Brazilian municipal elections: What does it all mean?

The outcome of last Sunday’s municipal elections shows that Brazilians are in a strange political mood. Anyone looking to the election results, which were all over the place, for hints about the 2018 presidential campaign is sure to be disappointed.

Last Sunday saw Brazilians go out to vote for the first time since the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. After seemingly interminable political and economic crises that have polarized the country, it was hoped that the elections would represent the first step toward political normalization and perhaps provide some hints about the upcoming 2018 presidential race.

However, far from providing a preview of the new normal, the elections instead revealed a continued polarization and fragmentation among the electorate. The only conclusion that can be drawn from the results is that it is going to take a lot more time for the country to heal from the trauma of recent years: after experiencing so much upheaval, people are still in an altered state.  

The most popular candidates: “None of the above”

Brazilian voters are still angry. They are fed up with politics, exhausted by scandal and disillusioned by the polarization that has characterized the political discourse in recent years. The massive political engagement exemplified by the protests against Dilma Rousseff, which were larger even than the calls for direct elections that ended Brazil’s military dictatorship, have ceded to apathy. The debilitating economic crisis and the cynical war of competing and increasingly hysterical political narratives have corroded what little trust people had in politicians. The once bright hope that Brazil was on its way to becoming a better place seems to have been extinguished, replaced by the familiar feeling that any efforts to change the system are futile.

The greatest indicator of this hopelessness is perhaps the surprisingly low voter turnout. Although this may be routine in other countries, voting is compulsory in Brazil, and voters who don’t show up at the polls may face fines. It is truly telling that in a country facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, if not ever, where some 12 million people are unemployed, over 17% of registered voters were willing to risk being fined just to avoid participating in the country’s seemingly broken political process.

If voters are dissatisfied with the roster of candidates and do not wish to vote for anyone, they also have the option of casting a blank ballot. This approach proved even more popular than abstention, representing some 30% of ballots nationwide and almost 50% in some cities. Indeed, the big winner in some of the country’s most important races was “none of the above”: for example, blank ballots outnumbered votes for the winning mayoral candidate in São Paulo, the country’s biggest city.

The big winners: Insiders who are also outsiders

Brazilian voters currently find themselves in a strange situation. Usually, economic downturns create an anti-incumbent bias, and political scandals create an anti-establishment bias. But in contemporary Brazil, the scandal-tainted incumbent, the Workers’ Party (PT), also happens to be an anti-establishment party. This contradiction, an anti-establishment incumbent, left voters without a clear course of action. Hence the popularity of “nobody”.

If being anti-PT means being anti-anti-establishment, it would make sense for some of the establishment to regain popularity. Indeed, another notable result of the elections was the resurgence of some of the older establishment parties, like the PT’s main political rival, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and the party of new president Michel Temer, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). Out of about 5,500 municipalities in Brazil, some 4,000 will now be controlled by such traditional parties.

Even so, the winning candidates were not always longstanding and well-known career politicians. Instead, the winning candidates from establishment parties were often political outsiders, newcomers from other professions. So in a way, Brazilians found a clever compromise, electing candidates that were outsiders while still being a part of the establishment. The greatest example of this is the new mayor of São Paulo, the PSDB’s João Doria, a wealthy business man who hosted Brazil’s version of The Apprentice.

New campaign finance rules banning corporate campaign donations also helped wealthy outsider candidates like Doria, who could finance their own campaigns. Overall, a whopping 23 millionaires were elected as mayors throughout Brazil. Another group gaining in momentum were candidates backed by well-funded evangelical churches. The Rio mayoral race, for example, will face a second-round run-off featuring an evangelical bishop.

The big losers: Outsiders who became insiders and the insiders who embraced them

Although no single group came out as the clear winner of these elections, the biggest losers were obvious. After years of economic mismanagement and corruption scandals, The Workers’ Party of former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff fared terribly, with incumbent mayors losing two-thirds of their races throughout the country. Not even Lula’s son managed to get elected, and he was running in their hometown. 

Those with strong connections to the PT also suffered: Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, a member of the PMDB but a longtime Lula ally, didn’t even make it to the second round run-off in his city’s race. Voters will now have to choose between two extremes: a conservative evangelical bishop versus a member of a socialist party. In São Paulo, the city’s incumbent PT mayor Fernando Haddad surprisingly also lost outright, getting less than 17% of the vote.

What does this mean for the presidency?

Many were looking to the municipal elections for signs about what the upcoming 2018 presidential elections will look like. But like so much in Brazil, Sunday’s results are a jumble of contradictions. What this means for the future of Brazilian politics is equally unclear. Will Lula still consider running for president after the PT’s dismal performance? Will the success of traditional parties mean that a political outsider from a new party is unlikely be a contender for the presidency in 2018?

It is hard to say at this point. A lot of it depends on what happens over the course of the Lava Jato investigations into corruption at Petrobras. It is clear that it was not just the PT that was benefiting from the graft scheme, but also politicians from the PMDB and PSDB. If some high profile politicians from those parties end up facing corruption charges, it could put an end to their momentum. Lula, meanwhile, is facing multiple charges, but if he is able to evade prosecution, he could still make a comeback.

The pronounced success of “blank” votes and the election of some high-profile outsiders like Doria indicate that voters are hungry for some new political options. Although new parties did not do so well in the municipal elections, it is possible that with more time, after raising their profiles a bit more, they will come to represent viable alternatives to the usual suspects.

The electorate equally needs more time to recover and heal from all the trauma of the recent years before they are willing to give their trust to an untested newcomer, as they did when they brought the PT to power. It could very well be that by the time the next presidential elections come around, in 2018, voters will again be willing to give such new parties a chance. For now, people are feeling rather conservative, but it is clear that what they ultimately want is an overall renewal of the political classes.

When the impeachment drama was unfolding, many people felt that immediate new presidential elections would have been a better way to resolve the situation. The results of the municipal elections are proof that this would have been a terrible idea. Brazilian voters clearly believe that there are no viable presidential candidates at this time. If people feel that Michel Temer’s mandate is shaky, even though he was on the winning ticket in 2014, imagine how they would feel if the new president were the product of a situation in which blank ballots outnumbered completed ones.

What Brazil needs now, more than anything else, is a reprieve from instability, to recover and regroup, so that when 2018 does arrive, the country’s voters are better prepared psychologically and emotionally to make a responsible choice. Hopefully by then, they will have some better options to choose from than shady career politicians, populist firebrands, millionaire upstarts or religious hardliners.