By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In a city best known for bacchanalia and flesh-filled beaches, the election of an evangelical bishop as mayor has some free-wheeling residents of Rio fretting.
But for the ambitious politician who on Sunday won the office – and the evangelical benefactors eager for more electoral traction in Latin America's biggest democracy – a path of moderation is more likely than one of puritanism.
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"Don't expect a theocracy in Rio anytime soon," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "Evangelicals have a long-term political project and the last thing they want is to seem like radicals."
Part of a shift to the right in Brazil after thirteen years of leftist governments, Marcelo Crivella, a 59-year-old senator and former pastor for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, became the first member of the country's evangelical clergy to reach a top executive office.
Though evangelical politicians long ago made inroads in Brazil's Congress, forming a conservative Christian bench that has been decades in the making, Crivella will now seek to prove that a clergyman can lead a lay administration without falling afoul of the many ethnic, religious and political strains that coexist in Brazil's best-known city.
Minutes after his victory over a progressive state assemblyman, Crivella struck a conciliatory tone with leftist rivals and voters of other faiths. He thanked Catholics, mystics, even atheists for the opportunity to govern and told his evangelical supporters not to hold grudges.
On Monday, touring the working-class neighborhoods where his support was strongest, he spoke mostly of the need to improve public services after billions were lavished on the city's hosting of the World Cup final and the 2016 Olympics. Now that the global spotlight has moved on, Rio is reeling from an economic recession, surging crime rates and bottlenecks crippling city streets and emergency rooms.
"People want quality services and that is what we have to give them," he said.
EVANGELICALS TEACH EMPOWERMENT
Crivella won despite an outcry among many in Rio over past statements in which he criticized Catholics and other faiths and called homosexuals sinners. Although he distanced himself from those views while campaigning, his election was also enabled by a high degree of voter apathy, with more voters abstaining or casting blank ballots than those who supported him.
The new mayor cannot therefore claim to have what most politicians would consider a strong mandate. Then there's the fact that most of his more conservative stances - against drug liberalization or the legalization of abortion - fall under federal, not city, purview.
"He was elected to administer and improve the local government," says Carlos Melo, a professor of politics at Insper, a São Paulo business school. "He knows that most people in Rio aren't going to agree with his religious views."
Indeed, evangelicals remain a minority in Rio. Despite decades of dramatic growth in which they attracted faithful away from the still-dominant Catholic Church, only about a quarter of Rio's residents call themselves evangelical, according to census figures.
Still, the overall trends that have boosted evangelicals in Brazil are likely to continue, especially as so-called prosperity gospels, teaching empowerment through faith, appeal to people at a time of economic hardship.
And the Universal church, whose billionaire founder is Crivella's uncle, has an increasingly powerful reach. Through its Rede Record broadcast empire, it has gained a loyal audience with savvy business tactics, like blending Brazilians' love of soap operas and religion in TV series dramatizing Bible stories.
On Sunday, as it became apparent that Crivella would win, some Rio residents appeared ready to accept the outcome with another local trait – humor. In a meme that spread across social media, Crivella was purported to be changing the name of a popular beach snack that shares the name "Globo" with Brazil's dominant media group.
Instead, the joke said, Rio residents will snack on "Record" crackers.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Mary Milliken)