Brazil’s first round of municipal elections is over. The elections transpired in a normal fashion with little or no disruption or violence. In a country where the vote is supposed to be mandatory, about 1/3 of the electorate did not vote and are now subject to a small fine. The election covered all of Brazil’s more than 5000 municipalities and tens of thousands of candidates representing over 35 different political parties. Mayors and municipal or city council members all ran at the same time and the election is a rehearsal for the Presidential and state and national legislatures which will be held in 2022. Brazilians vote at electronic stations and the results are normally announced within a few hours of the closure of the polls. This was the case and the Brazilians tend to laugh at the US and the difficulty of the vote count and then fail to understand the role of Electoral College.
The election was important for several reasons. First, Brazilians even while alienated from and, generally disrespectful of politicians, still want to vote and the practice serves to strengthen a young democracy. Second, the municipal elections are meaningful because the voters especially in the thousands of towns with less than 100 thousand inhabitants usually know a bit about the characteristics of their candidate and vote for the person. Party labels mean little. Third, because the vote is for the person, there is less polarization. In the city of Sao Paulo, for example, there will be a runoff between a leftist and a centrist and this pattern has repeated in numerous other cities. Fourth, the right-wing populism embodied by President Bolsonaro, while still winning seats, declined in the number of votes received. Rightfully or wrong, the left has interpreted this as their gain and a chance to oust the President in two years. Still, a lot can happen in that period of time.
So well-run elections with a secure count and significant voter participation are good points in improving Brazil’s political structure. It also noteworthy that minorities: women, people of color (often by self-proclaimed identity), homosexuals and transgendered people were also elected. Certainly, although white males still dominate in the power structure, there is room for the growth of diversity.
One way of understanding Brazil’s political system is to look through the lens of repression tempered by the filter of cooptation. When the system comes under intolerable stress, the military have been called as was the case of the first years of following the declaration of the Republic in 1889, the Estado Novo from 1937 to 1945, and the military governments from 1964 to 1985. When the system is not authoritarian, it uses cooptation and often in a populist manner attempts to anticipate the demands of the population before they are actually manifest. President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 resulted from the unruly street demonstrations just prior to the World Cup (2014), the declining incomes, opportunities and economic unwinding that her administration brought about. While unpopular on the left, her ouster opened the way for Bolsonaro and his moralistic, populist, anti-crime and anti-corruption rhetoric which won the day back in the last presidential election (2018).
While voting and elections bring civic participation and help strengthen democracy, they do not necessarily solve problems. In the buildup to the vote, they create an opportunity for questioning and interchange, but words and ideas have to be translated into policy, action and investments. Moreover, those elected have to deal with economic, social, and political realities within an institutional setting that typically inhibits or impedes action. A new mayor, governor, or president is elected but they do not have the political and economic resources to change things.
Bolsonaro was elected as a remedy to the actions and the failures of the 21st century governments, especially due to the perceived strong upswing in corruption, violence, crime. In addition, there was the failure to deliver the economic fruits that had been so highly touted, promised and anticipated. Brazil hosted but lost the World Cup. The country could not deliver development to the “FIFA world quality” standard it promised. Similarly, the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics were further marred by the collapse into the ocean of the Tim Maia bike path, the murky green waters of the diving pool, the poor quality of athlete accommodations and more importantly the failure to deliver basics such as sanitation and the clean-up of the Guanabara Bay. Between 2010 and 2016, things fell apart and were epitomized by the Lava Jato scandals and the near bankruptcy of Petrobras and the oil economy. For her inadequacies and role, President Rousseff paid the price.
Bolsonaro’s ascension was an answer but certainly not a remedy. Currently, after 2 years in power, the administration can only be remembered for its failure to deliver. The President is naturally uncouth but the main problem is that his political weakness has not permitted his government to implement the reforms promised. Although the government passed one substantial reform of the social security system, this has been watered down and any impact will take years to be felt in terms of solving Brazil’s spending and debt crisis. The Covid Pandemic forced emergency measures which have brought government debt to close to 100% of GNP. The real has weakened about 30% since the end of 2019. And while the government promotes the illusion that there is a V shaped recovery, the fact is that Brazil’s economy has shrunk back to the size it was a decade earlier with no real prospects for vigorous growth. Foreign capital is fleeing the country and investment from abroad has dropped from 80 billion per year to something around 50 billion dollars in 2020. Poverty is growing rapidly and the streets of Rio and other large cities are filled with the homeless who cannot find shelter, even in the favelas. The press reports close ties between the Bolsonaro family, the strengthening of criminal gangs, assassinations and militias that already have begun to form Mexican style cartels that control much of the geography of Rio de Janeiro and other cities and states. At the same time, the President actively seeks reelection in 2022 and has reverted to the political machinations which he previously rejected during his campaign. Horse trading, political buyoffs and favoritism are again the mode of operation and the way that the government hopes to preserve its tenuous grip on power. In all, it is not a pretty picture and there is increasing opposition within the military (in spite of their presence in the government) and among the industrial elites. Inflation may yet reemerge as Brazil goes deeper into debt and the game of who will hold the bag when the music stops begins once again.
The election was a positive point in an economy already in a chaotic state and the Covid19 has poured much fuel onto this fire. Brazil has surpassed 150 thousand deaths and the number of infections is on the rise again in spite of the Spring and Summer. Still, not all is as bad as might be perceived from the USA or Europe. Most Brazilians have avoided Covid, most continue to work, most have food on the table. People, against medical recommendations and good sense, are still agglomerating on the beaches. Foreigners living in Brazil still see cordiality and patient resignation, perhaps tempered by complaints that go unaddressed. People accommodate as has been traditional in Brazil. This accommodation may be frustrating but it also something that has kept the country from rupturing. It remains to be seen if the newly elected officials will make much of a difference and if their newly minted optimism will lead to change. As Brazilians love to say, things are shitty but they’re good.