2020 Elections

Article | Brazil's elections: far-right looses, but left has a long way ahead

The progressive field had small wins, among them, the process of renewing its leadership

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
the debate leaves the rational scope of confronting ideas and proposals, and enters the field of affections - Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil

In the midst of a new expansion cycle of the coronavirus epidemic, in November, two rounds of municipal elections took place in Brazil. This election was surrounded by expectations, as it was the first to be held under Bolsonaro's presidency, two years into his tenure.

This essay is an initial contribution to the debate on the new political balance after this electoral process, and a first effort to identify the perspectives that have arisen for contending political camps in Brazil.

The municipal elections define the new mayors and city councilors for the 5,570 municipalities in the country, and have a very different dynamic from the presidential elections. Therefore, great care must be taken when projecting their impact on presidential succession. The political logic of most municipalities is not the same as the one dealing with national forces.

At the same time, the political debate between the candidacies in the municipal dispute in general, is marked by local themes, hardly permeable to the national level. Despite these caveats, it is clear that from of this process, victorious and defeated forces emerged, serving as indicators of political correlation, as long as there is no mechanical transposition of the scenario from the municipal to the presidential elections.

Political Moment

Before addressing an overview of the results, it is appropriate to characterize the political moment in which this election occurs. To summarize it in a few words, given that this is not the goal of this article, the elections took place in a phase of destabilization of the Bolsonaro government. After the serious political crisis unleashed in the first half of the year, with the onset of the pandemic, which turned the impeachment alternative into a viable scenario, Bolsonaro managed to reestablish the conditions necessary to govern. This stabilization is explained by two phenomena: 1) the recovery of the government's popularity, which went up to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to the emergency aid package (a monthly contribution of R $ 600.00 for low-income families, something like US $ 115) that allowed him to gain a portion of the electorate that he did not have, and 2) a change in Bolsonaro's tactics, nixing institutional rupture from his immediate plans, opting instead for an incremental coup, in which the first stage involves a policy of accomodating Congress and the Judiciary.

To affirm that this is a phase of stability, does not underestimate the setbacks that Bolsonaro is already facing. With the cutting of the emergency aid amount in half over the last few months, the government's popularity in state capitals has already started to decline, which will only intensify even more if there is no renewal of the benefit sum for the next year. At the same time, the country's economic situation is critical, unemployment is at a record high and the resurgence of the epidemic can make economic activity even less feasible.

If these conditions are maintained, there is a growing tendency of popular dissatisfaction expected throughout 2021. Despite this scenario, the progressive field has not managed to establish itself as the leader of the opposition to the Bolsonaro government. There are many factors that explain this situation, however, the main one was the inability to call for mobilizations against government measures in 2019, and the inability to galvanize social movements en mass in the context of a pandemic during 2020.

Characterization of Political Camps

Against this background, it is necessary to identify which political camps are  vying for power. There are three well-defined ones. The Bolsonarista Camp, comprised of political forces dispersed over various political parties (Republicanos, PSL, Patriota, PSC, PRTB), but linked by their support of the Bolsonaro government, and ideologically aligned with a far-right political project. The Progressive Camp, made up of left and center-left political forces (PT, PC do B, PSOL, PDT, PSB, REDE), that backed Haddad's candidacy during the run off of the 2018 presidential elections. Finally, the Traditional Right, which brings together the right and center-right political forces (PSDB, DEM, MDB, Citizenship) that were defeated by Bolsonaro in the first round of voting in 2018.

In addition to these 3 fields, there is also a cluster of physiological parties, known in Brazil as “Centrão”, or “The Big Center” (PSD, PP, PTB, Pode, Avante, PL, PROS). This block does not have a political project, so it is not being considered a "camp". It changes its association with the other camps according to political convenience. They have already been allied nationally with the governments of former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, however today, they are the support base of the Bolsonaro government. At the same time, this block is also part of the support base of progressive state governments. Thus, the main characteristic of this aggregate is not a political conception, but the physiological relationships it establishes.

Election Overview

As a method of analysis, data from the so-called “G-96” will be used, a group that brings together the 96 cities with more than 200 thousand voters in the country. The “G-96” framework makes it possible to identify the dominant forces in the main political and economic centers of the nation, leaving the electoral processes of small and medium-sized municipalities in the background, because of their very particular dynamic, generally disconnected from the nationwide logic of political parties and camps. The benchmark for measuring performance in this election will be the 2016 municipal elections. Evidently, in addition to this numerical dimension, it is necessary to take into account political criteria to extract a more comprehensive understanding.

