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Who Are the Big Winners & Losers in Brazil's Local Elections?

By Peter Hakim, Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, João Augusto de Castro Neves, Paulo Sotero
Latin America Advisor, October 24, 2012

Originally published in the Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor.

Q
: Brazilians went to the polls Oct. 7 to choose mayors and other local officials in the first round of the country's municipal elections. Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, of the Democratic Movement Party, easily won re-election, while in São Paulo, José Serra of the Social Democratic Party and Fernando Haddad of the governing Workers' Party now face a runoff on Oct. 28. Who were the big winners and big losers in the municipal elections? What effect will the municipal elections have on national politics in Brazil? What role has the 'mensalão' corruption trial and conviction of José Dirceu, the chief of staff to then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, played in the country's politics? 

 

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Halfway through, Brazil's municipal elections seem unlikely to bring about any major political changes in the country. The possible election, for the first time, of a PT mayor in São Paulo appears to be the headline story. All this looks like good news for the PT and its prospects in the next presidential election. Most significantly, the election results suggest that neither the PT party nor the PT government of President Dilma Rousseff were affected by the 'mensalão' corruption scandal. The trial before Brazil's Supreme Court of the mensalão's ringleaders, including several top-level PT political figures, appears to have had little impact on the municipal vote, although the trial was the lead story throughout the campaign. The PT will, in short, likely emerge unscathed from its, and perhaps the country's, most tawdry political scandal ever. Former President Lula da Silva may be the biggest winner. Although the scandal occurred under his watch (and resulted in the conviction of his chief of staff), the election demonstrated that his commanding popular support and political clout are undiminished. He not only selected the PT candidate for São Paulo mayor, he also worked hard to get him elected. President Rousseff also emerged a winner. She, too, has remained untarnished by her party's scandal, and the PT election victories will give her a strong base for a re-election campaign two years hence. There were some losers too. The most regrettable is former governor and mayor of São Paulo José Serra, who ran second to Dilma in the last presidential race (and to Lula in 2002). If he fails to capture the mayor's office, as most observers predict, he will miss the opportunity for another run at the presidency."

A
: Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, director of Educare in São Paulo:
"Tip O'Neill had an axiom that is applicable to Brazil as well as many democracies: 'All politics is local.' That is the key to understanding the results of Brazil's Oct. 7 municipal elections. Fifty cities will hold a second round on Oct. 28 because no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote. In most races, the logics of local politics prevailed over national worries or policies. Brazil has a longstanding tradition of municipal and state alliances being far more important than the national ones when it comes to local issues. This may explain why some parties that are solid allies in federal matters have fought fiercely in some important cities. It is the case of the PSB (led by Pernambuco Gov. Eduardo Campos) and the PT (of former President Lula and current President Rousseff). O'Neill's saying also helps explain why the PT apparently has not been significantly hurt in the ballots by the trial and convictions of some of its most important leaders from the Lula administration. However, it is also true that some of the 2012 municipal election results may have national implications: the PSB emerges from them with much more political strength than before and Campos is now a clear possible candidate for the presidency in 2014 or 2018; José Serra, twice defeated in presidential campaigns, will probably retire from politics if he loses the second round of the São Paulo election, as is largely anticipated; former President Lula confirms his impressive leadership skills if his young and inexperienced candidate wins the election in São Paulo (where Lula himself never got the majority of votes in his four attempts for the presidency); PSDB, the main opposition party in the federal arena, would lose an important stronghold with Serra's defeat in São Paulo; despite some important victories for the PT, President Rousseff loses political capital with her candidate's loss in Belo Horizonte; and Senator Aécio Neves is now the only relevant PSDB leader and probably the undisputed candidate for the presidency in 2014 with the victory of his candidate in Belo Horizonte."

A
: João Augusto de Castro Neves, Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group:
"The main takeaway from local elections was the little correlation between national politics and local results. An important sign of this decoupling was the miniscule impact that the mensalão trial had on the PT's overall performance. Despite media focus on the trial over the past two months, the party won more municipalities than it did four years ago and was also able to secure a spot for its candidate in São Paulo's runoff later this month. Overall, the electoral spoils were somewhat evenly distributed among major parties. Although the electoral results suggest no major shifts at the national level in the short term, a few incipient trends may gain political importance in the longer term. A strong showing by the leftist PSB and center-right PSD presage possible shifts within governing and opposition coalitions heading into the 2014 presidential elections. The PSB will likely push for more space within the coalition and it will be challenging for President Rousseff to accommodate the party and its rising leader, Eduardo Campos. As for the PSD, its strong showing reflects the fragmentation of conservative votes in major cities. This means that the opposition could have a harder time coalescing around one party or one candidate in 2014. Finally, it is noteworthy to mention that the São Paulo race will affect the fate of the opposition down the road. A José Serra victory would consolidate Aécio Neves as PSDB's presidential candidate in 2014. If Serra loses, although his standing within the party will be diminished, he will maintain enough political capital to create some uncertainty or even threaten to move to another party (PSD), which could hamper Neves' plans and performance in 2014."

A: Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington: "Brazil's massive municipal elections set the stage for national elections two years later. This year's two rounds of voting will likely enhance the local positions of parties in the government coalition despite the losses of the PMDB, the main ally of the Workers' Party. Overall, the elections have projected to the national stage a new generation of progressive leaders in state capitals and major cities who share two common traits: they are all moderates guided by the need to respond to the demands of Brazil's growing middle class rather than ideology; their political formative experience was the democratization process of the 1980s rather than the struggle against the dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. PT's Fernando Haddad, the 49-year-old former minister of education handpicked by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will defeat former governor, mayor and twice-PSDB presidential candidate José Serra, helped as much by Serra's unpopularity as by Lula's support. PMDB's Eduardo Paes, elected in the first round in Rio with two-thirds of the vote, and Gustavo Fruet, set to win in the second round in Curitiba, are former members of the PSDB. PSB's Marcelo Lacerda, re-elected in Belo Horizonte with the support of PSDB's presumptive presidential candidate Aécio Neves, defeated PT's Patrus Ananias, a former minister from Lula's government. One clear winner is the governor of Pernanmbuco, Eduardo Campos, a 47-year-old who emerged as a presidential contender. Campos' party is a key member of President Dilma Rousseff's coalition. But Campos fought Lula and Dilma in various elections and exposed political fault lines in the government's base of support. The mensalão trial has not and will not significantly affect the outcome of the municipal elections, but has revealed once again the fragmentation of the Brazilian political system, which is at the source of the scandal."