By Gabriel Stargardter
CATANDUVA, Brazil, Oct 28 (Reuters) – The small town of Catanduva, in the rural agricultural belt of Sao Paulo state, is ahead of Brazil’s political curve.
In 1996, the city elected leftist Felix Sahao as its first Workers’ Party (PT) mayor – six years before Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president of Brazil, establishing nearly 14 years of PT rule.
But Sahao’s administration has been marred by financial scandals, presaging the sweeping corruption probe that imprisoned Lula, destroyed the PT’s reputation and paved the way for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s scorched earth policy.
The people of Catanduva, who have benefited from strong Chinese demand for Brazilian commodities, are now fully behind Bolsonaro. They are drawn to its unique blend of social conservatism, evangelical fervor and small government, sown in the fertile soils of a booming agribusiness and watered with hatred of the “communist” PT.
So even if, as polls suggest, the president loses to Lula in Sunday’s presidential run-off, the roaring tractors and bloated wallets of booming conservative towns like Catanduva suggest that bolsonarismo is here to stay.
Bolsonaro got the lion’s share of his campaign funding from agribusiness leaders and won the most first-round votes in six of Brazil’s seven top-producing agricultural states. In Catanduva, which is surrounded by sugar cane fields, citrus arbors and cattle ranches, the president won more than 62 percent of the vote, more than double Lula’s loot.
“Today Catanduva reflects a situation unfolding across Brazil,” said the city’s mayor, Father Osvaldo Oliveira, a Catholic priest from the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) who also supports Bolsonaro and his candidate leading the race for Sao Paulo. state governor, Tarcisio Freitas.
Oliveira said the PT’s more generous social spending and state-led economic policies had once helped but hadn’t changed in 30 years, while Bolsonaro’s “updated proposal” offered a chance to deliverance: “A rescue of the self-esteem of Brazilians, of patriotism, of civic-mindedness.
Since Sahao resigned in 2005, the PT has spent almost two decades excluded from power as mayor of Catanduva. In recent years, the centrist establishment that has taken its place has lined up squarely behind Bolsonaro.
Sahao said a conservative sweep of Sao Paulo, with Freitas in the state house, would bury the PT’s hopes of regaining power in Brazil’s richest and most populous state.
“If Bolsonaro wins and Tarcisio wins, forget it,” he said.
This month’s first round of voting showed pollsters had vastly underestimated Bolsonaro’s enduring appeal in Catanduva and other towns in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, which has become the engine of the country’s economy. country.
Agribusiness contributed 27.6% of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) last year, according to the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics at the University of Sao Paulo, the highest percentage since 2003, and up from 20% in 2018 when Bolsonaro was elected.
“Our region is driven by agribusiness,” said Catanduva Mayor Oliveira. “With the industry heating up, that means the city is doing well, the economy is moving.”
Historically low interest rates during the first half of Bolsonaro’s tenure helped Brazilian farmers invest in capital, while a weak exchange rate and robust global demand made commodity exports very lucrative .
Bolsonaro’s support for property rights and his relaxation of gun laws for self-defense are also attracting rural producers who associate the PT with landless peasants invading unproductive plots, said Allim Bassitt, a cane farmer and 65 year old beef.
Taise Braz of the PT, Catanduva’s first-ever black councilor, said the most hardline Bolsonarians were among the city’s elite, made up of wealthy farmers and businessmen. Although their numbers are relatively small, she said their opinions have an outsized influence on a budding middle class.
Bolsonarismo is amplified by respected civic groups like Lions International, the Rotary Club and the Masons, who have become hotbeds of support for the president, said Beth Sahao, a PT state legislator and sister of the former mayor.
The city’s evangelical churches perform a similar function among the working class, she added, promoting a rampant conservatism that the PT has been unable to counter.
“People think, ‘I have a job because I got it, I have my own house because I worked for it,'” Sahao said. “So they start turning away from public policies, social policies, the economy of the country.”
RACISHING AT THE BASE
Bolsonaro’s attacks on the PT land with particular force in Catanduva, where few have forgotten the embezzlement scandals of former mayor Sahao’s era.
Sahao said he did nothing wrong and was “persecuted by the prosecutor’s office. The city knows it.”
The PT candidate to replace him came last in the 2004 vote. Beth Sahao has run and lost in all four municipal elections since, garnering less than 10% of the vote on her first attempt.
The PT’s national rout came more than a decade later, when a corruption probe revealed huge plans for public contract bribes, followed by Brazil’s worst economic recession on record and of the dismissal of Lula’s hand-picked successor.
The Supreme Court has overturned convictions linking Lula personally to the corruption scandals, and his political skills have revived his career, but many Brazilians still struggle to forgive the PT’s missteps.
Ten years ago, the PT was one of the three parties governing the most cities in Brazil. Now he’s not even in the top ten.
But it is not the only traditional party beaten by bolsonarismo.
The PSDB, long the most powerful force in Sao Paulo politics, has struggled to stay relevant as Bolsonaro has destroyed the center-right and offered more radical opposition to the left. Across Sao Paulo, countless PSDB mayors and legislators have, like Father Oliveira de Catanduva, cast their spell with Bolsonaro.
After winning every gubernatorial race in the state since 1994, the PSDB’s candidate, current Gov. Rodrigo Garcia, didn’t even make it through Sunday’s runoff.
Polls show Freitas, Bolsonaro’s former infrastructure minister, set to beat the PT candidate, joining the ranks of governors backing Bolsonaro, including Romeu Zema of neighboring Minas Gerais and Claudio Castro in Rio de Janeiro.
If Freitas wins, Bolsonaro’s allies will control Brazil’s three largest state economies.
Bassitt, the farmer, said the conservative values of small rural towns in Brazil are now driving national politics. These beliefs “fit well with bolsonarismo,” he said. “They don’t click with Lula and PT socialism.”
($1 = 5.3067 reais) (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter Editing by Brad Haynes and Chris Sanders)