It is possible to say with certainty that the most successful segment of the political spectrum in this election was the “Centrão”. In 2016, this block of parties held only 15 mayorships among the 96 largest cities. In 2020, the “Centrão” practically doubled its participation by winning in 29 municipalities. This achievement is explained by the gelatinous character of this block, which adapts itself to any political circumstance in order to better position itself. Although the existence of physiological parties in Brazil is a long-standing tradition, this performance as a block, which acts in unison politically, is quite recent, and has proved to be a very effective tactic for this conglomerate of parties.

The traditional right camp scored a political victory, although its numerical expression has diminished. Of the 57 major city halls it held in 2016, it dropped to 45. Among this set of forces, the PSDB party was the one that shrunk the most, losing 12 cities. However, this field will manage the largest electoral zones in the country (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador), in addition to winning very important capitals (Porto Alegre, Florianópolis, Curitiba, Goiânia). This good performance of the traditional right has been interpreted by the business media, which supports this camp, as an “option for the voter in the political center, free of the polarization created Bolsonaristas and the left”. However, this is jumping to conclusions, to say the least.

The good performance of the traditional Right, as well as the “Centrão”, has a direct relationship with voters’ inclination towards instant gratification. This election had the highest rate of reelections among the last few races. This phenomenon can possibly be explained by the impact of the pandemic in two ways.

The first is that municipal governments gained a lot of visibility with the health crisis. This fact boosted the popularity of current mayors, except for those who proved totally unable to respond to the epidemic.

The second aspect is that social distancing policies strongly impacted opposition candidates, who had more difficulty in projecting their campaigns and deconstructing their opponents without any street activities. Given all this, both the “Centrão” and the traditional Right, which were already occupying municipal executives in the overwhelming majority of cities, benefited.

The Progressive Field was stagnant. It had won 13 city halls in 2016, and maintained the same mark this year. From a political point of view, it seemed to be regaining its breath at the end of the first round of voting, when it contested the run off of several important cities, however, the successive defeats in the second round showed that the “demonization of the left” remains an effective device in the electoral dispute.

Even though the political environment is much less hostile to the left in 2020 when compared to 2018 and 2016, “anti-leftism” remains a deciding factor in the dispute. In this scenario, more than progressive ideas, the attack focuses on the left’s political representation, a process of deconstructing the legitimacy politicians from this side of the political spectrum. In this way, the debate leaves the rational scope of confronting ideas and proposals, and enters the field of affections, drawing on the political hatred of a portion of the population.

Another important factor to explain this limited performance from the progressive field is the policy of alliances that was established in the run offs. In cities where the left was left out of the second round, there was cohesive support from progressive organizations to candidates from the traditional right, as was the case in Rio de Janeiro, where the clash was against the Bolsonarista camp.

When the second-round confrontation was between the progressive camp and the traditional right-wing, there was predictable support by Bolsonarist forces for more right-wing candidacies in the race. However, when in the final phase of the election, progressive candidacies competed with bolsonarista slates, the traditional Right wing was divided, lending the majority of their support to the extreme right. This situation can be well exemplified by the races for the state capitals of Belém, in Pará, and Vitória, located in Espírito Santo.

Despite not being victorious in this election, the progressive camp can boast of some small achievements. The most significant of these was the process of renewing the left-wing political leadership. Guilherme Boulos (PSOL), Manuela D'Avila (PC do B) and Marília Arraes (PT), although defeated, represented a breath of fresh air on the left, led by extremely exciting campaigns, attracting a significant portion of the young electorate. This generational renewal of the left can also be seen in the city council chambers, where there was a significant increase in young, black, female and trans candidates.

Finally, the Bolsonarista camp ends this election with the greatest political defeat. Even with numerical growth in the electoral process, it was a very fragile result, given the surge of the far-right that hit the country in 2018. Analyzing other variables such as number of votes or number of elected councilors, a more favorable result can be drawn, from a numerical point of view. However, from a political point of view, it was an unequivocal defeat, recognized even by its most loyal supporters.

