The drama of cities and ghost elections

Image: Francesco Ungaro.


The focus on the Bolsonarist disaster puts the discussion on the municipal elections in the background, almost forgotten.

on the wave of lives that the pandemic has generated, in all conjuncture analyses, in the field of the left, the central focus of the discussion is Bolsonaro and the fate of the country in relation to his permanence or not in power. It is true that we are experiencing a moment of unprecedented gravity at the federal level, with a president denounced to the Court of The Hague for promoting the intensification of a pandemic instead of fighting it, and who promotes the greatest dismantling ever seen of a series of social advances achieved. in left governments, whose cycle was illegitimately interrupted.

But the focus on the Bolsonarist disaster is causing the discussion about the municipal elections to be in the background, almost forgotten. Not that we are not witnessing movements around them, but they occur almost in an environment of “normality”, as if nothing strange was happening. As usual, surveys serve as fuel to “make candidates viable”, focusing the discussion on the opportunity to strengthen one or another party, around “saving names”. There is no question of a broader and more unified political mobilization of the left, which is more necessary than ever precisely at this time of the pandemic and Bolsonaro, as mayors and councilors play a fundamental role in the organic construction of local policies that contain the disaster. ongoing.

It is in the poor neighborhoods of municipalities that the pandemic causes the most deaths, but this does not seem to be affecting the debates very much. This indifference reflects the invisibility of local urban structural problems in general, which fall on the poorest in cities. And covid-19, precisely because of these structural problems – lack of sanitation, exaggerated housing density, family cohabitation, crowded public transport – has today become essentially a problem of the poor and increasingly “invisible” to the rich, who already they went back to frequenting its bars and gyms. If the concern with Bolsonaro and his confrontation is the center of the conjuncture guidelines, a certain disregard for the local issue and the territories of poverty seems to be the continuity of an “old normal”.

It wasn't always like this. In the 1960s and 70s, urban demands from the peripheries were a fundamental vector of popular mobilization, which led to special attention being given to municipalities at the time of the 88 Constitution and during redemocratization. The most striking advance of the left in Brazil, while at the federal level the conservative governments continued (Sarney, Collor, FHC) was precisely the real attention to the most suffering people in the municipalities, thanks to “democratic and popular management”, mostly by the PT , but not only that, and which constituted a virtuous cycle that at some point marked a significant number of large cities in the country. Ermínia Maricato often remembers how programs such as the Participatory Budget, the Integral Schools, the Self-Managed Mutirões, the Bilhete Único, became a showcase of the capacity to face urban inequalities, including at the international level. Our “know-how” became a reference and, as she says, even the “bus corridor” that emerged in Curitiba (under PDT management) traveled the world and came back here renamed “BRT-Bus Rapid Transport”. It was also the time for major advances in urban regulatory frameworks, not only in planning, with Master Plans, but in diverse areas such as sanitation or mobility, the subject of relevant federal laws.

But the victory of the left in several states and, in 2002, for the presidency, perhaps made – this is a hypothesis – the municipal problem to be sidelined, in view of the new management challenges in state and, above all, federal governments. Furthermore, if the federative pact of the 88 Constitution was a step forward, on the other hand, its arrangement left municipalities with many responsibilities, but with few resources to do so. It was a little less serious in the big metropolises, but the system of financial dependence on the States and the Union made municipal management quite difficult, and they became even more subject to political agreements (with the States, with parliamentarians who authored budget amendments, etc.) to sustain itself. While we advance in nationalized disputes, both in successive presidential administrations and in regulatory achievements – the Statute of the City, in 2001, is an excellent example – in municipalities we begin to witness a back-and-forth of advances and retreats, in punctual leftist administrations , but often destroyed by subsequent ultraconservative governments. The example of São Paulo is symptomatic, with extremely innovative PT governments, interspersed with eight-year terms of right-wing mayors who paralyzed everything that was being done (for example, bus lanes, CEUs...) or destroyed the successful policies that had been undertaken (take, for example, the harm reduction program for the dependent population “De Braços Abertos”, under Haddad’s administration).

