When campaign season in Rio de Janeiro officially started on July 6, Rio’s incumbent mayor, Eduardo Paes, looked like a shoo-in. Touting the “Olympic City,” he has campaigned on the idea that Rio’s upcoming mega events—including the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics—will contribute to a boom for a city that is thriving after decades of trouble and stagnation.
While his seven rival candidates polled at 10 percent or under, Paes, of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB), polled at 54 percent in a late July Datafolha survey of voters.
That is why the grassroots success of Paes’ leading opponent, human rights activist and state assemblyman Marcelo Freixo of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), has thrown an unexpected wrench in predictions that Paes will still be Rio’s mayor after October 7, when voters in over 5,566 municipalities across Brazil will go to the polls for municipal mid-term elections. Stoked in large part by an enthusiastic social media campaign, Freixo’s poll numbers have roughly doubled over the last few months of campaigning.
Incumbents have a strong advantage in Brazil’s elections, where voting is obligatory and name recognition often decides the vote. Should Freixo and the six other candidates perform strongly enough, Paes could receive less than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, forcing a runoff on October 27.
Justino Pereira, an elections consultant from São Paulo who is observing the Rio de Janeiro campaigns, doesn’t think that scenario is likely to happen. “Paes is in a comfortable, advantageous situation that allows him not to do an aggressive campaign,” he says. Pereira acknowledges that Freixo’s popularity has grown over time, but says that cariocas (residents of Rio) will likely continue to bet on Rio’s boom under Paes. “They are satisfied by the great moment that Rio is living, with the Olympics, the World Cup before that, the security reversal in the hills,” Pereira said, referring to the ongoing police “pacification” of Rio’s hillside slums, known as favelas.
However, if past Brazilian political campaigns have largely been fought through television ads, Rio’s municipal elections are showcasing the new power of social media—an area where Freixo may have a distinct advantage. Social media services like Twitter and Facebook are often more affordable for the city’s poor than a simple phone call, which can cost more than a real (50 cents) per minute. Social media is built into cheap phones and an unlimited data plan costs as little as 25 cents per day, making Twitter especially popular in Rio’s favelas.
Freixo’s campaign has been waged largely on the streets and the Internet, with virtual town halls featuring live streaming on Twitter, viral campaign ads and YouTube videos re-posted on social networks, and scores of supporters who change their Facebook names and profile photos to display Freixo’s image. He has attracted thousands of people at public speaking events—most recently, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 supporters at the iconic arches of the Lapa district on a Friday evening, despite a deluge of rain that soaked attendees.
Freixo’s growing online appeal may overcome one of his campaign’s major hurdles: in Brazil, candidates’ allotted television airtime is based on the number of representatives a candidate and his coalition have in Congress. Because Paes leads a coalition of 20 parties (in Brazil there are 30 parties overall)—including the Partido dos Trabalhadores of President Dilma Rousseff—he is allowed 16 of the 30 minutes of free political ads per day on primetime TV. Freixo, on the other hand, has refused to form a coalition, which he criticizes as an exchange of favors. He has 1 minute and 22 seconds per day.
In the event of a runoff, however, Paes’ advantage would be severely blunted. Brazilian law mandates that each candidate have equal television time, and the financial advantage of Paes, who has approximately 30 times the funding of Freixo, would likely be diminished.
As the incumbent candidate, Paes is campaigning on a series of urban improvements in the city enacted during his first term in office. Among the most visible of the infrastructure upgrades are the Bus Rapid Transit lane in the western Barra region of Rio, inspired by a similar program in Bogotá. Four new highway projects (the TransOlimpica, Transoeste, Transcarioca and Transbrasil) are underway to relieve traffic congestion in the zones that will serve the Olympic Park in the city’s western zone in 2016. Real estate revitalization projects are also underway, most notably the Porto Maravilha, a public-private partnership in the degraded colonial-era port region of the city.
On a recent campaign stop to an impressive new public school inaugurated in the favela of Rocinha earlier this year, Paes grinned for reporters while eating torresmo (fried pigskin) and feijão (stewed black beans) in the cafeteria alongside the school’s cooks. Kids swam with foam noodles in the crystal-clear blue pool next door, days after a unit of pacifying police (intended to be human rights-oriented police who occupy favelas previously by drug traffickers) had been inaugurated in Rocinha.
Recent research from Data Popular and the Central Única das Favelas indicates that some 79 percent of residents in Rio’s favelas have prospered to the point of being considered middle or even upper class.
“The idea of our government is to come into the most vulnerable areas and bring the ‘Schools of Tomorrow,’” Paes told reporters. Some 19 such schools have been inaugurated under his government, with longer class hours in Portuguese, math and science. “Rio is an Olympic city,” Paes said, adding that the city will be “transformed” by 2016.
Freixo meanwhile, has criticized Paes for his links to real estate interests, accusing Paes of pushing for the removal of a favela, Vila Autódromo, to satisfy developers investing in commercial space around the park after 2016. The city government had to rescind its offer to purchase a plot of land to resettle the favela after Brazilian media and Freixo’s PSOL reported that the property, condemned as a risk area for mudslides, had been appraised at an inflated value and purchased from real estate companies who donated to the Paes 2008 campaign. Though the purchase was suspended after negative media reports, Vila Autódromo is still slated for removal for a variety of reasons—for being located in an area of environmental risk, for being part of the projected security perimeter of the Olympic Park, and for being in the way of projected highway growth.
Like his rival, Freixo has not shied away from the media spotlight. The second-most voted state assemblyman in the last election, he became a nationally recognized name after a movie character named “Professor Fraga,” clearly based on Freixo, appeared in the blockbuster Tropa de Elite 2. Fraga, like Freixo, is a human rights activist mediating riots in prisons. Last year, Freixo fled the country at the invitation of Amnesty International when he came under a series of threats from Rio’s paramilitaries for authoring a 2008 report naming hundreds of policemen and local politicians involved in militia extortion activities. He’s been boosted by the support of some of Brazil’s most popular celebrities, including actors Wagner Moura and Camila Pitanga and musicians Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, who recorded his campaign jingle.
Freixo has made the rising cost of living and the spiraling cost of rent a central point in his campaign. Property prices have risen by a factor of six in some Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods in the past decade and now rival prices in Paris and New York, with international observers warning of a real estate bubble. “It’s getting really expensive to live in Rio,” Freixo said in an interview with O Globo. “A good city to invest in needs to be a good city to live in.”
When a reporter for The Nation described Freixo as the International Olympic Committee’s “worst nightmare,” he answered, “the people from the IOC need to know the city a bit better.”
Although all elections are important, the October 7 contest will decide who will be at the city’s helm for what will be a pivotal four years as Rio takes the international stage.
Tags: Brazil, Eduardo Paes, Marcelo Freixo