Brazil After Four Years of Lula

Against the Current, No. 127, March/April 2007

João Machado & José Corrèa Leite

UNLIKE PREVIOUS BRAZILIAN elections, the 2006 elections were marked by a high level of apathy. The superficial explanation for this is that new electoral regulations greatly restricted the propaganda that previously saturated voters over several months. A stronger explanation, however, is to be found in the frustrated hopes of the most politicized sectors after four years of Lula’s government — frustration revealed in the almost complete absence of the kind of vibrant street activity that characterized the Workers Party (PT) in the past (with activists now replaced by professional politicians) or in the loss of any “vote of conviction” for the PT.

It was predictable that this should happen in the first big electoral battle since the explicit conversion of the Lula group to neoliberalism (or social-liberalism) and the revelation of deep-rooted corruption within the PT. But the widespread disenchantment with politics — especially with the idea that political power can be a vehicle for social change and emancipation — has deeper roots.

Since the return of democracy in the 1980s, many hopes have been frustrated. There was the hope invested in the main party of opposition to the military dictatorship (the PMDB, which was seen as a “democratic front”), the hope generated in 1989 by the first post-dictatorship presidential election, and even the optimism over the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government (PSDB) in its early years. The frustration with Lula, and above all with the PT, was therefore the last and most serious in a long line of disappointments.

We also need to take account of the changes in Brazilian society since 1990. The four years of Lula — following eight of Cardoso and five of Collor-Itamar — are also a period of Brazil’s increasingly subordinate insertion into the world market, neoliberal reshaping of its productive capacity, economic stagnation, breaking down of old class relations and identities, the advance of individualism and consumerism, ideological regression and deterioration of citizens’ political activity.

The PT’s Evolution

The PT, formed as a result of an upsurge in the workers’ movement at the end of the ’70s, was an expression of working-class activity — above all in the trade union movement — and among certain layers of the popular movement. Up until the beginning of the ’90s, it was correct to say that the majority of the PT was part of the socialist left, solidly rooted in working-class struggles and in the mass movement.

The great working-class strongholds created as a result of the huge growth of Brazilian industry during the ’60s and ’70s were pulverized by the unemployment unleashed by a neoliberal offensive. Working-class self-activity fell, the working class itself fragmented, and the soil from which the PT had nourished itself ceased to exist.

The most militant, class struggle-oriented trade unions — especially the CUT — suffered greatly. A process of bureaucratization took place that began to change their character.

At the same time, the PT maintained a steady growth in the electoral arena. The impact of the international crisis of the left and the consequent loss of a left orientation, combined with the weakening of both working-class activity and the mass movement triggered a transformation in the character of the PT majority, including its most left-wing currents.

From a party solidly rooted in the working class, the PT steadily became ever more “institutionalized” into the capitalist order. The political horizons of most militant PT activists narrowed to managing electoral campaigns, not leading social struggles. Many old cadres with a vision of socialism gave up militant activity and left the PT, while the bulk of the new generation of militants came into the PT without socialist perspectives or much connection to social struggles.

This was a slow and contradictory process. The PT militants’ longstanding roots in the left and in the working class could not vanish overnight. Moreover, the party has hewed to a left-discourse, has opposed neoliberal governments (with some attempts to mobilize) and has even been capable of pushing forward progressive movements such as the World Social Forum. The left discourse does not reflect the perspectives of the great majority of the PT leadership. Instead they reflect a tactical opportunism (including electoral) as well as being impacted by social forces to the left of the party. In fact those elements involved in movements such as the World Social Forum and its “alternative-worldview” were a minority.

Lula’s electoral triumph consolidated and deepened this change in perspectives.  From the beginning of the ’90s Lula has been the principal agent pushing for an electoral orientation, giving up any real socialist perspectives. As president of the Republic he has been able to use the great powers of his office to impose his vision on the entire party and marginalize left-wing opponents.

