Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's candidates suffered further defeats Sunday and the traditional center-right emerged stronger in municipal runoff elections seen as a gauge of where things stand in Brazilian politics ahead of presidential polls in 2022.
Brazil's biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, both elected experienced center-right mayors -- incumbent Bruno Covas and returning veteran Eduardo Paes, respectively -- as the candidates endorsed by Bolsonaro were roundly defeated, according to full official results.
The Brazilian left meanwhile continued to struggle to bounce back from the damaging impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the jailing of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on corruption charges -- the events that paved the way for Bolsonaro's "conservative wave."
The runoff elections "confirmed what we'd already seen in the first-round vote (on November 15): a defeat for Bolsonaro's camp," said political scientist Leonardo Avritzer of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
"The left meanwhile continues to have enormous difficulties."
For the first time in its history, Lula's and Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT) failed to win a single mayoral race in Brazil's 26 state capitals.
Traditional parties to the center and right meanwhile consolidated the comeback they made in the first round, including Sao Paulo Mayor Covas's Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and Rio mayor-elect Paes's Democrats (DEM).
Bolsonaro, the politician known as the "Tropical Trump," will for his part have to work to bolster his position before his expected reelection bid, analysts said.
"Bolsonaro showed little political capacity as a leader," said political scientist Flavia Biroli of the University of Brasilia.
"The center-right and right came out as winners, but that is not the same as the Bolsonaro right," she told AFP.
- Against 'politics of hate' -
Covas and Paes both took aim at Bolsonaro in their victory speeches.
Covas, a 40-year-old cancer survivor tasked with handling one of the world's biggest coronavirus outbreaks, called his win a victory for "science and moderation."
That was seen as a veiled jab at Bolsonaro's polarizing style and controversial handling of Covid-19, which the president has downplayed as a "little flu" even as it has killed more than 172,000 people in Brazil, the second-highest death toll worldwide, after the United States.
Covas had to fend off what looked at times to be a tough challenge from leftist activist turned politician Guilherme Boulos, hailed by progressives as the new face of the Brazilian left.
However, the result was not close in the end: Covas won 59 percent of the vote in Latin America's biggest city, to 41 percent for Boulos.
The incumbent received warm congratulations from his predecessor and mentor, Sao Paulo state Governor Joao Doria, a top contender to challenge Bolsonaro for the presidency.
In Rio, Paes condemned the "politics of hate" associated with both Bolsonaro and the candidate the president backed, Evangelical pastor and incumbent Mayor Marcelo Crivella.
"The results of extremism, hate and division have been good for no one," said Paes, who was previously Rio mayor from 2009 to 2016.
Paes won with 64 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Crivella.
The other runoff candidate backed by Bolsonaro, police reserve captain Wagner Sousa Gomes, also lost in the northeastern city of Fortaleza.
- Bolsonaro candidates routed -
The municipal polls, which are essentially Brazil's midterm elections, bore the indelible mark of the pandemic.
The soaring death toll and the economic crisis that has ensued were central issues.
Brazil's 148 million voters were electing mayors and city councils in 5,569 municipalities, with runoffs held in 57 cities.
In other closely watched races, another rising left-wing star, Manuela D'Avila of the Communist Party of Brazil, lost to centrist candidate Sebastiao Melo in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
In the northeastern city of Recife, scene of a left-wing family feud pitting two cousins against each other, Joao Campos of the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) defeated Marilia Arraes of the PT.
Bolsonaro, who currently has no political party -- but must choose one to stand in 2022 -- meanwhile got bleak results for his candidates.
Just two of the 13 mayoral candidates he endorsed won, and nine of 45 city council candidates.