October 8, 2020

BRAZIL: Sao Paulo, Bellwether of the 2022 Presidential Elections

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One day before the beginning of TV campaigning and 38 days before municipal elections, campaigns in the 5,570 municipalities are beginning to rival national developments as the political priority of the moment. It still seems early for safe projections but the choice of candidates, the composition of tickets and alliances, and the ultimate strategies adopted all reflect the greater political configuration underlying the 2022 presidential elections. The most salient aspect in that regard is President Jair Bolsonaro’s clear support, already in the first round, for Celso Russomanno, a third-time mayoral contender for the city of Sao Paulo. For months, Bolsonaro claimed not to have any intention of entering local politics, particularly once it became clear that he would not have any party to call his own by the November 2020 elections.
The president claims to be supporting Russomanno out of the strength of his friendship towards the candidate but the real reason is, of course, his 2022 re-election prospects. Sao Paulo is where Bolsonaro faces the strongest opposition to his government and his re-election in 2022. Also, the main centrist contender for the presidency so far is Sao Paulo governor Joao Doria, from the same Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) as incumbent mayor Bruno Covas, who is in a head-to-head match-up with Russomanno (22% vs. 27% respectively). Bolsonaro entered the fray once it became clear that Doria was not going to watch the elections passively or even allow it to be just a local referendum – as opposed to a national springboard for a centrist revival.
Key in the process was the way in which Russomanno himself went from pawn to king on the paulista chessboard in just a few days. For most of the pre-campaign period, Russomanno was the PSDB’s strongest candidate for running-mate to Covas. It seemed to make sense since Russomanno, a former presenter of a popular pro-consumer TV show, could play a helpful supporting role – after all, as the main protagonist in local elections he had twice (2012 and 2016) fallen abruptly in the polls shortly after the beginning of TV campaigning (a paradox). However, Doria and the PSDB moved fast and struck a deal with the perennial close-to-power Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and replaced Russomanno with Ricardo Nunes, an otherwise uneventful municipal MDB party president. In doing so, Doria succeeded in securing his best shot at a fairly strong national alliance that could possibly pose as a viable alternative to Bolsonaro.
Obviously, Sao Paulo is not “everything” but a Covas defeat there can certainly throw sand in the centrist wheels of power by weakening Doria’s drive towards the presidency. That is certainly a risk worth taking for Bolsonaro by supporting a recurring loser as mayoral candidate in Brazil’s biggest city. For Doria, the biggest obstacle to a strong run for the presidency continues to be the 40% of the state population that consider his government “very poor”. For Bolsonaro, the biggest obstacle to a strong showing in Sao Paulo via Russomanno is the fact that most bolsonaristas, according to the polls, support Covas, not his candidate (33% vs. 29%, respectively). As to the Left, the sum of all candidates, including Lula’s PT non-entity candidate Jilmar Tatto, hardly amount to one Covas in the polls.