- President Jair Bolsonaro’s to-and-fro strategy in the municipals failed but his future hinges mostly on his capacity to govern.
- The elections showed a flight to the center, away from extremes to the Right or the Left.
- A multi-faceted centrist challenge to Bolsonaro is emerging, empowered by success at the ballots.
Municipal run-off elections will take place on 29 November in 18 of 27 capital cities. The campaign has so far been remarkably smooth and should confirm a few tendencies already apparent in the first round on 15 November. Both Right and Left extremes did not fare well and should not do so this coming Sunday. Also, traditional parties, most notably the ones comprising the so-called “Centrao” or “Big Center”, have been big winners. These are parties that until recently were the preferred enemies of President Jair Bolsonaro for representing “old politics” but have since become his main allies due to his avowed aim of protecting himself from impeachment and his sons from prosecution.
Municipals are often seen as important bellwethers for presidential elections. This is not quite the case in Brazil this time. Despite having made the strategic mistake of supporting losing candidates in the first round of the elections, Bolsonaro should not be seen as significantly weaker as a result. If he manages to weather the fiscal storm that will follow his botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, he might remain the strongest 2022 presidential contender. Much hinges on whether the Center will coalesce or fragment in the two years leading up to the election.
Judging from the municipals, the country seems ready to “go centrist” but there is no centrist quite yet ready to take the helm. It feels like a paradox that when extremes at both ends of the political spectrum clearly falter, forces at the center do not emerge sufficiently stronger to point towards a particular prevailing leadership. This is far from a paradox, however. It is in fact natural given the short time since the last presidential elections for the battered center to organize itself. In addition, municipals are not supposed to produce national leaders, particularly not so far in advance.
There are now two contending “centers”. One is indeed the “Big Center”, a hodgepodge of parties that swing away from the center just enough to lure the government in power into a pragmatic alliance; the main parties in this center are the PP (Progressives), the PSD (the social-democrats), the Republicanos (the republicans), Solidariedade, and the PTB (the centrist labor party). Two candidates for House Speaker are from the PP, one siding with the president (Artur Lira), another with current speaker Rodrigo Maia (Aguinaldo Ribeiro).
The other center comprises two parties that have traditionally opposed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) – the PSDB (Social Democracy) and the DEM (Democrats) – along with Brazil’s big-tent party, the MDB (Democratic Movement). The PSDB was the main contender against the PT for over twenty years but also lost ground in the wake of the Carwash anti-corruption operation and the anti-old-politics movement spearheaded by Bolsonaro. These centrist parties have also done well in the municipals, particularly the DEM. This has strengthened their resolve to seek a centrist coalition that can defeat the president in 2022 – and lead the post-pandemic fiscal and reform agenda as much as possible from Congress in the meantime.
This is why the February election of presiding officers in Congress is so important. Both House Speaker Maia and Senate Chairman Davi Alcolumbre are from the DEM and would like to retain their twin “hegemony” – whether by standing for re-election (so far, inconstitutional) or by fielding allied candidates (as yet undefined). This is in no way resolved yet and will continue to block progress on significant matters such as the trimming and restructuring of spending or even the 2021 budget law – not to mention the tax and administrative reforms, or Bolsonaro’s dream cash transfer program. The empowerment of those at the center has become a stronger challenge than the Left for the president. To maintain his marriage of convenience with the centrists, he will need to deliver on economic growth, for which painful reforms and fiscal adjustments are imperative. If he fails, centrist forces may indeed follow their own path.