Brazil on the eve of the 2020 elections

The upcoming municipal elections in Brazil are being seen as a litmus test of Bolsonaro's electoral support following two years of chaos, demagogy, attacks on the working class, and now the disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is clearly a desire for radical change in Brazil, despite the shameful policies of class collaboration by leaders of the left.

On 15 November, municipal elections will be held in Brazil. There will be elections of councillors (members of local parliament) and of mayors of the 5,570 cities across the country with 212 million inhabitants. In the 100 largest cities (with more than 200,000 voters), if the candidate for mayor does not receive more than 50 percent of the valid votes, the two most-voted-for candidates will compete in a second round of elections on 29 November. These elections take place every four years. They take place in between general elections, which in 2022 will elect the president, senators, governors and parliamentarians of the Federal Congress and of the state legislative assemblies.

A little context

Two years after the victory of Bolsonaro at the polls, the municipal elections will now be a gauge to measure the impact on electoral support caused by the crisis, the pandemic, and attacks by the government.

Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s banker and minister of the economy, told the press that he is frustrated because he has not yet been able to sell even one state-owned company. The fact is that, despite all of Bolsonaro’s aggressive rhetoric, his government has made barely any progress on its central objective: privatisation. This is not due to a lack of opportunity, but because of fear of a backlash from the proletarian masses.

Bolsonaro Image Palácio do Planalto FlickrDespite all of Bolsonaro’s aggressive rhetoric, his government has made barely any progress on its central objective: privatisation. This is due to fear of a backlash from the proletarian masses / Image: Palácio do Planalto, Flickr

After the masses had erupted into the streets of Santiago one year ago, it was Guedes himself who said it was necessary to go more slowly with the government's plans in order to “prevent Brazil from becoming Chile”. On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the processes of the uprisings that were developing and in full swing at the end of 2019, on the other hand, it deepened contradictions and accelerated the dynamics of the class struggle.

In trying to prepare the privatisation of the state-owned postal service, Bolsonaro was faced with a combative 35-day national strike between August and September, in the middle of the pandemic. The only reason the movement did not advance the question of government itself is because of the traitorous leadership of the trade unions, who did nothing to unify the struggles.

Bolsonaro, with his denialist and anti-scientific policies, led to a situation in which Brazil has suffered 160,000 deaths from the pandemic and seen many millions infected (officially there have been 5.8 million people infected, but generally a worker can only get tested if they experience severe symptoms, which has resulted in massive underreporting).

His contempt for human life had already led him to declare “So what?” when he was told months ago that Brazil would reach the mark of 100,000 dead. He also openly promotes conspiracy theories, endorsing those who say that the virus was created by the “communist” government of China. Therefore, his supporters campaign against vaccines that are under development, especially the vaccine developed in China.

The Chinese company Sinovac had been testing its COVID-19 vaccine on Brazilians. When one of the volunteers in the phase three trials committed suicide, Bolsonaro ordered the suspension of the tests in Brazil and celebrated on his Twitter: “Once more, Jair Bolsonar wins.” Testing has now resumed. While thousands are dying every day, the president acts directly against the development of a vaccine and publicly positions himself against making it mandatory when one is available. Even with the countries of Europe making it evident that a second wave of increasing infections is likely, in Brazil the rule is the total reopening of trade, including going back to school.

What the voting intention polls say

The slogan “Bolsonaro Out” has gained more and more support among the masses. Even though it was not prudent to encourage mass gatherings during the pandemic, we saw some large demonstrations in the streets against the government in the first semester, the banging of pots and pans from the windows of the houses, and combative strikes such as those by postal workers and Renault workers, even against union leaders.

After spending more than a year in opposition to the adoption of the slogan “Bolsonaro Out”, Lula and the leadership of the PT, PCdoB and PSOL, were forced to adhere to it, however assigning it a different meaning. Instead of the obvious content of demanding the overthrow of the government, they made the slogan a codeword for the institutional end of the government, that is, calling for the electoral defeat of Bolsonaro in 2022.

They all celebrated Biden’s victory in the US, saying Trump was “expelled” from the government in 2020, just like Bolsonaro will be in 2022. Thus, the slogan “Bolsonaro Out’ is emptied of revolutionary content. This cowardly, adapted position of the leaders of the Brazilian left has its consequences.

According to the voting intention polls of the last week before the elections, of the 10 largest urban centres (with more than 1 million voters), the PT only has a chance to reach the second round in one, Recife, where its candidate appears to be in second place, but far behind the right. And in at least three of the 10 largest capitals, the PT is behind PSOL: São Paulo, Belém and Belo Horizonte. In Porto Alegre, the PT gave up its own candidacy and presented a candidate for vice mayor on the ticket headed by PCdoB, which is in first place in the polls.

In Rio de Janeiro, the second-largest city in the country, the PT candidate is only in third place because PSOL’s main figure, Marcelo Freixo, gave up the candidacy. Otherwise, the PT would be in fourth place or worse.

