No Refuge for the Brazilian Left

The 2020 municipal elections failed to resolve the crisis of the Brazilian Left as it looks to re-gain power.

Aidan Smith

30 January 2021

From left to right: Benedita da Silva, former Governor of Rio de Janeiro; Manuela d'Ávila, former vice presidential candidate; Guilherme Boulos, Homeless Workers' Movement organizer; Edmilson Rodrigues, Mayor of Belém; João Coser, former Mayor of Vitória.

A "setback for Bolsonaro". A triumph for "centrists". If one was to read the limited analysis of the 2020 Brazilian municipal elections available in English, they would be forgiven for thinking the cycle marked a historic rebuke of Jair Bolsonaro's far-right agenda.


The quadrennial elections to lead the nation's 5,570 municípios, always taking place midway through the presidential term, have never served as a perfect harbinger for the next federal elections. Nevertheless, the outcome of these contests can provide plenty of insight into national trends, which is particularly useful given that Bolsonaro's victory in 2018 marked a total upending of the post-1989 political order. Unfortunately, the 2020 municipal elections' implications provide little refuge for the Brazilian Left as it looks to regain power in 2022.


Two general trends can be discerned from the November results. First, despite international media coverage to the contrary, Bolsonarismo is, if not stronger than ever, holding up disturbingly well. Bolsonaro's response to the pandemic, which featured fear-mongering about vaccines and calling on his supporters to invade hospitals to "prove" COVID-19 statistics were being fabricated, has arguably been the single worst of any world leader. However, the government's emergency cash payment program, instituted to to curb the economic downfall of the pandemic, has led to a rapid increase in Bolsonaro's popularity. Partially as a result, allies of Bolsonaro were able to overperform in mayoral elections in cities like Fortaleza that rejected the President in 2018.


Secondly, predictions that the Lava Jato investigation and its fallout would lead to the total demise of the old political order have been proven wrong. While the centre-right PSDB and the parties of the old centrãolargely non-ideological clientelist parties such as the MDBlook increasingly obsolete at the national level, these parties continue to exert their influence in municipal politics. The primary impact of Lava Jato, unfortunately, has been the collapse of the popular appeal of Lula da Silva's Workers' Party (PT). Antipetismo remains as fervent a political force as it was during the 2016 conservative wave, and the once-dominant party failed to win a single state capital in 2020.


Unfortunately, anti-PT sentiment has not only damaged the party's prospects, but that of the Brazilian Left as a whole. While leaders of other leftist parties have correctly pointed to the failures of the PT in 2020 as proof the party should not lead a left-wing coalition in 2022, they aren't being entirely honest with themselves: many of the most promising left-wing candidates from non-PT parties did poorer than expected as well in 2020. As of now, the Left looks very likely to be shut out of power once again come 2022 if no major changes in organization or strategy are made.

Pink Drizzle

There’s little doubt that Guilherme Boulos (PSOL) is set to play a major role in the future of the Brazilian Left. Derided as a middle-class Lula impersonator during his 2018 presidential campaign, the radical housing activist proved himself to be more than a tribute act to the former President during his bid for Mayor of São Paulo.


Few took Boulos seriously until the final weeks of the campaign, with unpopular centre-right incumbent Bruno Covas (PSDB) and perennial reactionary Celso Russomano (REP) leading in most surveys. Indeed, Márcio França (PSB), who won the city during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, appeared to be the most formidable left-of-centre candidate throughout much the campaign. Choosing popular former Mayor and ex-Petista Luiza Erundina as his running-mate, Boulos proved he was more politically adept than his detractors had given him credit for. Boulos stole the old Petista base from right under official PT candidate Jilmar Tatto, with the chant "PT is now 50" in reference to PSOL's ballot number being heard at Boulos rallies.


Nonetheless, perspective is needed here. Though Boulos's own star shines brighter than ever as a result of the campaign, the 2020 election was not a "victory in defeat", but an unfortunate loss to a weak incumbent. Despite winning much of the South Zone, Boulos's narrow margins of victory in areas like Grajaú or his own neighborhood of Campo Limpo stands in contrast to the landslide margins Covas received in upscale areas like Indianópolis. In many ways, Boulos served as the de facto candidate of the PT, and garnering 40 percent of the vote is hardly a victory for a PT candidate running citywide in São Paulo. In 2022, Boulos would be wise to stand as a candidate for the Chamber of Deputies—a position he would surely win—rather than mount a statewide or second presidential candidacy.

