In Rio, the Right Rides a Wave of Political Indifference to Victory

Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, has just elected as mayor the evangelical protestant leader Marcelo Crivella, 59. His victory, with 59 percent of valid votes, but a minority of the electorate, decided an election that represented a clash between two different sides of Brazil.

On one side, wrote the newspaper El Pais’s post-election analysis was the conservative model embodied by Crivella, a senator since 2002, who is also an engineer, a successful gospel singer, a creationist, a former missionary in Africa and former bishop of Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, the third largest evangelical church in Brazil in terms of followers. The church was founded by his uncle Edir Macedo, who controls the second largest TV network in Brazil, called Record.

On the other side, there was History professor Marcelo Freixo, 49, a state legislator and advocate for the legalization of drugs and abortion, who became the poster child for the resistance of left wing parties in the midst of the crisis that affects the Workers’ Party in Brazil. Irreconcilable ideologies aside, the government plans of both candidates diverged on many topics, like the participation of private initiative in the city’s management, which Crivella supports.

Crivella is from the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), his church’s political arm, and his victory was guaranteed by the vote of the evangelicals, who represent almost a third of Rio’s electorate of 4.9 million voters, and also by the vote of the poorer, less educated voters.

Freixo, from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), paradoxically had the support of the wealthier, more educated classes, and of young voters. The biggest winner, though, was abstention. In Brazil, voting is a citizen’s duty, not merely a right. Those who don’t show up to vote have to pay a small fine. And those who show up to vote can either choose a candidate or one of two options: voting for no one, which is known as a blank vote, or voting for a candidate that does not exist or is not running, which is known as a null vote.

Both blank and null votes are considered invalid; only votes for candidates that are running are deemed valid, and the election is decided after the valid votes have been counted. In this election for mayor in Rio, 26.85% of voters didn’t vote at all; 4.18% of votes were blank; and 15.90% of votes were null. The political crisis the country is facing, along with corruption scandals and the long process of impeaching Dilma Roussef may explain the voter’s disillusion with the current election. Even though voting is mandatory in Brazil, the number of abstentions in the first round of municipal elections in other major capitals in Brazil had already surpassed the number of votes for the candidates that were actually elected.

A piece by newspaper O Globo observed that the total of abstentions was greater than the numbers of votes received by Freixo. While the candidate from PSOL got 1,163,662 votes (40.64% of valid votes), the number of cariocas who simply did not show up to vote was of 1,314,950 people – which is the equivalent of 26.85% of the electorate. Blank votes were in the order of 149,866 (or 4.18% of the total of votes), and the null votes were 569,536 (or 15.9% of the total).

The biggest mistake that Rio’s intellectual elite has made, though, was to doubt the intelligence of the lower classes, who are mostly poor and inhabit favelas. Contrary to what Rio’s middle class and left-wing elite had previously thought, the ones that came out as victors from this election were the ones that have always been by the side of the disadvantaged, who are mostly religious people, and they were the ones that guaranteed Crivella’s victory in this second round of the election. The former bishop did not win the election by himself; he managed to get the support of parts of the Catholic Church and of other protestant denominations, which campaigned heavily for him.

The left wing in Rio has long abandoned the peripheries and the favelas, and, to their despair, the Church didn’t. The Catholic Church and the many protestant denominations play a vital and historical role of providing what the State does not in those communities.

One of the strategies of Freixo’s campaign was to reproduce the hatred against Christians as an alienated sector of society who only follow their preachers’ orders, and that just goes to show how much the Left has to learn about religious experiences. The social project designed by the Left did not reach the poor because they did not feel represented by an ideological purism that was never a part of the daily life inside a favela.

The abstention phenomenon in this election can be explained simply by the sheer disinterest of the population towards politics: people just don’t feel they play a role in the country’s decisions, so they lose interest in the election.

The absurd number of political parties in Brazil and the amount of politics who are constantly migrating from one party to another are also some factors that contribute to abstention. And that is especially worrying when we think that this was a municipal election, because it is at the local level that people’s daily lives are most affected by policies.

The involvement of citizens in an election depends on their perception of national politics. The media also plays a vital role there. While the media keeps stating that the politics made in Brazil is of poor quality, voters will surely turn away from it. We must either find a way to get citizens involved and interested in politics again, or simply make voting optional in Brazil. The first option is undoubtedly the best.

Joao Sette Camara