This November, Brazil held municipal elections across the country that decided city councillors and mayors in over 5000 cities, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Data shows that these 2020 municipal elections saw an increase in more socially diverse candidates. Analysts claim that Brazilians are shifting away from President Jair Bolsonaro and other extreme right-wing candidates. To make sense of the local election results, it is helpful to delve into Brazil’s historical background and current political climate.
The most inhabited nation in South America, Brazil is incredibly racially and culturally diverse. Colonized by the Portuguese in 1500, the region was originally inhabited by more than 2,000 tribes, an estimated 11 million indigenous peoples. Colonists brought diseases such as measles and smallpox to the Americas, which wiped out 90% of the indigenous population in Brazil. During this time period, the Portuguese established slave plantations, which were agricultural settlements reliant on slave labour. It is estimated that 4.9 million African people were forcefully brought to Brazil in the Atlantic slave trade.
Brazil’s historical background has resulted in the cultural and demographic conditions that we see currently. Today, over half of Brazilians identify as being of European descent, while 55% identify as black or mixed race. After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the government did not enact policies which would help integrate black people into society. Currently, Black and mixed-race Brazilians experience poor access to education, high rates of police violence, and less representation at the highest levels of political decision-making. Brazilians of African descent are also three times more likely to be victims of homicide.
Contemporary Politics and Bolsonaro
In 2002, head of the leftist Workers Party (PT), ‘Lula’ da Silva was elected with a majority of the popular vote, bringing in the first left-wing government in 40 years. Brazil experienced significant economic growth and a reduction in poverty under President da Silva, winning him a second term in 2006. Despite the successes of his presidency, Lula was later sentenced to 12 years in prison due to a major corruption scandal involving the Petrobras state oil company. This barred him from participating in the 2018 election in which he was planning to run against far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was elected as President of Brazil in 2018. Immediately after being sworn into office in 2019, he signed various executive orders, including several which removed protections for LGBTQ+ peoples and allowed agriculture in protected indigenous lands.
Local Election Results
In Brazil, municipal elections occur two years after the presidential elections. Experts find that local politics are often a useful tool to measure voter sentiment at a national level, indicating the population’s political affiliations and satisfaction with the current government. For President Bolsonaro, a far-right leader long criticized for his homophobic, racist and misogynistic remarks, the 2020 municipal elections did not look promising. Overall, candidates backed by the Brazilian president did poorly in their respective campaigns. Over 70 candidates ran using the nickname “Bolsonaro,” but none received enough votes to win city council seats or mayoral positions. Even the president’s son, Carlos Bolsonaro, only retained his city council position for Rio de Janeiro with a fraction of the votes he won four years ago. However, local elections did not result in a full shift to the left, but rather an increase in support for the traditional right: mostly politicians and parties who were not affiliated with President Bolsonaro.
Backlash Against Bolsonaro
Popularity for Jair Bolsonaro has weakened as unemployment rates have risen from 11.2% in January 2020 to 14.4% in September 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, the backlash against Bolsonaro is difficult to ignore. Despite his promises to make Brazil safer for all people, his track record demonstrates the contrary. For example, in the midst of multiple anti-LGBTQ+ comments made by the president, reported murders of transgender people in Brazil have risen by 70%.
In the face of political turmoil and increased violence in Brazil, hope is not lost. The local elections were full of promising victories for women of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. Historically, candidates of colour were underrepresented as party leaders did not distribute funds equally across campaigns. This year, a mandatory quota meant at least 3 out of 10 candidates for city councillor would have to be women. Additionally, the supreme court ruled that at least 30% of electoral funds would have to be equally distributed amongst candidates, along with equal amounts of air time on television and radio.
Across Brazil, social organizations and political parties such as the Favela Front have emerged with the goal of getting more candidates from historically disadvantaged communities to run for local office. Professor Carol Dartora became the first black woman elected councilor in the city of Curitiba, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. A historian and activist, Dartora seeks to find a voice for those who have been left out of political conversations in Brazil. Additionally, Brazil’s municipal elections witnessed an uptick in elected transgender candidates. Notably, Duda Salabert became the first openly transgender person to be elected to city council in Belo Horizonte, a municipality in Southeastern Brazil.
The Legacy of Marielle Franco
According to Mauricio Carvalho, a Brazilian political analyst, the increase in members of marginalized communities running in local elections could be in part a “reaction to the macho politics” of the country’s populist government and current leader. Others point to the legacy of Marielle Franco as a catalyst for political activism in Brazil. Franco, a renowned councilwoman for the city of Rio de Janeiro, was an Afro-Brazilian woman and member of the LGBTQ+ community. An advocate for inhabitants of the poorest neighbourhoods, known as favelas, Franco fought for universal healthcare and education for all. Franco was assassinated in 2018, in the same week she denounced police brutality and the actions of two policemen in Rio. Her murder sparked mass protests against racism and police brutality across Brazil. Marielle Franco’s legacy indicates the sustained need for representation at all levels of Brazilian politics, while demonstrating the danger such a position can hold for a black gay woman.
If local elections continue to diversify as we began to see in this year’s election, Brazilians will be better represented at a municipal level, meaning legislative support can be given to its most marginalized communities. As fittingly stated by political analyst Carvalho, “seeing Black people, women and minorities participate more is good news.”