SAO PAULO - In Brazil’s biggest city of São Paulo, the leading mayoral candidate is a businessman who once fired people on air during a television reality show. In the country’s crown jewel city of Río de Janeiro, the front-runner is an evangelical pastor. And in Belo Horizonte, a former pro soccer player is leading the pack.
For the first time since a bruising impeachment fight led to the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazilians will get to vote on Sunday as municipal elections take place in more than 5,500 cities. If polls are any indication, voters are in a kick-the-bums-out mood, preferring novices to established politicians amid a deep recession and anger about a colossal corruption scheme that has led to the jailing of several top politicians.
“I don’t want any of these traditional politicians. Not the current mayor, the ex-mayor, anyone who has governed before,” said Maria Fernandes, a hairdresser in São Paulo who plans to vote for João Doria, an ex-host of “The Apprentice Brazil” who uses the slogan “I am not a politician, I am a businessman.”
Outsiders like Doria seem to be on the upswing in Latin America’s largest country, where major parties had long kept tight control on which candidates get put forward.
In the 26 state capitals where mayoral seats are at stake, only five incumbents are polling above the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff, according to polls aggregated by online news site UOL. Many candidates are going out of their way to present themselves as outsiders uncorrupted by the business-as-usual way of doing things that led to arguably the country’s biggest political crisis since President Fernando Collor was impeached in 1992.
In August, Rousseff was removed by the Senate for illegally shifting funds between federal budgets. The ouster was the culmination of a nearly yearlong fight that paralyzed Latin America’s largest economy, already mired in its worst recession in decades.
Rousseff denied wrongdoing, arguing that an elite class, furious over the social welfare policies of her Workers’ Party, was pulling off a modern-day coup d’etat. The battle came against the background of revelations of a massive kickback scheme at state oil company Petrobras.
Fábio Wanderley Reis, a political science professor at Minas Gerais Federal University, said candidates who reject traditional politics are mirroring an overwhelming feeling among Brazilians.
“Politics are being criminalized in part by the politicians themselves,” said Reis. He said that if outsiders triumph in the mayoral elections, “it could be a trend for the presidential elections in 2018.”
One of the biggest upsets could be in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, the country’s economic engine and traditionally a bellwether for the national stage. Even a year ago, incumbent Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party was talked about as a leading contender for the presidency in 2018. Now Haddad is struggling just to qualify for a runoff.
Polls show a clear lead for Doria, a communications mogul who hosted a Brazilian version of Donald Trump’s show “The Apprentice” and has owned magazines such as “Caviar Lifestyle.”
Haddad is tangled in a three-way battle for second with TV consumer advocate Celso Russomano and former Mayor Marta Suplicy.
In Rio, the front-runner is Sen. Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical pastor known for religious songs on YouTube with titles like “Jesus Cures” and “I’m Israel.” Crivella has run and lost in previous mayoral and gubernatorial elections.
In Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s sixth biggest city, former Atletico Mineiro goalkeeper João Leite is in a tight race with former Atletico Mineiro chairman Alexandre Kalil, whose slogan is even more anti-establishment than Doria’s: “Enough of politicians. Vote for Kalil.”
To be sure, career politicians are fighting back, arguing that governing takes a lot more than slick speeches and promises to upend the establishment.
“This could lead to an even bigger adventure that Brazil cannot afford,” Haddad warned, adding that the way his opponents were presenting themselves was “no more than a trick.”
Fernandes, the hairdresser, said such warnings are meaningless because they come from a corrupted political class.
“At least I know that (Doria) is going to dismantle the corruption schemes and he is already rich, which means he won’t steal anything,” she said, then added, “I mean, I think he won’t.”