Carioca Machine

Rio de Janeiro's political transformation over past decade has been nothing short of extraordinary. Long considered amenable to the Left at the national level, Bolsonaro's victory in Rio de Janeiro in 2018 marked the first time a candidate of the Right emerged victorious in the city in modern times, as well as the first time the city voted to the right of São Paulo in a presidential race. While Bolsonaro obviously benefitted as a native of the city, this dramatic shift cannot be chalked up to merely favorite son effect. A city renowned for its multiculturalism, the rise of evangelicalism and the emergence of crime as a primary concern of voters has led to right-wing strongmen gaining a foothold in the city and surrounding region.


Though President Dilma Rousseff (PT) won the city in her 2014 reelection bid by a narrow margin, the year marked the first time the city voted to the right of Rio de Janeiro as a whole. In addition to losing the state by a wide margin, 2018 PT presidential nominee Fernando Haddad was crushed in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, Haddad was only able to emerge victorious in the upscale Laranjeiras neighborhood in the city's South Zone, losing much of the Left's traditional lower-class base in the North Zone to Bolsonaro.


The 2016 municipal election in Rio de Janeiro was, in retrospect, an unfortunate harbinger of things to come. During the conservative wave, state deputy Marcelo Freixo (PSOL), famous for presiding over an investigation of the city's police militias, managed to garner a relatively impressive 40% of the vote in the runoff. However, the contest marked a notable geographic reversal of both the 2014 presidential result and traditional voting patterns in the city. In 2014, Dilma* had won traditional PT strongholds in poor neighborhoods in North Zone while losing wealthy areas in the South Zone to centre-right candidate Aécio Neves (PSDB). Freixo, on the other hand, dominated in upscale liberal neighborhoods in the South Zone, losing poor neighborhoods to Senator Marcelo Crivella, a conservative evangelical pastor previously allied with the PT.


Though the city's dramatic political shift is alarming, Rio de Janeiro is not politically unsalvageable, and it's unfortunate that the Left was unable to take advantage of Crivella's extraordinary unpopularity. Unfortunately, Freixo's decision to forgo an expected 2020 mayoral candidacy was tantamount to a pre-emptive concession by the Left. Despite the fact that the PSOL brand is disproportionately strong in Rio de Janeiro, the party's mayoral nominee in his place, state deputy Renata Souza, never managed to gain traction, receiving just over three percent in the first round. Other high-profile would-be Left candidates, namely prominent federal deputy Jandira Feghali (PCdoB), also declined to run, leading to a split field that guaranteed a right-winger would win the contest.


The Left vote was largely split between two candidates, state deputy Martha Rocha (PDT) and former Governor Benedita da Silva (PT). Their combined vote total surpassed that of Crivella's and would've allowed one of them to proceed to the second round versus centre-right former Mayor Eduardo Paes (PSDB). In the end, Freixo and other leftist politicians pledged critical support in the second round to Paes in order to defeat the corrupt and reactionary Crivella. Though it is doubtful that a candidate of the Left would've been able to defeat Paes in a runoff, it is nonetheless disappointing that socialists effectively conceded the race before it began.

Star of Bethlehem

Edmilson Rodrigues's return to the mayoralty of Belém is a welcome one. A decorated figure on the Brazilian Left, Edmilson* previously served at the helm of the capital of Pará from 1997 to 2005. During this period, Edmilson was one of the most notable figures on the left-wing of the PT, even going as far as to consider contesting the party's presidential nomination in 2002 to deter a right-wing turn for the party under a Lula presidency.


Widely considered to be a successful Mayor during his tenure, Edmilson left the PT in 2005 to join the newly formed PSOL in opposition to the former's centrist turn. After losing handily in the 2006 gubernatorial election to his former Vice Mayor, Edmilson stood for the Chamber of Deputies in the 2010 election. Edmilson received more votes as a candidate for federal deputy than any other candidate in Pará. Winning reelection in 2014, Edmilson confirmed his popularity in his home city by emerging as the most-voted candidate for the Chamber of Deputies in Belém, and was subsequently reelected in 2018.


Despite this, Edmilson has struggled to regain the mayoralty. Edmilson failed to win back his former position in 2012, a year that saw candidates of the Left perform well in in contested races like that of the São Paulo municipal election, and in 2016. Expected to face centre-right federal deputy José Priante of the PSDB throughout much of the campaign, hardline Bolsonarista Everaldo Eguchi (PATRI) managed to take second place in the first round in contrast to every poll taken during the campaign.


