Resurrection of the popular right?



Considerations on the 2020 São Paulo elections

In Brazil, there were cities that had the reputation of being “red”, either because of communist militancy from the 1930s onwards or because of successive electoral victories of the more recent left. Porto Alegre was seen like this in the 1990s because of four consecutive PT victories.

São Paulo was never “leftist” and neither were its peripheral areas. There is a boastful and mistaken idea that the PT is the majority in the periphery. It is not and never was. In the 1950s, the left reached only the organized working class that grew with industrialization. But just as factory growth never became predominant, the working class was also a minority. The popular right had been firmly rooted in the city since the 1940s. It neutralized both the left (PTB, later PT) and the moralist right (UDN, later PSDB).

The constitution of a PT network in São Paulo was hard work and anyone born on the outskirts of São Paulo and active in the PT in the 1980s knows how difficult it was for a base nucleus to dialogue with its social environment. There was help from people who came from middle-class neighborhoods, generally more left-leaning. Alongside the progressive church, they played an important role because they broadened our intellectual horizons.

But those who lived in neighborhoods far from the “city” (as we called the center) and talked daily with neighbors and work and school colleagues, felt the social isolation of the PT. We were children of a public school that was already degraded and we had educational limitations to respond to the criticism that the media propagated. The oldest were factory workers, domestic servants, unemployed.

We also didn't count on the unions, like in ABC. The unionism of the capital resisted the CUT; remained under the hegemony of the pelegos; adopted result-oriented unionism and supported right-wing candidates. Despite this, the militant PT won part of the working class vote and that of the other subaltern classes.


The PT governed the largest city in the country three times, which seems to be the result of a policy of accumulating forces, as was said in the internal jargon of the 1980s. But from 1988 onwards, there was only an increase in its vote in the 2000 election. In the three decades, a downward slope prevailed.

In 1985 the popular right won in the last campaign of Janio Quadros. Although it was said at the time that their stronghold was the north zone and Maluf's the east zone, they formed the same current based on the exploitation of insecurity and promises of road works. The first victory of the left in 1988 with only 29% of the votes (36% of the valid ones) happened because the PT grew in relation to 1985, but also because the election was in a single round and the popular right was divided between Malufism and Quercism (Leiva was the candidate), despite Quercia's progressive past. In the following election, the PT vote fell and the right unified and won. The picture repeated itself in 1996. It was the neoliberal decade and Maluf even incorporated health and housing in his speech.

In 2000 there was a turning point. The perfect storm included the increase in the national preference of the poorest for the PT; the crisis of the second PSDB government; and the disaster of the Celso Pitta administration. The popular right shared the votes with the toucana and the PT won in the first round with a significant variation in relation to its “historical electoral size”. It should be noted that Maluf was practically tied with the PSDB at around 17% and shared the votes with Romeu Tuma. In the second round, the PT easily won Malufismo, which indicated the eclipse of the traditional popular right. She was no longer able to garner votes “from the center right” in the second round.

From there, the toucan right assumed the representation of the entire conservative field. And this continued until 2016. In the 2004 and 2008 elections, the PT lost votes, but secured the second position.

In 2012 the PT continued to lose votes, but the unusual thing was that it won in the second round against the tucana right. In 2016, the PT confirmed the historical downward trend, obtaining only 16,7% of the valid votes and falling to a lower level than in 1985.


Middle Layers

The maps of the PT votes reveal that it has a presence in the most distant areas of the expanded center, although its advance in the lower income sectors apparently started in the 2000s. It is a truism to say that São Paulo is a city without permanence, with layouts disconcerting and a lot of spatial mobility. There are poor people in every neighborhood, slums border luxury condominiums and businessmen inhabit the periphery.

The strength of the PT, in any case, is a good starting point for any campaign.[I]. But this was always insufficient for a victory, save in exceptional circumstances. Such circumstances were more national than local. In 2012, for example, PT was at the height of its national preference. In 2016 at the lowest point.

This does not diminish the importance of local peculiarities. In the city of São Paulo, the middle classes have a greater weight than in other metropolitan regions of the country. Although the concept leads to endless discussion, if we consider only the occupational structure and income, it is quite likely that the popular classes are more numerous than the middle classes, but the difference is not very great.[ii]. Regardless of the conceptual disagreement, the weight of the middle class is visible. Also notable is the strength of the right in the popular classes. Just look at the malufista polls in the 1990s.

A party never wins without the support of both classes, even if greater in one than in the other. Furthermore, the progressive middle strata have greater cultural and political influence. It does not mean that they are better (in general, they are unstable), but that they have more material resources and time to do politics. Here I return to the importance they had in helping the militancy of popular neighborhoods in the 1980s.


