By Gabriel Stargardter
CATANDUVA, Brazil (Reuters) - The small city of Catanduva in the rural farm belt of Sao Paulo state has been ahead of the political curve in Brazil.
In 1996, the city elected leftist Felix Sahao as its first Workers Party (PT) mayor - a full six years before Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president of Brazil, establishing nearly 14 years of PT rule.
But Sahao's administration was marred by financial scandals, presaging the vast corruption probe that jailed Lula, destroyed the PT's reputation, and paved the way for the scorched-earth politics of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
The residents of Catanduva, who have benefited from robust Chinese demand for Brazilian commodities, are now fully behind Bolsonaro. They are attracted to his unique mix of social conservatism, evangelical fervor and small government, sowed in the fertile soils of a booming agribusiness sector and watered with hatred of the "communist" PT.
So even if, as polls suggest, the president loses to Lula in Sunday's presidential runoff, the whirring tractors and bulging wallets of conservative boomtowns like Catanduva suggest Bolsonarismo is here to stay.
Bolsonaro has drawn the lion's share of his campaign financing from agribusiness leaders and won the most first-round votes in six of Brazil's seven top-producing agricultural states. In Catanduva, which is surrounded by sugar cane fields, citrus arbors and cattle ranches, the president got over 62% of votes, more than double Lula's haul.
"Today, Catanduva reflects a situation taking place across Brazil," said the city's mayor, Father Osvaldo Oliveira, a Catholic priest from the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) who also backs Bolsonaro and his candidate leading the race for Sao Paulo state governor, Tarcisio Freitas.
Oliveira said the PT's more generous social spending and state-driven economic policies had once been useful, but hadn't changed in 30 years, while Bolsonaro's "updated proposal" offered a shot at deliverance: "A rescue of Brazilians' self-esteem, of patriotism, of civics."
Since Sahao stepped down in 2005, the PT has spent nearly two decades locked out of power at Catanduva's city hall. In recent years, the centrist establishment that took its place has lined up squarely behind Bolsonaro.
Sahao said a conservative sweep of Sao Paulo, with Freitas in the statehouse, would bury the PT's hopes of regaining power in Brazil's richest and most populous state.
"If Bolsonaro wins, and Tarcisio wins, forget about it," he said.
This month's first round of voting showed pollsters far underestimated Bolsonaro's enduring appeal in Catanduva and other cities across Brazil's agricultural heartland, which has become the engine of the country's economy.
Agribusiness contributed 27.6% of Brazil's gross domestic product (GDP) last year, according to the University of Sao Paulo's Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics, the highest percentage since 2003, and up from 20% in 2018 when Bolsonaro was elected.
"Our region is driven by agribusiness," said Catanduva Mayor Oliveira. "With the industry heating up, it means the city is doing well, the economy is moving."
Record-low interest rates during the first half of Bolsonaro's term helped Brazil's farmers to invest in capital, while a weak exchange rate and robust global demand have made commodity exports highly lucrative.
Bolsonaro's support for property rights and his loosening of gun laws for self-defense also appeal to rural producers who associate the PT with landless peasants who invade unproductive plots, said Allim Bassitt, a 65-year-old cane and beef farmer.
The PT's Taise Braz, Catanduva's first-ever Black councilwoman, said the most die-hard Bolsonaristas can be found among the city's elite, comprised of wealthy farmers and businessmen. Although their numbers are relatively small, she said their views have an outsized influence on an aspiring middle class.
Bolsonarismo is amplified through respected civic groups like Lions International, the Rotary Club and the Masons, which have become hotbeds of support for the president, said Beth Sahao, a PT state lawmaker and sister of the former mayor.
The city's evangelical churches perform a similar function among the working class, she added, promoting an up-by-the-bootstraps conservatism that the PT has been unable to counter.
"People think, 'I have a job because I got it, I have my own house because I worked for it'" said Sahao. "So they start to turn away from public policies, from social policies, from the country's economy."
Bolsonaro's attacks against the PT land with particular force in Catanduva, where few have forgotten the scandals over misappropriated public funds from former Mayor Sahao's time.
Sahao said he had done nothing wrong, and had been "persecuted by the prosecutor's office. The city knows that."
The PT candidate to replace him came last in the 2004 vote. Beth Sahao ran and lost in the four mayoral elections since, garnering under 10% of the vote in her first attempt.
The national rout for the PT came over a decade later, when a corruption investigation revealed huge kickback schemes on public contracts, followed by Brazil's worst economic recession on record, and the impeachment of Lula's hand-picked successor.
The Supreme Court overturned convictions tying Lula personally to the bribery scandals, and his political talents have revived his career, but many Brazilians still struggle to forgive the PT's missteps.
A decade ago, the PT was one of three parties governing the most cities in Brazil. Now it is not even in the top ten.
But it is not the only traditional party battered by Bolsonarismo.
The PSDB, long the most powerful force in Sao Paulo politics, has struggled to stay relevant as Bolsonaro has destroyed the center-right and offered a more radical opposition to the left. Across Sao Paulo, countless PSDB mayors and state lawmakers have, like Father Oliveira of Catanduva, thrown in their lot with Bolsonaro.
After winning every gubernatorial race in the state since 1994, the PSDB's candidate, current Governor Rodrigo Garcia, failed to even make Sunday's runoff.
Polls show Freitas, Bolsonaro's former infrastructure minister, is likely to beat the PT candidate, joining the ranks of Bolsonaro-backing governors including Romeu Zema of neighboring Minas Gerais and Claudio Castro in Rio de Janeiro.
If Freitas wins, Bolsonaro allies would control the three largest state economies in Brazil.
Bassitt, the farmer, said the conservative values of rural, small-town Brazil were now the driving force in national politics. Those beliefs "dovetail nicely with Bolsonarismo," he said. "They don't click with Lula and the PT's socialism."
($1 = 5.3067 reais)
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes and Chris Sanders)