It is telling that two of the country’s biggest political parties, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) and the Workers Party (PT), suffered considerable defeats. Also notable is that Bolsonaro supported candidates scattered through many parties, but failed to elect the majority of those for whom he campaigned.
Though local elections are not always the best political thermometer — with local issues weighing more heavily than national ones — the election results might point to a possible reconfiguration of the Brazilian political landscape.
On the left, the PT, involved for years in various corruption scandals, ended up suffering a tremendous defeat, losing ground to other left-wing parties. The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which historically has served as a support for the PT, ended up surprisingly competing in the second round of the São Paulo mayoral elections, in addition to increasing its representation in city councils throughout the country — even though the party has gained ground much more by stripping PT of votes in key cities than by actually attracting many new voters to the left.
On the right, Bolsonaro suffered from a lack of a political party of his own — and of a unified base. With candidates scattered over several parties, the president lost strength when it came to planning a coherent electoral strategy and creating an identity. The far right also came to this election terribly divided.
The far right didn’t take its defeat lightly. An attempted hacker attack, followed by problems in a computer at the Superior Electoral Court (TSE), led to a delay in the vote counting in São Paulo, which then led to unfounded cries of fraud as a way to distract from the poor performance of far-right candidates across the country. Congresswoman Carla Zambelli, who tried to elect members of her family and failed, was one of the first to spread conspiracy theories about the electoral process, along with congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the president. Joice Hasselmann, a far-right candidate for the São Paulo City Hall with shaky relations with President Bolsonaro, obtained a meager share of votes and also did not hesitate to claim there was fraud. No one explained who they were accusing of such fraud, nor how candidates aligned with the head of state would be victims of the state itself.
The network of “influencers” behind Bolsonaro did not hesitate to spread such misinformation. But the explanation for the failure is perhaps simpler: The 2018 election that Bolsonaro won and that led several extreme politicians to legislative positions was atypical. In addition to one of the largest disinformation and fake news campaigns ever seen, it was a time when the traditional parties were caught with their pants down.
Brazil was suffering a huge political and economic crisis, which was followed by former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 and the very unpopular presidency of Michel Temer, her former vice president. They belonged to PT and MDB, respectively. Just as PT was a victim of its own choices and the party’s long tradition of dividing the left with vitriolic campaigns, other traditional parties were not able to present candidacies or agendas that would excite voters. Bolsonaro’s extremist discourse, with its preaching and moralizing, found fertile ground to grow.
But with a country still in crisis — not only because of the pandemic, but also because of an unfit government — with the fragmentation of Bolsonaro’s political base and an apparent reduction in disinformation online, extremism ended up losing momentum. The promise of transformation has not been fulfilled, the moralization of politics has not arrived (Bolsonaro and his family are involved in countless scandals of corruption) and, in the end, there is apparently a limit to hatred and lies spread by social networks.