- - Thursday, December 1, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO — In this city renowned for bacchanalian excess and tiny bikinis, the election of a conservative evangelical bishop as mayor stands out as yet another surprise in a year of global electoral earthquakes.

Marcelo Crivella’s victory four weeks ago marked a rightward tilt in Brazilian politics and showed the growing power of evangelicals in the world’s largest Catholic nation, a country shaken by a long-running corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August. When he formally takes office Jan. 1, he will be the first Pentecostal politician to govern one of the country’s largest cities.

“Within the ideological polarization Brazil is experiencing, Crivella’s election is not an isolated event, it’s part of a generalized pattern,” said Clemir Fernandes, a researcher at Rio’s Institute of Religious Studies. “Crivella did something unimaginable. He managed to unite the most antagonistic religious groups in Brazilian culture — the evangelicals and the Catholics.”

Mr. Crivella’s victory in Brazil’s second-largest city Oct. 31 marked a breakthrough for the evangelicals, but their influence in the country was already surging. In Congress the Evangelist Parliamentary Front accounts for almost 90 of the 513 members of the lower house, nearly a third more than in the legislature’s previous session.

Working with Congress’ conservative agriculture and law-and-order lobbies, they form the so-called “BBB” — for Bible, bull and bullet — bloc, the group that took a lead in Ms. Rousseff’s ouster.

The potential reach of that alliance has Brazil’s liberals and civil rights groups worried.

“As a feminist activist, politically on the left, I’m watching the current situation with concern,” said Manuela Arruda Galindo, director of the women’s rights group Leave Her Alone. “They are seeking not only to occupy executive and legislative posts, but to push a retrograde agenda on women’s rights, the LGBT community, those who follow religions with African origins, etc.”

Mr. Crivella, 59, a gospel singer who spent 10 years as a missionary in Africa, has backed away from writings published in a 1999 book that described homosexuality as a “terrible evil,” denounced Catholicism as “demonic” and claimed “evil spirits” formed the base of African-rooted religions followed by many Brazilians.

Although in his forties when they were published, Mr. Crivella has put the views down to an error of youth and apologized to Catholics and others. He’s pledged to continue funding gay pride parades and not to restrict the city’s legendary Carnival celebrations.

Disillusioned with the left

During the campaign, Mr. Crivella reached out to Catholics, particularly those in poor neighborhoods. His strategy won over voters disillusioned with the left-wing Workers’ Party, which held the Brazilian presidency under Ms. Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, since 2003.

Mr. Lula, once a hero of Brazil’s working class and one of the continent’s most visible and powerful leftist political figures, is one of dozens of senior politicians facing corruption charges in connection with a sprawling kickback scandal linked to the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Although politicians across the spectrum have been implicated, the scandal has hit the Workers’ Party hardest.

Booted out of government in the summer, the party was battered in October’s local elections, winning just one state capital.

In Rio the Workers’ Party didn’t even make it to the second round. Mr. Crivella won with 59.4 percent against Marcelo Freixo, a well-known human rights campaigner. As with other elections in the U.S. and around the world, Mr. Crivella benefited from deep voter dissatisfaction and distrust with mainstream elites.

“People are looking for a change based on principles, on new values for family life, for a life with God. This is a good framework for coexistence in society. It’s a good political project,” said Ricardo Sousa, a pastor in Mr. Crivella’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which now ranks as Brazil’s second-largest Protestant sect. “It’s going to mean a change for the better in the city. The new mayor will care for people.”

Rio’s new mayor is no political novice, however.

A founder of the Brazil Republican Party, he has been a senator since 2002 and has run unsuccessfully several times for mayor and for the governorship of Rio de Janeiro state — at times with the backing of Mr. Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party. Mr. Crivella also served as a minister in Ms. Rousseff’s government from 2012 to 2014.

Evangelical politicians are not immune to Brazil’s scandals either. Former House speaker Eduardo Cunha, a leading conservative evangelist, was arrested in October on charges of accepting millions of dollars in bribes in the Petrobas affair.

But Mr. Cunha’s arrest seems to have done little to slow the evangelists’ rise. President Michel Temer, who replaced Ms. Rousseff, has brought two evangelical pastors into his government.

Although 65 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholics at the last census in 2010, their numbers have been in free fall, down from 92 percent in 1970. Meanwhile, Protestants — mostly evangelicals — have risen from 5 percent to 22 percent of the country’s 200 million people.

Mr. Crivella’s Universal Church was founded in 1977 by his uncle, Edir Macedo. Today it has an estimated 8 million followers. Mr. Macedo is one of the world’s richest religious leaders, according to Forbes, controlling a media empire that includes Brazil’s second-largest television network, RecordTV.

Liberal Brazilians fear that the combination of Mr. Macedo’s religious and media empire and Mr. Crivella’s breakthrough victory in October could bring more evangelicals to power.

“The implication is that from Rio de Janeiro, they can plan a more audacious project that takes them to Brasilia, takes them to other capitals,” said Celso Sanchez, an education professor at Rio de Janeiro Federal University. “Their monolithic thinking threatens an essential part of Latin America, the recognition of our social and cultural diversity.”

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