Brazil’s Largest City May Soon Have a Socialist Mayor

Brazil is still dominated by Jair Bolsonaro’s unhinged reactionary politics. Which makes it all the more incredible that the leftist housing organizer Guilherme Boulos recently defied all expectations by making it to a runoff in São Paulo’s upcoming mayoral election.

Guilherme Boulos. (Wikimedia Commons)

On November 15, housing rights activist and rising star of the Brazilian left Guilherme Boulos made it into the runoff elections for the mayorship of São Paulo — the largest city in all the Americas and the financial center of Brazil. A member of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), Boulos ran alongside vice mayoral candidate Luiza Erundina, a veteran socialist who in the 1980s served as the first woman mayor of São Paulo.

With scant resources and electoral rules stacked against his party, Boulos defeated the Bolsonaro-backed far-right candidate Celso Russomanno to the second-place spot. That upset also means that the runoff election will take a sharp leftward turn, leaving out the influential Jilmar Tatto from the more social-democratic Workers’ Party (PT).

The conclusions to be drawn from Boulos’s victory are several. For one, it proved that a radical left-wing platform could overtake far-right forces both on social media and in the streets. Just as importantly, Boulos’s success suggests that the old pro-Lula / anti-Lula dichotomy that has so divided the Brazilian left in recent years may finally be drawing to a close.

Regardless of whether Boulos can clinch the November 29 runoff elections, when he will square off with the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate Bruno Covas, his campaign has been an unqualified success. It has shifted the tectonic plates of Brazilian politics and put forward a strategic, technological, and ideological alternative that could very well pave the way forward for the Brazilian left.

A Young Star

Still not yet forty years of age, Boulos is a rising star in Brazilian politics. He first gained fame in 2003 when, as a leader in the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), he occupied an abandoned site owned by Volkswagen in the iconic São Bernardo do Campo industrial district of São Paulo. It was there too that ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva first wrote his name in the history books as the leader of the mass strikes that brought down the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1985.

The boldness of Boulos’s action — at a time when Lula had already come to power and was celebrated among workers — launched him into the limelight and toward the center of a political current that was still in its earliest stages of development: the left-wing opposition to the PT government.

Several years later, a group of so-called PT radicals — soon to be founders of PSOL — were expelled from Lula’s party, and social movements were becoming more vocal in their criticism of the PT administration. Boulos secured his reputation, not only for his work on the housing crisis, but also on the increasingly serious matter of Brazil’s budget deficit (which remains a problem to this day).

The PT administration brought significant progress to Brazil, but Boulos continued to point out that millions of Brazilians, roughly 15 percent of the population, still had no housing and so were forced to live on the streets or in temporary, precarious arrangements in large urban centers. The demand for housing was Boulos’s calling card, and with it he led countless occupations of abandoned buildings in protest for public housing.

Boulos’s star continued to rise when millions of Brazilians took to the streets in 2013–14. The MTST, by then a well-established and organized movement, was one of the few social movements that managed to mobilize large numbers of people to join in the protests, and in addition, one of the few that actively began to confront the far-right movements that were taking shape by that point in time.

Boulos and Lula

In part out of necessity to fortify its own organizations and distinguish itself from the PT, the Brazilian far left lodged harsh critiques of Lula’s government and settled on a more or less systematic opposition to the governing party. At the same time, numerous left-wing organizations continued to follow an equally rigid plan of unquestioned obedience to the Lula administration.

Boulos set off on a different path that largely eluded the anti-Lula / pro-Lula faultline. This was already evident during the 2013–2014 demonstrations, when Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, found herself surrounded on all sides, and the traditional Brazilian right began preparations for her ouster — even if it meant allying with the far-right and the military.

Boulos and the MTST again found themselves in the streets protesting against the coup movement in 2016. However, Boulos was intent that the mobilization would force the government’s hand to implement left-wing measures and, ultimately, regain the damaged confidence of the working class and social movements.

When Lula was jailed in 2018 by former judge and ex-justice minister Sérgio Moro, Boulos and the MTST played a leading role in fighting his imprisonment and, eventually, in the movement to free Lula. This earned him respect among the ranks of the PT.

In an act heavy with symbolism, the MTST occupied the apartment that Lula had allegedly received as a bribe in exchange for what then judge Moro described as “indeterminate acts” (Lula had never lived in the apartment and only paid sporadic visits). The MTST occupation revealed to the public that the apartment was not the luxury condominium described in the media, nor was there any evidence of the building reforms allegedly commissioned by Lula. In so doing, the MTST had debunked the principal narrative behind Lula’s legal persecution.

