Brazilian unemployment poses a significant political risk for the Bolsonaro administration and their political allies around the country. The uptick in high levels of unemployment calls attention to the government’s neglect of this policy challenge. Unemployment rates may decline in 2019 but the high levels of underemployment and the spread of precarious work will play key contributing factors in the 2020 municipal elections, especially in the Southeast region where both presidential approval and unemployment are relatively high in early 2019.
The April 2019 DataFolha poll shows a 32 percent excellent rating for President Bolsonaro among respondents. A large majority of respondents find his performance as excellent, good or regular. This level is compatible with a honeymoon period but could increase or decrease depending on economic performance in general and unemployment in particular.
Then candidate Bolsonaro garnered the largest portions of the first round 2018 presidential election came in both Macapá (44.47%) and Manaus (57.30%), the capitals of Amapá and Amazonia respectively. These capital cities continue to suffer unemployment levels well above the national average of 12.4%. Macapá has the highest rate in the nation at 18.2 percent and Manaus with 18.1. Currently, 38 percent of the North region report an excellent rating for the Bolsonaro government but continued unemployment could drag this rating down toward the national average of 32 percent during the later half of 2019. If Bolsonaro’s political opposition transform the 2020 municipal elections into a referendum on the federal government’s management of the economy, then these two capital cities could provide fertile ground for center-left candidates.
However, the future of Brazilian politics will be fought over the Southeast region where unemployment rates are at or above the national average. President Bolsonaro’s excellent rating rises just above the national average at 33 percent. In this region, the city of São Paulo will play a critical role because of its 14.2 percent unemployment. Then candidate Bolsonaro garnered majorities in all Southeast region state capitals except for the city of São Paulo with 44.58 percent, very close to his national slice of the electorate at 44.03. Belo Horizonte (MG), Rio de Janeiro (RJ), and Vitória (ES) all cast impressive majorities for Bolsonaro that surpassed 53 percent with a high of 58.29 in the city of Rio de Janeiro. If the president can preserve these levels of political support then his party’s candidates and his political allies should do well in 2020. Yet, sustained high levels of unemployment and underemployment will likely puncture the president’s approval in the region and especially in the capital cities, and thereby open the door to gains by the political opposition and those candidates and parties that emphasize policies and programs that directly attend to the unemployment policy challenge.
In many ways the mayoral contests in the region’s capital cities will likely reflect the president’s popularity and economic management, and unemployment may become the best or worst indicator pushing or pulling presidential approval. Stay tuned!