Even more shocking, however, was that he managed to hold Edmilson to an approximate 52 to 48 percent margin, a far cry from final polling taken during the second round that showed him more than 16 percent behind Rodrigues. Though Belém is a relative bastion of conservatism compared to the rest of Pará, it is still disturbing to see a hardline Bolsonaro ally come so close to leading the state capital.

Gaúcho Effect

Manuela d'Ávila deserved better. Long a champion of the rights of women and minority groups on the national level, Manuela* (PCdoB) has been the subject of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and conspiracy theories since her initial election to Congress in 2006. Having forgone a third term in the Chamber of Deputies in 2014 in favor of a bid for the Legislative Assembly of Rio Grande do Sul, Manuela was famously chosen as Haddad's vice presidential running mate in the 2018 presidential election.


While Porto Alegre has trended rightwards in recent years, the city has nonetheless produced some of the most important figures on the Brazilian Left, namely the iconic Leonel Brizola and Lula confidante Tarso Genro. Having previously been a candidacy for a mayoralty of Porto Alegre in both 2008 and 2012, d'Ávila looked to be the favorite in the contest throughout the election cycle. The deep unpopularity of embattled centre-right incumbent Nelson Marchezan Júnior (PSDB) looked to give Manuela an opening, and she had led in every major poll taken in the first round.


Polling taken just before the first round found Manuela with 27% of the vote versus 13% and 12% for Marchezan Júnior and centre-right former Vice Mayor Sebastião Melo (PMDB), respectively. In perhaps the cycle's biggest upset, Melo was able to come out on top with a 31% plurality to d'Ávila's 29%. While the final poll of the runoff showed Manuela narrowly edging out Melo, in the end the PMDB candidate won by approximately 55% of the vote to d'Ávila's 45%.


There's no question that this result was a massive blow to the Left's fortunes. What is worth interrogating, however, was how this shock outcome occurred. Manuela is no stranger to being a target of fake news propagated by the far-right, and in 2020 the misinformation campaign against her mayoral candidacy likely proved fatal. While Manuela would've likely been able to defeat the embattled Marchezan Júnior owing to his widely publicized corruption scandal, Melo's surprise entrance into the second round in place of the incumbent saved the centre-right in the city.

A Spirited Campaign

The Right's victory in Vitória shouldn't come as a major surprise. After all Espirito Santo is a conservative state, and the city has shown itself to be slightly to the right of the state as a whole.

Nevertheless, it still comes as a disappointment given that the Left has controlled the mayoralty since 2005.

The PT and the centre-left Cidadania (PPS) have never gotten along well in city politics, with the PT launching their own challenge against PPS incumbent Mayor Luciano Rezende's reelection bid in 2016. With Rezenda unable to run for a third consecutive term, stated deputy Fabrício Gandini (PPS) and former Mayor João Coser (PT) looked as though they would both make the second round, thereby guaranteeing a victory for the centre-left.


In the end, far-right state deputy Lorenzo Silva de Pazolini (Republicanos) managed to overshoot his polling numbers and come in first in the first round. Running as a staunch Bolsonarista, Pazolini handily defeated Coser in the runoff, giving the far-right a major victory in a state capital. Best known for "invading" an intensive care unit on the behest of Bolsonaro to prove that hospitals were lying about COVID-19 statistics, Pazolini's comfortable victory over Coser shows that antipetismo is a more potent force than pandemic denial.

São Luís Blues

Flávio Dino (PCdoB), the communist Governor of Maranhão, has proven himself to be a very successful executive. Indeed, his success at the state level led to widespread speculation about a possible presidential candidacy in 2022, though he ultimately chose to run for Senate. Highly ambitious, Dino has spoken in favor of the creation of a broad left-wing front akin to the dictatorship-era Brazilian Democratic Movement to face Bolsonaro in 2022.


While an admirable goal, the Left's failure to capitalize on Dino's success in Maranhão's capital São Luís calls into question his ability to serve as an effective kingmaker. The PCdoB candidate, federal deputy Rubens Pereira Júnior, came in a distant fourth place, with two candidates of the Right making it to the second round. In the end, centre-right federal deputy Eduardo Braide (PODE) was able to defeat state deputy Duarte Junior, a former PCdoB member who ran as the candidate of the right-wing Republicanos party, by around ten percentage points.

"Nobody Wins When the Family Feuds"

As was the case in 2016, the Recife mayoral election saw nominees from the centre-left Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and the PT go head-to-head in a runoff election. With incumbent PSB Mayor Geraldo Júlio ineligible to run for a third consecutive term, the party selected federal deputy João Campos as their mayoral candidate.