Finally, after decades of conflict with the PT, the far left, still licking its wounds from the 2016 coup and Bolsonaro’s subsequent victory, is finding itself obliged to join forces with its one-time adversary. Boulos has been on hand as the figure capable of bringing unity across the Left. It is in that same sense that Boulos has become such a central figure in the current elections.

The 2020 Elections

Every four years, the five-thousand-plus municipalities of Brazil vote for their mayors and city councilors — thousands of local elections taking place simultaneously, in municipalities as far-flung as the Amazon and as metropolitan as São Paulo.

In the midst of the ongoing crisis of the Bolsonaro administration plus the global pandemic, the outlook for Brazilian politics is uncertain. In São Paulo, where Bolsonaro swept the field in the 2018 presidential elections, a proud tradition of anti–left-wing sentiment — especially in well-to-do areas — is being eroded by an overwhelming sense of disenchantment with the president.

Indeed, though São Paulo has historically voted for right-wing candidates in national elections, it has always been divided in municipal elections, swinging between right-wing populists and the Left, generally under the tutelage of the PT.

What’s more, where local elections can often impact national politics, São Paulo has an outsize influence. It was in São Paulo in 2016 that former Lula minister Fernando Haddad lost reelection in a race against the traditional center-right candidate João Doria of the PSDB. Despite its name, the PSDB has been Brazil’s most important center-right neoliberal party, having governed the country for eight years (1995–2002) under Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

That defeat did not keep Haddad from running in the 2018 presidential elections as the stand-in candidate for Lula, who at the time was in prison. Doria left his mayoral post to run for governor that same year, eventually winning in the state of São Paulo.

Doria’s vice mayor, Bruno Covas, had meanwhile taken over the mayoral position, toeing a moderate, centrist line similar to that of the PSDB during the 1980s (that is, before it became the blustering, right-wing populist opposition to the Lula government that eventually opened the Pandora’s box from which emerged Bolsonaro).

With Haddad out of the 2020 mayoral race for São Paulo, Lula’s party hand-picked Jilmar Tatto, a former federal deputy with important traction in the poorer Zona Sul areas of São Paulo. However, Tatto has come under heavy criticism for being a drab party apparatchik.

With Tatto inspiring little enthusiasm among historic PT activists, intellectuals, and artists, important PT figures such as Celso Amorim — Lula’s foreign minister — and the iconic songwriter Chico Buarque began to flock toward the PSOL.

Boulos won the PSOL primary race handily in a contest against federal deputy Sâmia Bomfim. From that moment on, the Boulos campaign has launched a successful communications strategy on social media, compensating for the little television airtime allotted by Brazilian legislation for smaller parties. Like Boulos himself, his campaign has stuck to firm talking points, delivered in an informal, accessible manner, which is a large part of his broad appeal and what has made him such a competitive candidate. This was especially evident when Boulos engaged in a war of words with the Bolsonaro-backed candidate Celso Russomanno, winning him even greater popularity.

In elections on Sunday, November 15, the PSOL doubled its votes in the city council, although it is still trailing the PT, which, though it saw a slump in votes, still maintains the majority of council members.

Significantly, Lula’s PT has expressed its backing for the PSOL candidate in the runoff election. Although Boulos came a distant second to Bruno Covas in the general election (gaining 20 percent of the vote, where Covas gained 32 percent), the Brazilian left is lining up en masse behind Boulos and doing heavy canvassing on his behalf throughout São Paulo. Recent polls suggest that it is paying dividends and Boulos is currently closing the gap on the front-runner candidate, raising the prospect for the kind of virada (“upset”) that his running mate Luiza Erundina achieved in 1988.

With the far right now out of the picture and the remarkable presence of Luiza Erundina as vice mayor (at eighty-five years old, she is still a powerful campaigner), not to mention the thousands of committed activists in toe, Boulos has set out to do more than fight for the mayorship of São Paulo. Boulos represents a vision in which it is not only possible to defeat Bolsonaro; it is also possible for the Brazilian left to do so without ceding ground to the neoliberal center. In that sense, even if Boulos does not manage a historic upset next week, he has delivered the decisive victory that the Brazilian left has badly needed.