Brazilians Go to Polls in Test to Bolsonaro’s Kingmaking Power

Brazilians are about to find out whether their popular president is able to get political allies elected in Sunday’s municipal vote.

The nation of 200 million is choosing mayors and city councilors in elections that will serve as a sort of a referendum on the first half of President Jair Bolsonaro’s four-year mandate. Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and will close at 5 p.m., with results being released shortly after that. About three-quarters of the population, excluding children and the elderly, are required to cast a ballot.

The far-right leader has thrown his weight behind dozens of like-minded candidates across the country, but those he supported in Brazil’s largest cities are trailing in opinion polls. The endorsements were complicated by the fact that Bolsonaro currently has no party — he ditched the one that got him elected in 2018 and has since failed to launch his own.

Yet he is fully aware that securing allies in Brazil’s more than 5,500 municipalities will improve his re-election chances in 2022. Several mayors and governors, who retain significant power in Brazil’s federative system, became adversaries this year as they imposed lockdowns, resisting the president’s strategy to belittle Covid-19 and maintain the economy open at all costs.

“We need to have allies in as many cities as we can,” Bolsonaro said in one of this live Internet broadcasts last week. “It’s good for what we stand for.”

Lack of federal leadership during the pandemic helped make Brazil a global virus hotspot, with nearly 6 million infections and 165,000 deaths. Yet a $57 billion program of cash handouts to informal workersdrove down poverty, cushioned the economic slump, and boosted the president’s approval rating to a record.

How Covid Cash Boosts Bolsonaro Allies in Brazil Vote: QuickTake

All that popularity, however, may not be transferable to Bolsonaro-backed candidates during municipal elections in which voters are often more worried about local issues.

“Governors, rather than the president, are more likely to transfer votes,” said Deysi Cioccari, a political scientist and professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo. The absence of a national ruling party makes it even more difficult for voters to identify the president’s allies, she added.

In a bid to make that connection clearer, more than 70 candidates to city council positions across Brazil have added “Bolsonaro” to their ballot names, even though they have no family ties with the president.

Read More: Dozens of Fake Bolsonaros Are Running in Brazilian Elections

Winning the Hinterland

While massive cash handouts helped Bolsonaro win Brazil’s poorest regions that for years remained as a bastion of the left, opinion polls show rejection of the president has been increasing in the country’s largest cities.

In Sao Paulo, the president backs Celso Russomanno, a lawmaker and former TV showman who has been sinking in the polls and may not make it to an expected runoff against incumbent Bruno Covas. Russomanno’s main threat now come from two leftist candidates who have been rising in polls.

In Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro threw his weight behind incumbent Marcelo Crivella, an influential evangelical pastor who pollsters say will have a hard time getting re-elected. The front-runner is former Mayor Eduardo Paes, who prepared the city for the Olympic games in 2016.

Covas and Paes are both considered center-right candidates, raising the prospect that more moderate names may win or retain control of key cities after a conservative wave swept the country in recent years, following bitterly polarized elections.

Candidates backed by Bolsonaro are also trailing in at least other four Brazilian capitals.

Meanwhile, the leftist Workers’ Party that dominated Brazilian politics for more than a decade seems unlikely to make a comeback despite former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s efforts. Other leftist parties are better positioned to win some capitals, with the Communist Party leading the race in the southern city of Porto Alegre and the Brazilian Socialist Party ahead in Recife, in the northeast.

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