In São Paulo, the political centre of the country with more than thirteen million inhabitants and nine million voters, the PT – which ran in almost every second round in past decades and won the election on three occasions (1988, 2000, 2012) – now appears with only 6 percent of the intention to vote in the poll, in fifth place.

In addition to the PT not really fighting for the overthrow of Bolsonaro, the alliances it has made in hundreds of cities with bourgeois parties, including the extreme right, such as PSL (the ex-party of Bolsonaro) account for its demoralisation. Even with Lula free to campaign on the streets, TV and social networks, PT candidates are unable to take off. The workers and youth want change, but less and less do they see in the PT a real instrument of change.

Those who surrendered themselves to the siren song of Bolsonaro's demagogic discourse increasingly realise that change will not come from him either. Yet Bosonaro enjoys popular support of around 30 percent. However, as he left PSL (the Social Liberal Party, one whose ticket he was elected president) and started to present himself as being “without a party”, it is not so simple to transform this significan popular support into votes for candidates from different parties. There are candidates who seek to be close to the president to get support from the Bolsonarist activist base, but at the same time they fear that identifying their image with that of Bolsonaro may also cost them votes (since the rejection rate for Bolsonaro is high and close to 50 percent).

And finally, fewer and fewer people think that bourgeois elections can actually change anything. There is a climate of impotence and demoralisation, however, the working class feels able and willing to fight by other means. The only reason it is not currently rising in a revolutionary struggle is because of the betrayal of its leadership, who do not point the way.

The PSOL between the aspirations of the masses and the impotence of its leaders

In Belém (a capital region with 1.5 million inhabitants), PSOL leads the mayoral voting intention polls.

In Rio de Janeiro, if Federal Deputy Marcelo Freixo had not given up his candidacy for mayor, PSOL could have been in first place. He had already come to an agreement with the PT, but gave up, saying he would only be the candidate if he had the support of other parties, mainly parties of the so-called “democratic” bourgeoisie. So it was an opportunistic withdrawal that reflected a right-wing programme.

Bolous 2 Image VamosComBouloseSonia FlickrThe electoral growth of the PSOL is not due to the party leadership's policy, but despite it / Image: VamosComBouloseSonia, Flickr

In São Paulo, the candidate for mayor for PSOL, Guilherme Boulos (the leader of the homeless movement that was candidate for president in 2018), who took Luiza Erundina, who was mayor of São Paulo in 1988-1992 by PT, as candidate for vice-mayor, appears in second place in the polls and has a chance of going to the second round.

São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the country’s political centres. These are the two largest cities and those that set the pace of class struggle. In these two large cities, the PT is demoralised and PSOL appears as a viable alternative. In Rio, if it were not for the vacillations of its most prominent public figure, it is possible that PSOL would win.

In São Paulo, 30 percent of the youth have declared their intention to vote for Boulos (PSOL). The growth of electoral support of PSOL in large political centres of the country, in particular with the youth, demonstrates the potential that socialist ideas have in the next period.

However, this electoral growth of the PSOL is not due to the party leadership's policy, but despite it.

Faced with the fact that a candidate from the PSOL black movement in a municipality in Rio de Janeiro received donations from bankers and businessmen linked to George Soros, there was a controversy in the party. The tendency of PSOL of which the candidate was a part (one of the Brazilian Mandelist sections) decided that he should return the money to his donors. He then refused to do so and broke with the tendency. There was a possibility that the PSOL regional board would cancel his candidacy, as receiving this type of donation violates the party rules. Then, Marcelo Freixo went public, blackmailing the party, saying that if the candidate was prevented from receiving the money or running, he would leave PSOL.

In various small municipalities, PSOL formed coalitions with bourgeois parties. Thus, it follows the path of class conciliation and degeneration that led the PT to today’s situation with Bolsonaro.

Boulos is in favour of the broader alliance policy that the party leadership seeks to achieve. At the same time, he is seen by public opinion as a radical leftist. As a leader of the housing movement, the extreme right attacks him saying that he invades people's homes. Instead of changing the tone of discourse and attacking the capitalists who are the true invaders and usurpers of the little that the proletariat owns, Guilherme Boulos softened his tone, saying that he respects private property, that he respects contracts, the law, etc. As a result, he becomes more palatable for the petty bourgeoisie, but misses the opportunity to connect with a section of youth and working class that craves radicalism, less talking, and more action.

The country’s largest city is also the hardest hit by the pandemic. There are over one million infected (according to official data, evidently underreported) and 40,000 dead. Boulos should be at the forefront of fighting for a lockdown and against reopening schools as long as there is no vaccine. But he hardly touches on the subject. He does not want to clash with the interests of the São Paulo bourgeoisie.

Despite this, it is possible that Boulos will reach the second round in São Paulo and that he may even reach the mayor’s seat. There are those who say that the demoralisation of the PT in Brazil and the potential of PSOL bear some similarities with the evolution of PASOK and Syriza in Greece a few years ago. Guilherme Boulos is of Greek descent. And if he continues to follow the path of reformism, his trajectory may be more similar to that of Tsípras than he would like: namely, ending up in a position of betrayal, capitulation and defeat.