The candidacies supported by the president were shipwrecked in most capitals, and even those that managed to go to the second round, used a campaign strategy of hiding their relationship with Bolsonaro. It is possible to conclude that there was, in a short period of time, a loss of intensity in neo-fascist opinion that seemed previously extremely solid. However, this result is far from a death sentence for Bolsonarism. This analysis refers strictly to the electoral performance of this camp, it does not derive from this electoral fragility the conclusion that the Government, or the Bolsonarista Camp themselves are defeated.


Given this overview, a certain outlook can be projected for the next election period. The first one involves the presidential race in 2022, in which we must avoid all mechanical transposition of the municipal elections onto the presidential contest. This means that neither Bolsonaro nor the Workers’ Party (PT) are out of the running, at the same time that the traditional right is not seen as the favorite based on this election’s performance. Bolsonaro remains the most likely presence in the second round of the next presidential election. Both because he controls the Federal government machinery, and because he has a social base ideologically committed to its project, regardless of the economic catastrophe that may ensue.

The Workers' Party (PT) still remains the largest party on the left, the most nationalized, with the largest party structure and popular reference. Such conditions confer advantages within the progressive field, however, there is no guarantee that this field will be represented in the run off. Finally, the traditional right, despite its performance, still has difficulties in building unity around a competitive candidacy. João Dória (current governor of São Paulo) is the main name within this field for 2022.

However, this camp faces a lot of rejection in its state of origin, São Paulo, and remains unknown in the rest of Brazil. TV presenter Luciano Huck, from  Globo television, would be a much more competitive name, due to the possibility of taking votes from a portion of the “Lula” electorate. However a scenario in which this camp would replace its leader João Dória, for another candidate, is practically ruled out. If this field is divided into two or three candidacies, it will be difficult to defeat the progressive field. It would not be a simple question.

Another prediction that is drawn from this electoral result is that of a transition in the party system. Since the 1990s, the Brazilian party system was structured around two well-defined political poles: the PSDB and the PT. Not by chance, it was these parties that polarized the national political sphere through presidential candidacies. PT and PSDB not only spearheaded the electoral dispute between 1994 and 2014, but during the exercise of these mandates, they alternated positions: while one headed the government, the other headed the opposition.

However, this party structure imploded in 2016 with the Lava-Jato anti-corruption investigation. The political operation was a joint effort between sectors of the judiciary, the Public Ministry and corporate media in an effort to dismantle the Workers’ Party (PT), and make the coup against Dilma Rousseff viable. Of the 18 major city halls that the PT held, after the 2016 election it ends up with 1. In the 2018 presidential election, PSDB suffered its biggest defeat yet, remaining out of the second round, with the poor performance of Geraldo Alckmin's candidacy, which ended the election with only 5% of the vote, the worst figure in the party’s history.

This municipal election consolidates a new configuration of the institutional sphere in the country. There is no longer any place for “Brazilian bipartisanship”, PT and PSDB are no longer the polarities of the national political fight. Does this mean that these parties have died? Evidently not. They remain two powerful electoral machines, with capillarity, cadres and activists throughout the national territory, and the possibility of further polarizing in 2022 is not ruled out. But it is important to note that these two no longer dominate their political camps in the same way as before. There is a trend towards a more balanced relationship of forces. Therefore, a transition is underway in the national political framework, moving from a bipolar dynamic to a multi-polar situation.

A third prediction that arises after this election is that the process of recovery in the progressive field will not be short-term. The second round made it evident that the spectrum of “anti-communism” continues to hover over Brazil, with less intensity, but capable of being decisive in balanced contests. The clashes in São Paulo, Recife, Porto Alegre, Vitória are examples of the longevity of this phenomenon. This perspective is based on the assessment that the defeats in the 2016 and 2018 elections were not just electoral, they were ideological defeats for the progressive field.

Therefore, the problem will not be solved in 2022 only by having “new leaders”, a “good campaign narrative” or with an “increased presence on social networks”. The reversal of this defeat requires the construction of a strategy to dispute hegemony in society, combining the ideological struggle, the institutional struggle and the struggle of the masses. A strategy that is guided by the unity of progressive forces on the streets and at the polls.


* Lúcio Centeno is a militant from Popular Consultation

* This is an opinion article. The author's view does not necessarily express the editorial position of Brasil de Fato.

Edited by: Rogério Jordão