais ($312,000), in a country where the average monthly income is 2,015 reais. State capitals Salvador, Natal and Joao Pessoa elected millionaires in the first round.

Kalil’s campaign is an example of “using economic power to get around the barriers of the system” such as the need for political alliances to get party-allotted TV time, said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst from the consultancy Tendencias. “Disputing municipal elections is very expensive, so it’s a big challenge for candidates from outside the main parties.”

Joao Doria

Photographer: Suamy Beydoun/AGIF via AP

Among the big winners on Oct. 2 was Joao Doria, the mayor-elect of Sao Paulo, who declared assets of 179 million reais to the electoral authorities. A successful journalist and businessman who once hosted the Brazilian version of “The Apprentice,” Doria emphasized his outsider status throughout the campaign, despite running for one of Brazil’s most established political parties, the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy.

‘Gaining Ground’

Unlike in the U.S. where wealth inspires admiration, the myth of the self-made millionaire has little resonance among the Brazilian electorate, according to Garman. Instead, a lack of competent public managers is leading voters to choose political outsiders.

Millionaire politicians are hardly a new phenomenon in Brazil. In 2012, 17 of the mayors in Brazil’s 50 largest cities declared assets of more than 1 million reais to the election authorities. 

But since then, Brazil has plunged into its worst recession on record and a massive corruption scandal has ensnared dozens of Brazil’s top business and political elite. Part of the money diverted from state oil company Petrobras ended up in off-the-books campaign donations to Brazil’s political parties.

Last year, the Supreme Court banned corporations from donating to election campaigns, with the result that political parties are increasingly dependent on individual donations and a state-backed party fund. By Oct. 2 total donations to parties and candidates competing in Brazil’s local elections were just 2.3 billion reais, down from 6.2 billion reais in 2012, in non-inflation adjusted terms.

“Candidates are being recruited based on their ability to mobilize resources,” Cortez said.

Fronting their campaigns with millionaire candidates is one of the more legitimate ways Brazil’s political parties are ensuring financing. Ahead of the first round, the TSE announced that it would be investigating 16 million reais worth of donations from recipients of the conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia. Thirty-five dead people also gave money, according to their tax registration numbers.

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