The heir to Pernambuco's premier political dynastyhis father, Governor Eduardo Campos, was a leading presidential candidate in 2014 prior to his tragic death in a plane crashthe young and handsome Campos ran a vibrant campaign featuring one of 2020's best campaign ads. Though he supported Haddad's 2018 presidential campaign and has endorsed the Lula Livre movement, Campos leaned into antipetismo during his mayoral candidacy to gain the support of conservative voters.


Former PT Mayor João Paulo, who failed in his attempt a comeback bid in 2016, decided not to mount a 2020 candidacy. Instead, Paulo chose to run for Mayor of Olinda as a member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), a bid that ended in failure. In his place, the PT selected Marília Arraes, a federal deputy and former member of the Recife City Council, as the party's mayoral candidate. A former member of the PSB, Arraes was perhaps best distinguished by the runoff contest's most intriguing trait: Arraes and Campos are first cousins.


During this awkward family affair, Campos's campaign garnered the endorsements of parties across the political spectrum, ranging from the PCdoB to pro-Bolsonaro parties such as the Republicanos. Arraes, on the other hand, received the support of the left-wing PSOL in addition to the Christian Labor Party (PTC), a relic of the centre-right Fernando Collor presidency that currently holds no congressional seats. While Arraes led in some polling taken prior to the first round, Campos edged her out in the first round of voting by around two percentage points. In the end, Campos was able to defeat his petista cousin by a comfortable margin, winning by approximately 56 to 44 percent; this result was actually a better margin for the PT than what Paulo received in 2016.

Left Unity, Come to Brazil

After two years of rainforest desecration, increased state violence against civilians, and total inaction as more than 200,000 Brazilians have had their lives stolen by COVID-19, Bolsonaro has proven himself to be one of the single worst heads of state on the Planet. Despite the abject disaster that has been the Bolsonaro presidency, it is anti-PT sentiment, not backlash against Bolsonaro, that remains the paramount force in Brazilian politics. Failing to win a single state capital in 2020, the party responsible for one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in history is a shell of its former self in terms of popular appeal.


It would be wrong to say that the PT only has itself to blame. There is no question that the Lava Jato investigation's focus on the PT was a politically-motivated one, and Lula's disqualification from running in the 2018 presidential election was a mockery of justice. Nevertheless, even accounting for the bias against the PT present in both the judiciary and right-wing mainstream media, the party is still responsible for a multitude of unforced errors.


It was Dilma's decision to make Antonio Palocci her chief of staff in 2011, five years after revelations about illicit practices in his office forced him to resign as Minister of Finance. Similarly, it was Palocci's decision to throw away his shot at a second chance in politics on a consulting scheme that led to his resignation as chief of staff. But while high-profile corruption scandals certainly contributed to to public opinion turning against the PT, this is merely one factor to take into account when assessing the party's downfall.

Lula's legacy is appropriately defined by his success in uplifting millions of Brazilians from dire poverty. It's important to recognize, however, that he bares in the PT's downfall through the hollowing-out of the party in favor of loyalists. Formed as a party of labor in opposition to the military dictatorship in 1980, Lula began consolidating power in the party after losing his first bid for the presidency in 1989. By the mid-2000s, some of the party's most promising figures had been sidelined, to the detriment of both the party as an institution and to the Brazilian Left as a whole.


Former Senator from São Paulo Eduardo Suplicy, famous for his championing of universal income schemes, was ostracized by party leadership in the years following his challenge to Lula in the party's 2002 presidential primary. Former Governor of the Federal District Cristovam Buarque, whose signature Bolsa Escola program was arguably the antecedent of Lula's broad anti-poverty program, was one of the most promising figures of the party's moderate wing in the early 2000s. Chosen to be Minister of Education in 2003, Buarque would be abruptly fired by phone the next year while overseas in favor of Lula loyalist Tarso Genro; Buarque would eventually leave the party and never return as a result of his sidelining.


Fearing the possibility of losing his kingmaker status in 2010, Lula boxed out talented potential presidential candidates on the Left, most notably longtime rival Ciro Gomes, in favor of presidential chief of staff Dilma Rousseff. There's no doubt that Dilma is an accomplished figure in her own right, and her contributions to the struggle against poverty through programs like Mais Medicos should never be discounted. Nonetheless, it's clear that Lula's drive to consolidate his kingmaker status on the Left came at the expense of curating talent. Had someone with prior elected experience succeeded Lula in 2010, such as Ciro or Genro, perhaps some of the grave mistakes made by Dilma in office could've been avoided.