If Brazil seemed to take off at the federal level and in its international visibility, the urban situation, especially in the poor outskirts of large cities, did not improve substantially. In major structural issues – such as sanitation, urban mobility, housing quality – there have been advances, but clearly insufficient. For example, São Paulo still has approximately 60% of its sewage untreated. The general situation in Brazilian cities in this regard, despite being one of the main economies in the world, remains dire. The housing deficit remains unchanged, mainly as a result of urban deregulation that generates stratospheric rent prices. The reduction of extreme poverty was an indisputable fact, but the redistribution of income promoted during the Lula-Dilma administrations affected the C and D classes more than the poorest sections of the E class, which mostly cluster in the poor outskirts of large cities.

The necessary mass production of housing for the very poor, promoted by Minha Casa, Minha Vida, did not manage to solve the territorial-urban imbalances, when it did not accentuate them – largely due, precisely, to the limited capacity for political confrontation in the municipalities. Much of the exaggerated and inappropriate expansion of urban perimeters occurred as a result of local political actions. These are logics that affect not only housing actions, but almost all policies that affect the territory, where we witness a generalization of perverse practices in local politics. Politicians who made their mandates ad infinitum a profession, based on electoral feuds and on a clientelistic relationship with its bases, make politics in Brazil seem to feed on the maintenance of local poverty, instead of wanting to fight it. The national strengthening of the “low clergy”, the political power achieved by certain churches and militias, and even the rise of the Bolsonaro clan are very representative of this phenomenon. Which unfortunately – we cannot hide – also contaminated part of the left. In urban peripheries, “promises to solve the impossible” have become all too common.

However, it is in the cities that the real conflicts over land take place, that the colonels or powerful families of politicians assert their clientelistic strength, and it is there that the fight and the unified mobilization of the left become fundamental to rescue politics in our country. country. Otherwise, as occurred for example with the City Statute, advances cannot be fully implemented in the municipalities, as political confrontation is necessary there, which ceased to exist due to local arrangements. Finally, the lack of a reformulation of the national security policy, which would dismantle the cursed heritage of the dictatorship in the police structure and redefine action in the municipalities, led to a lack of control and strengthening of organized crime, first drug trafficking and then the militias, which today began to effectively control a significant part of the Brazilian urban territory.

Thus, despite the advances that Brazil has experienced since the turn of the century, a legion of favela residents, from poor peripheral communities or not, continued to suffer from the usual structural urban problems, often living in a parallel world where there is no State and where the “laws” follow other parameters. Perhaps one of the most sensitive points that the left has yet to assess is the relationship between the relative permanence of conditions of social-urban precariousness in large metropolises and the rise – invisible in the midst of neo-developmentalist euphoria – of evangelical power and the extreme right bolsonarista, precisely in this more fragile and easily manipulated population. Rio de Janeiro is the most symptomatic example of a situation that, visibly, seems to have definitely gotten out of control of any republican institution.

Now, on the eve of the municipal elections, it is urgent that candidates on the left wake up to this dramatic situation. Covid-19 should have at least served that purpose. It is precisely these unresolved structural problems that have caused the mortality of the pandemic to explode in poor neighborhoods. An urgent national mobilization of the entire left field in the face of a necessary urban revolution should be underway. This should be the agenda for the analysis of the conjuncture a few months before an uncertain election – and not the exclusive discussion of the national scenario, leaving the municipalities to face each other in the traditional discussions of power around old electoral arrangements. Even because, if we want to avoid Bolsonaro's re-election, it would be urgent to start reconquering the cities and actually transform the living conditions of those who today are deceived by the illusion that Bolsonarism will do it. But the unvarnished truth is that the “top” policy, the one that dialogues directly with the citizens, is so contaminated in its clientelistic dynamics that perhaps this “disinterest” in local disputes is, in fact, the result of the interest why none of that really changes. There is a status quo convenient, which not even the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be able to change.

*João Sette Whitaker Ferreira is a professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP (FAU-USP).

Originally published on the website Other words.


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