Sao Paulo, Brazil, Nov 15 – Brazilians voted Sunday in municipal elections that will test the strength of the country’s rightward shift under President Jair Bolsonaro, with the coronavirus pandemic looming large.
These are the first elections since Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, surged to victory in 2018, upending the political gameboard in Latin America’s biggest economy.
Postponed six weeks because of the pandemic, the vote already bears the imprint of Covid-19, which has killed more than 165,000 people in Brazil — the second-highest death toll worldwide, after the United States.
The authorities are urging Brazil’s 148 million voters to bring their own pens, respect social distancing guidelines and disinfect their hands multiple times.
Voters are choosing the South American giant’s 5,569 mayors and city councils, with analysts watching to see where the various political camps stand midway to the next presidential elections in 2022.
Bolsonaro heads into the first-round vote weakened by the loss of his political idol, President Donald Trump, in the US election, as well as his own controversial handling of the virus, which he has downplayed as a “little flu.”
But his approval numbers are strong — more than 40 percent recently — and he still excels at whipping his hardline base into a frenzy with his social media diatribes.
Bolsonaro flew in early from the capital, Brasilia, to vote in his hometown, Rio de Janeiro. He posed for photos with supporters outside his polling station but did not speak with the press.
The president’s candidates do not look set to win Brazil’s biggest cities.
In Sao Paulo, exit polling predicted Bolsonaro acolyte Celso Russomanno would not reach the November 29 runoff, finishing far behind center-right Mayor Bruno Covas and left-wing candidate Guilherme Boulos.
In Rio, exit polling put Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an Evangelical pastor and Bolsonaro ally, in the second round but trailing ex-mayor Eduardo Paes.
However, analysts say the country is likely headed for a new wave of conservative victories, elevating a raft of evangelical candidates and ex-police and -soldiers who have made religion and security central in their campaigns.
“2020 is going to deepen what we saw in 2018: the advance of right-wing parties,” said political scientist Oswaldo Amaral of the University of Campinas.
The Brazilian left remains weakened and divided after the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the jailing of her predecessor, Workers’ Party founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on corruption charges.
One of the few bright spots for the left is the southern city of Porto Alegre, where Communist Party of Brazil candidate and rising political star Manuela D’Avila led in pre-vote polls.
– Three Trumps, 18 Obamas –
Voters in face masks carefully lined up one meter apart outside polling stations, trickling inside one at a time to vote, AFP correspondents said.
“I decided to come to vote early to avoid crowds because of the pandemic,” said 59-year-old voter Rogerio Rosenthal in central Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city and economic capital.
Turnout was expected to be low because of Covid-19 fears.
Voting is mandatory in Brazil, but the authorities granted exemptions online this year because of the pandemic, and the fine for not complying costs less than a bus ride.
As polls closed, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said around 560,000 voters had filed for exemptions from mandatory voting.
Candidates largely had to forego traditional campaign rallies, turning instead to social media to make their pitches.
In an effort to generate buzz and overcome voter reluctance, many candidates have resorted to colorful nicknames and campaign gimmicks.
There are three Trumps, 18 Obamas and 84 Bolsonaros on the ballot, according to a count in the Brazilian media — not to mention 99 Tiriricas, borrowing the name of a clown elected to Congress in 2010 on the slogan, “It can’t get any worse.”
He has since been reelected twice.
Most results are expected by around 10:00 pm (0300 GMT Monday).