In 2020 the three most important leftist parties, PT, PC do B and Psol, put forward candidates. Different projects and electoral legislation explain this.

The PT does not have a candidacy, until now, recognized in the periphery; moreover, it is rejected by the progressive middle sectors that joined the Psol. The PT has a 23% preference in the city, according to Ibope, and this seems to be the ceiling that the São Paulo left can reach. Everything else constant, we would have a fragmentation of the left and a second round between the current mayor and some candidate from the popular right. After all, the left disputes the same electorate. To win, the PT needs to grow in the periphery and then expand in the middle class. Psol needs to do the opposite and go towards the poor[iii]. In 1988 Luiza Erundina had 27,2% of the high-income people's votes; 27,8% of the middle layers; and 34% of the popular classes [iv]. Interestingly, the advance of the PT in the electorate with lower income and education is after 1996.


The unknown for 2020 is again the popular right. Although its representatives are fragile, this time it can return to being a permanent electoral alternative depending on three issues:

1 – Contrary to the past, it has a national social force. Ademarismo and malufismo never reached the command of the country. Jânio won, but did not remain. Bolsonarism has not yet achieved power in the city and state. Will he be able to consolidate his own representation in São Paulo?

2 – The strength of the evangelical churches is undeniable, but is their commitment to the right organic or eventual? Pastors know (or should know) that there were numerous cases of resurrection in the Bible. But like Lazarus, it is not easy to resurrect after four elections.

3 – Finally, can that peripheral network that the left still has be reactivated beyond a restricted generational range that joined the PT in the 1980s?

I have no idea if social media skills are lacking; if there is no message for the youth; if the left does not know how to deal with changes in religiosity and in the way of working, etc. We also don't know how much social media affected the voter's decision and therefore the polls. How to set up a campaign strategy if a significant portion of the electorate decides to vote in the last 24 hours? What are the impacts of quarantine on the effectiveness of research? These doubts also affect the right.

Still, it won't be the first time the left has confronted some of these problems. In 2012 the evangelical sector was already strong and the PT won; São Paulo once had a solid working-class presence, but informality is something long-lasting in its history; even sudden changes in electoral mood already existed: in 1988, 25% of PT voters made their decision on polling day, according to a Datafolha poll. Evidently, at that time the instrument was the exit pamphlet and, today, perhaps the whatsapp. The medium affects the political content, organization and militancy, but I don't know if it justifies the carelessness with theoretical training and the absence of a long-term strategy. It doesn't seem to me that the extreme right is the result of just a casual tactic. It has economic power, but that is a precondition of bourgeois democracy.

For the PT, still the majority party in the Brazilian left, it remains to transfer the support of Lula and the PT to Jilmar Tatto so that he is recognized. Unexpected circumstances can arise, but only those who are well positioned can take advantage of them.

It may be that the PT confirms its historic fall since 2000. Or that it grows in the final stretch of the elections once again, since part of the fall of 2016 had to do with the coup and the presence in an unpopular government; since then, national preference for the PT has risen and it would not be impossible for the PT candidate to reach the 20% range. This is yet another unknown of these elections.

If the Psol positions itself around 10%, as happened with the PSB in 2000 (Luiza Erundina was the candidate), it is possible for the PT to reach 20% or we will have a fragmentation of the leftist vote[v]? At that time, “in fact, the PSB managed to steal PT voters, in fact, its only source of votes”[vi], but the PT grew on small parties and voters from all social groups. Socialists were on the right; PT presented pure plaque; the PSB had a PPS businessman as deputy; Erundina did not have the support of PT cultural and intellectual elites as Guilherme Boulos seems to have; and, finally, there was no ongoing process of fascistization.

The battle against fascism may be longer than we wish.

*Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT(Studio).


[I]    There are many other factors at play that are not considered here, such as abstentions, regional and socioeconomic distribution of votes, PT federal governments, etc.

[ii]   An example here:

[iii]  It is arithmetic data. And political too, uncomfortable as it is. Debates about alliances, mergers, a broad front like that of Uruguay are not on the immediate horizon.

[iv]  Figueiredo, AF Elections and territories. USPS, 2013.

[v]    It should be remembered that we are discussing popular vote and not popular organization, something that the PT has been losing, but the rest of the left still does not have.

[vi]  Limongi, Fernando and Mesquita, Lara. “Party strategy and voter preference. Municipal elections in São Paulo between 1985 and 2004”, New studies – CEBRAP, no. 81 São Paulo Jul. 2008

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