São Paulo mayor’s grand designs prove divisive

São Paulo mayor’s grand designs prove divisive

João Doria says he is a transformer but to some he is a self-promoter with higher ambitions

If the world was looking for an Emmanuel Macron figure in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election, some would argue they should look no further than the offices of São Paulo’s controversial millionaire mayor, João Doria. There, a picture of the former businessman shaking hands with France’s president hints at him being a man with his heart in São Paulo but his head focused on Brasília.

“I liked the private sector, but I am enjoying being a manager in the public sector,” he says, sporting a heart-shaped São Paulo pin on his lapel. Mr Doria, who in his earlier days worked in television, advertising, event planning and magazine publishing, had never been elected to office before his landslide victory over the leftist Workers’ party in municipal elections in 2016.

He has become, and appears to enjoy being, a divisive politician in South America’s largest city. Controversies he has stirred up range from infuriating street graffiti artists by having some of their work painted over —their impromptu offerings are on public view more or less everywhere in São Paulo —to ordering the police to clear the inner-city area known as “Cracolândia”, occupied by crack addicts.

As for the street artists, he says he is not against graffiti as such, just “tagging”. His critics on the crack issue, meanwhile, argue that his efforts have merely scattered the addicts to other parts of the city centre.

Mr Doria is praised by some paulistanos as o cara (“the man”). But you also see slogans daubed on walls of “Fora Doria” (“Doria out”).

A marketing man by background and a natural salesman of his own image, Mr Doria —shades of Donald Trump here —is a former host of Brazil’s version of the television show

The Apprentice. In similar vein, he portrays himself as an outsider transforming São Paulo into a “smartcity” with digital processes instead of endless bureaucracy.

“Until May 30 last year it used to take 126 days to open a company here,” he says. “Today it takes five days and, as of July 1, it will be two. This is a transformation. With this we will gain time, speed, control, transparency and greatly reduce corruption.”

Mr Doria, 60, could be reasonably described as a workaholic. Night has fallen outside city hall —designed by Marcello Piacentini, one of Benito Mussolini’s favourite architects —but he still has several meetings to go to. An avid user of Twitter, he has adopted the hashtag “hardworking João”.

Brazil’s stream of corruption scandals, such as the so-called Lava Jato, or Car Wash, spurred a general disenchantment with politicians, which helped bring him to office. His idea of São Paulo becoming a more entrepreneurial city underpinned his popularity and helped him to a decisive win in the first round of the mayoral election. He has even been touted as a presidential hopeful.

His ratings have fallen, however. At first, he was “the novelty that generated hope among almost the entire population” of the city, says Mauro Paulino, director of polling company Datafolha. He says many citizens feel disappointed.

He is praised by some as ‘the man’ but you also see slogans of ‘Doria out’

This is in part because, some critics say, he has spent too much time travelling abroad or elsewhere in Brazil. Mr Doria counters that his numerous trips last year —

to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the US —are “largely justified”. He was looking to raise R$7bn ($2.1bn), he says, by selling off 1,200 municipal assets to private investors. Such properties include São Paulo’s Formula One track, which costs the city R$120m a year to manage.

His travels round Brazil have been seen by some commentators as campaigning for this year’s presidency. “No trip was paid for with public money,” he says. “I have my helicopter, my private plane.” If politicking was his intent, the trips also sometimes backfired. Eggs were thrown athim in Salvador, capital of the north-eastern state of Bahia.

In São Paulo, he has provoked an outcry over his suggestion that reconstituted food —farinata —made from flour and pasta near their expiry date could help feed the city’s poor, not least its15,000 homeless people. Some of his critics called it “dog food”. He has responded by saying his administration is working to improve the lives of the city’s dispossessed by providing new shelters and by way of partnerships with companies such as McDonald’s.

While Mr Doria’s style and background have drawn comparison by some critics with US President Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, he likens himself to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York. He is “fully pro-privatisation” and for a “smaller state”, Mr Doria notes. Like Mr Bloomberg, he says, he has not drawn a mayoral salary.

Argentina’s president and former mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, is another character he is drawn to. “I know him and I like him,” Mr Doria says of the wealthy businessman turned politician. “He is modern, efficient, transforming and courageous.”

With October’s general election wide open, the question is where next for Mr Doria. Geraldo Alckmin, the veteran governor of São Paulostate, has been earmarked as presidential candidate for Mr Doria’s PSDB party. The mayor is expected to leave his post in April to go for the governor’s seat in the election, but insiders believe he may run for president if the popularity of Mr Alckmin, presently fourth in the polls, fails to rise.

Mr Doria remains enigmatic. “Without courage you do nothing,” he says. “There is no victory without pain.”

Geraldo Alckmin needs to win national support

Straight-talking São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin (pictured above) is tipped to run for president when Brazil goes to the ballot box this October. Heralded as bringing down crime across the state in his four terms as leader, he has been selected to unite a divided party.

The Brazilian Social Democracy party (PSDB) is one of the biggest in the country and includes both supporters and opponents of unpopular president Michel Temer.

Career politician Mr Alckmin, who grew up 150km north of the city of São Paulo, is its most likely presidential nominee.

There are concerns, however, that he is virtually unknown outside Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state.

“At a national level he will struggle,” says Thiago de Aragão, an analyst at Brasília-based political consultancy Arko Advice.

“For a candidate to embrace Brazil he needs to sell more than just simply good governance as part of his political campaign.”

In a January poll of voting intentions, Mr Alckmin was backed by only 7 per cent of voters in three key states where his party traditionally garners strong support —Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná.

That was half the level of support for his party predecessor Aécio Neves at this stage of the 2014 presidential election campaign against Dilma Rousseff.

Candidates have until August to formally announce they are candidates. Choosing a suitable deputy will be crucial to Mr Alckmin’s success, says Matias Spektor, a political analyst.

“He needs to select a vice-president who either has supporters in the agricultural heartland in the centre-west or the poorer states in the north-east,” he says.

Possible centre-west options include seasoned PSDB senator Cássio Cunha Lima, while contenders in the north-east include Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, the current mayor of Salvador.

Mr Alckmin’s level of influence outside his state may have been underestimated, however.

If no other presidential hopeful matches his experience or fails to tap into national issues, Mr Alckmin may be on his way to becoming the most credible candidate.