The hollowing out of the Brazilian Left was laid bare in 2018, where Lula's disqualification from running led the PT to nominate Fernando Haddad in his absence. Haddad, who was so unpopular as Mayor of São Paulo that he struggled to garner 14% in his reelection campaign just two years prior, would surely not have been chosen had there been other viable alternatives. Unfortunately, sans a few other names, such as former Senator from Bahia Jaques Wagner, the bench of high-profile PT names had been depleted to the point where the party had little choice but to nominate Haddad.


Haddad never made much of an attempt to distinguish himself from Lula in 2018, largely because doing so probably wouldn't have been politically advantageous. After all, positioning himself as a proxy for Lula was the only reason he managed to secure enough first round votes to face Bolsonaro in the runoff. Given the leadership vacuum on the Left following Bolsonaro's victory, however, it's disappointing that Haddad has failed to take up the mantle as de facto leader of the opposition. Indeed, Haddad has only double-downed on his status as Lula's chief surrogate, devoting his Twitter platform to Lula fan service in a style akin to American "#Resistance" accounts during the Donald Trump presidency.


This is especially disappointing because Haddad is a very interesting figure in his own right: One would struggle to think of another individual who devoted their doctorate dissertation in philosophy to historical materialism before later joining Unibanco as an investment analyst. During his tenure as Minister of Education, Haddad would preside over the successful expansion of programs to provide students from poor backgrounds the opportunity to pursue higher education. Instead of leaning into his unique experience in academia, finance, and executive office to present himself as a viable alternative to the chaotic government, Haddad has failed to show leadership through opposition in a time when it is desperately needed.

Unfortunately, the non-PT Left can hardly be said to be in better shape. Despite the plethora of talent within PSOL's ranks, the party has a long ways to go before it can shed its reputation as a party of left-wing college students and the liberal bourgeoise. Additionally, the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) looks as if it will function as little more than a vehicle for Ciro's presidential ambitions for at least the next two years. The fact of the matter is that the Left has simply not been able to take advantage of the disastrous Bolsonaro presidency, leaving the mantle of "leader of the opposition" to fluctuate between various right-of-center critics of Bolsonaro at a given time.


During the pandemic, it has been right-wing Governor of São Paulo João Doria (PSDB) who has been able to position himself as a "Brazilian Cuomo", a hero of public health efforts in the face of federal incompetence. The fact that Doria was the single most visible supporter of Bolsonaro's 2018 campaign in his party has not hindered the fandom he has received in the mainstream press. As of now, it looks entirely possible that the 2022 presidential election runoff is a match-off between Bolsonaro and Doria.


If the Left is to win the presidency in 2022, it will likely be in the form of Ciro Gomes, perhaps with a centrist such as Mayor of Belo Horizonte Alexandre Kalil (PSD) as his running-mate. It's extremely unrealistic that the PT, let alone PSOL, would step-aside in favor of his candidacy without a member of the party on his ticket. Nonetheless, it would be wise for the Left to informally coalesce around Ciro, who despite currently lagging in polling would probably have the best shot at peeling away moderate voters from Bolsonaro in a runoff. Ciro has matured as a politician since his self-combustion in 2002, and as President would probably have the best chance of navigating partisan waters in Congress to pass a progressive agenda.


If there is a glimmer of hope in the 2020 cycle, it's that the high-profile leaders of the Brazilian Left were mature enough to converge in support of Left candidates that made it to the second rounds. Ciro threw his support behind Manuela in Porto Alegre against the wishes of some PDT apparatchiks, and both Lula and Haddad supported Boulos in the second round in São Paulo. In a country as politically volatile as Brazil, it cannot be taken for granted that Bolsonaro's current popularity bounce will last until 2022, just as a nightmare scenario in which Bolsonaro makes further inroads in former PT strongholds through further cash transfer programs cannot be dismissed. Regardless, without a serious change of course, the Left risks getting shut out of power once again in 2022.

* Stylistic note: In Brazilian political culture, it's common for politicians to be referred to by their first names, initials, or nicknames, rather than their surnames. Examples of this include former Minister of Finance Ciro Gomes, who is generally known simply as "Ciro"; former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is often known by his initials "FHC"; and former President President João "Jango" Goulart, often known solely by his nickname.

Aidan Smith (@Aidan_Smx) is the founder and political director of Labyrinth. He has contributed to an array of publications, including The Nation, The Appeal, Current Affairs, and Salon.


Artwork by Aidan Smith. Design by Tia Wagh. (@Tia_Wagh)