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Catanduva shows how agribusiness connects to Bolsonarism


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The small municipality of Catanduva, in the agricultural belt of the state of São Paulo, has been at the forefront of the political trend in Brazil.

In 1996, the city elected left-wing politician Félix Sahão as its first PT mayor, six years before Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became president of Brazil, establishing nearly 14 years of PT government.

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But Sahão’s government was marred by financial scandals, foreshadowing the vast corruption investigation that arrested Lula, shattered the PT’s reputation and paved the way for Jair Bolsonaro (PL).

Residents of Catanduva, benefiting from strong Chinese demand for Brazilian commodities, are now in Bolsonaro’s favor. They are drawn to its unique blend of social conservatism, evangelical fervor and a minimal state, sown in the fertile soils of a booming agribusiness and watered with hatred for the “communist” PT.

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So, even if the president loses to Lula in the second round of elections this Sunday, as polls show, the roar of tractors and the crowded wallets of prosperous and conservative cities like Catanduva suggest that Bolsonarismo is here to stay.

Most of Bolsonaro’s campaign has been financed by agribusiness leaders, and in the first round the candidate won the most votes in six of Brazil’s seven agricultural states. In Catanduva, surrounded by sugarcane fields, citrus groves and cattle pastures, the president won more than 62% of the votes, more than twice as much as Lula.

“Today, Catanduva reflects a situation that is taking place across Brazil,” said the city’s mayor, Father Osvaldo Oliveira, a Catholic priest for the PSDB, who also supports Bolsonaro and his candidate Tarcísio Freitas (Republicans), who leads the race for the government. of the state of São Paulo.

Oliveira said the PT’s more generous social spending and state economic policies were once useful but haven’t changed in 30 years, while Bolsonaro’s “updated proposal” offers a chance for liberation: “A rescue of Brazilians’ self-esteem, of patriotism , of civics.”

Since Sahão left office in 2005, the PT has spent nearly two decades out of power in Catanduva’s mayor. In recent years, the political center, which has predominated in command of the capital, has aligned itself with Bolsonaro.


The first round of elections showed that polls underestimated Bolsonaro’s enduring appeal in Catanduva and other municipalities fueled by agribusiness, which has become the engine of the country’s economy.

Agribusiness contributed 27.6% of Brazil’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) last year, according to the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics at the University of São Paulo, the highest percentage since 2003, and up from 20% in 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected.

“Our region is driven by agribusiness,” said the mayor of Catanduva. “With the industry heating up, it means the city is doing well, the economy is moving.”

Interest rates at record lows during the first half of Bolsonaro’s term helped Brazilian farmers invest in capital, while a weak real and robust global demand made commodity exports highly profitable.

Bolsonaro’s support for property rights and his easing of arms laws also attract rural producers who associate the PT with the landless who invade unproductive areas, said Allim Bassitt, a 65-year-old sugarcane and cattle producer.

The first black councilor in Catanduva, Taise Braz, from the PT, said that the most staunch Bolsonaristas can be found among the city’s elite, made up of wealthy farmers and businessmen. Although their numbers are relatively small, she said her views have a formidable influence on a middle class that aspires to such a position.

Bolsonarism is amplified through respected civic groups such as Lions International, the Rotary Club and the Freemasons, which have become focal points of support for the president, said Beth Sahão, a PT state deputy and sister of the former mayor.

The city’s evangelical churches play a similar role among the working class, she added, promoting an entrepreneurial conservatism that the PT has been unable to combat.

“People think: ‘I have a job because I won it, I have my own house because I worked for it,'” said Sahão. “So they start to move away from public policies, from social policies.”


Bolsonaro’s attacks on the PT hit Catanduva with particular force, where few have forgotten the scandals of embezzlement of public funds during the time of former mayor Sahão.

Sahão said that he did nothing wrong and that he was “persecuted by the prosecution. The city knows that.”

The PT candidate to replace him came in last in the 2004 poll. Beth Sahão ran and lost in the four mayoral elections since then, receiving less than 10% of the vote in her first attempt.

The PT’s national shake-up came more than a decade later, when a corruption investigation uncovered massive bribery schemes in public contracts, followed by the worst economic recession on record in Brazil and the impeachment of Lula’s handpicked successor.

The Supreme Court overturned the convictions that linked Lula to corruption scandals, and his political talents have resurrected his career.

A decade ago, the PT was one of the three parties that most governed cities in Brazil. Now it’s not even in the top ten.

But this is not the only traditional party plagued by Bolsonarism.

The PSDB, for a long time the most powerful force in São Paulo politics, has found it difficult to stay relevant, as Bolsonaro has strongly shaken the center-right and offered a more radical opposition to the left. In São Paulo, numerous state deputies and PSDB mayors, such as Father Oliveira, from Catanduva, allied themselves with Bolsonaro.

After winning all government disputes in the state since 1994, the PSDB candidate, current governor Rodrigo Garcia, did not even make it to the second round this Sunday.

Polls show that Freitas, Bolsonaro’s former minister of infrastructure, is numerically ahead of the PT candidate, adding to the series of governors who support Bolsonaro, which includes Romeu Zema, from Minas Gerais (Novo), and Claudio Castro (PL) , in Rio de Janeiro.

If Freitas is elected, Brazil’s three largest state economies will be controlled by Bolsonaro allies.

Bassitt, the farmer, said the conservative values ​​of a rural, small-town Brazil are now the driving force of national politics. These beliefs “fit very well with Bolsonarism,” he said. “They don’t match Lula and PT’s socialism.”

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