Brazil’s biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, voted for their next mayors Sunday as the country held municipal runoffs, the last polls before far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is up for reelection in 2022.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic and cultural capital and the largest city in Latin America, centrist incumbent Bruno Covas faces leftist challenger Guilherme Boulos, a leader of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST).
Boulos, 38, who is running for the upstart Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), trails in the polls by about 10 points, but enters the runoff with momentum.
Young, charismatic and hailed as the new face of Brazil’s battered left, he came from behind in the first round on November 15 to beat both Bolsonaro’s candidate and a leftist rival from the more-established Workers’ Party (PT).
The runoff then took a twist two days before the vote when Boulos announced he had tested positive for the new coronavirus, forcing the cancellation of the candidates’ final debate.
Observing quarantine and unable to vote, Boulos appeared on the balcony of his house Sunday with a hand-written sign reading “We’re going to turn this around!”
But Covas, 40, is also a fighter.
A cancer survivor, he has a powerful backer in Sao Paulo state Governor Joao Doria, his predecessor and mentor, a top contender to challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency.
– Pandemic impact –
The pandemic has indelibly marked the municipal elections in the giant country of 212 million people.
Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the virus as a “little flu,” faces criticism for his handling of Covid-19, which has killed more than 172,000 people in Brazil — the second-highest death toll worldwide, after the United States.
The municipal polls — which are essentially Brazil’s midterm elections — were postponed by six weeks because of the pandemic, with the period between the first and second rounds reduced from four weeks to two.
The authorities are urging voters to bring their own pens, respect social distancing guidelines and disinfect their hands multiple times.
“We need another kind of government, a government that is more concerned with the people and does its job,” said Sao Paulo voter Vanise Santos, 49, a psychologist.
“The federal government is a real disaster,” she told AFP.
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second city, opinion polls indicate incumbent Mayor Marcelo Crivella, a Bolsonaro ally, is set to lose in a landslide to ex-mayor Eduardo Paes of the traditional right-wing Democrats party (DEM).
“God willing, starting tomorrow we’ll be working hard, with everything we’ve got. I will give my blood, all my effort, so that Rio can move forward again,” Paes said after casting his ballot in the city, famous for its beaches, carnival and nightlife.
He vowed to safeguard Rio’s traditions of diversity and acceptance, which critics accused Crivella, an Evangelical pastor, of threatening.
Other races to watch include the northeastern city of Recife — scene of a family feud on the left between cousins Joao Campos of the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and Marilia Arraes of the PT — and the southern city of Porto Alegre.
There, another rising left-wing star, Manuela D’Avila of the Communist Party of Brazil, faces centrist candidate Sebastiao Melo, in a city rocked by violent protests following the first-round vote after two white security guards killed a black customer at a supermarket.
– Eyes on presidential race –
The first-round vote went badly for Bolsonaro.
The so-called “Tropical Trump” upended Brazilian politics when he stormed to victory in the 2018 presidential race, but looks more vulnerable after helping elect just two of the 13 mayoral candidates he endorsed, and just nine of 45 city council candidates.
“As Trump would say, ‘He supported a bunch of losers,'” said political scientist David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia.
Traditional center-right and right-wing parties meanwhile emerged strengthened from the first round.
All eyes are now on how the runoffs will shape the political state of play ahead of 2022, when Bolsonaro is expected to seek reelection.
In all, 57 cities across Brazil are holding mayoral runoffs.
Results are expected from around 0100 GMT Monday.