SAO PAULO – Brazil’s two biggest cities on Sunday inaugurated mayors who are political outsiders and whose victories underscored deep frustration with the political class and public corruption.
Joao Doria, a millionaire businessman who once hosted “The Apprentice Brazil,” took the oath of office in the country’s financial capital of Sao Paulo. He defeated an ally of the president as well as the incumbent.
Evangelical bishop and senator Marcelo Crivella was also sworn in, as Rio de Janeiro’s mayor. He also defeated an ally of the president.
The victories of these unusual candidates speak to the depth of Brazilian discontent with politics. While many Brazilians have long dismissed their politicians as corrupt, an investigation into kickbacks at the state-run oil company Petrobras has revealed graft on a scale that has shocked even the most cynical. Arrests of politicians and businessmen seem to occur every week.
In an absurd illustration of Brazil’s rampant corruption, just 10 of 15 city councilmen were choosing an interim mayor for Foz de Iguacu on Sunday. The electoral court rejected the winner of the mayoral election in that city, the gateway to Iguacu Falls, because he was convicted of wrongdoing in office. Only 10 councilmen can vote on Sunday because the other five have been arrested on charges of corruption. A new mayoral election will be held in the coming months.
After his swearing in, Doria, who ran on the fact that he wasn’t a politician but a successful businessman, promised a “strict adherence to ethics in public management at all levels of executive power.”
He also spoke to voters’ concerns about mismanagement by politicians, promising a better-run, cleaner, fairer Sao Paulo for all residents – a massive task in a city that is a symbol of the enormous inequalities found in Brazil, where a poor family might live in a hastily constructed shanty but millionaires commute by helicopter.
“I am a manager, and I will put management first for the city of Sao Paulo,” he said.
Crivella faces an especially tough task in Rio, which is essentially broke and has struggled to pay police and other public servants, even as it tries to clamp down on rampant crime. Rio residents blame the economic problems on corruption, while others say the government overextended itself to host the 2016 Olympics.
In one speech Sunday, Crivella said every department would have to show that it had sufficient funds in hand before announcing new spending.
“Before this work is done, the order is the following: spending is prohibited,” he said.
Later, Crivella said he had already started making cuts, slashing in half the number of heads of departments in his administration, and that a further reduction in public sector jobs would follow.
“We will have to do more with less,” he said at a ceremony attended by many evangelical leaders, even some who opposed Crivella’s candidacy, were present.
In addition to its political implications, Crivella’s election is also a sign of the rise of evangelicals in Brazil. Although Brazil is largely Roman Catholic, the evangelical community now accounts for one-fifth of the population of around 200 million.
Revelations of widespread corruption throughout the past year have exacerbated an already uneasy political situation in Brazil, which is also in deep recession. The last president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office in mid-2016 on charges she broke budget laws.
Current President Michel Temer took over amid hopes he would push through reforms and rescue an economy in deep recession. But questions about Temer’s legitimacy and that of his reform agenda have dogged him since he took office. More recently, he has been accused of abusing his power – an allegation he denies.
Through it all, anger with politicians in Brazil has grown. Protests have drawn people from across the political spectrum seeking an outlet for their disgust.