The majority of the PT militants, above all those in the leadership, are no longer part of the socialist left. Meanwhile the bulk of the socialist left, rooted in the working class and adhering to a perspective of working-class independence, lost its social base, changed its orientation and was dispersed. Today the socialist left is divided, on the defensive and suffering a crisis of perspectives. There no longer exists the one thing that distinguished the Brazilian left from the rest of Latin America throughout the 1980s and 1990s — mass, socialist, political action, rooted in the organized proletariat and autonomous from the capitalist class.

The same thing has happened to the social movements. If the ’80s was a decade of big mobilizations, the ’90s saw a decline. Throughout the 1990s, the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) was the only social movement capable of mobilizing on a large scale. But from the beginning of the Lula government it too has been at an impasse.

The trade unions long ceased to have any great political impact. In this context, the new generations don’t have the experience of big social mobilizations. The dismantling of left political identity built up in Brazil has, to a large extent, already occurred.

What emerged in these elections was a neo-populist PT — an electoral machine based on Lula’s own charismatic leadership and in firm control of public funds; a machine committed to the stability of the ruling classes, but which presents itself as the champion of the poor against an insensitive elite — thereby ensuring that business continues as usual.

Brazil continues to stagnate in a world economy experiencing rapid growth. Regional integration is paralyzed. The social crisis is acute, with no hope of a qualitatively better future for the population at large. Multiple forms of organization spring up, without managing to link up any more ambitious actions — precisely what should be the role of political parties.

In such a context, the Left Front candidacy of Heloisa Helena, running for president against Lula, expressed resistance to neoliberalism with a popular face. It was the new element in the election — even if it was not enough to put an end to the crisis of progressive politics in Brazil.

The most important party of the Left Front, by far, is the P-SOL — which only had its registration approved in September 2005. The other two, the PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party, inspired by the tradition of Nahuel Moreno) and the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), a left communist party, have much less political (and especially, electoral) weight.

The P-SOL was formed after the 2003 expulsion from the PT of Senator Heloísa Helena and three national deputies (Luciana Genro, Babá and João Fontes). The main reason for their expulsion was their vote against the neoliberal reform of Social Security. After their expulsion, a few thousand militants began to organize a new party. In June 2004 the new party was named P-SOL. Some of the founders had been active in building the PT since its foundation in 1980, but they quit in order to maintain their political coherence. Also at the time of the Social Security vote eight PT deputies abstained; five joined the P-SOL in 2005.

The majority of the PT Left made declarations against the neoliberal reform of Social Security, but submitted to the PT’s discipline and voted in favor of the Social Security “reform.” In general, the PT Left has criticized the political orientation of Lula’s government, especially its economic policy. But they have explained that it is necessary to remain inside the PT and the government in order to “dispute the orientation of the government from inside.” Many of the Left PT leaders are founders of the PT and it was difficult for them to consider quitting. They also said it would be very hard to build a new party.

In the 2006 electoral campaign those of the PT Left that remained in the PT supported Lula without criticism. After the election, some try to return to the “dispute the government orientation from inside” but it’s more difficult to believe their sincerity now. We can conclude that the PT Left has adapted to a government that will remain a social-liberal government. Perhaps in the future some of them will change their line, but for now that’s how things are.

The P-SOL went into these elections with a few thousand militants, many of them trade unionists, with significant influence among youth, and with some presence in parliament: one senator, seven federal deputies and four state deputies, as well as few dozen local counselors. In any case, it was a minority force, bringing together only a part of the old PT left and a smaller group of militants from other parties (mainly the PSTU).
In fact the P-SOL played a more significant part in these elections than its fragile organization and minority social base would have suggested — thanks to the popularity and charisma of Senator Heloisa Helena.

Before the campaign began, opinion polls gave Heloisa 4-6% of the vote, putting her in third place. As the media began to give more space to the elections, the presidential candidates had a few minutes a day on the TV networks (especially the country’s biggest network, Rede Globo). By the middle of August, Heloisa Helena stood at 12% in the polls. In addition, this surge in the polls can be explained by the appeal of a woman recognized by all as a fighter. For several weeks she came in for little concerted criticism while the media focused on the worsening image of the Lula government.

However, from the moment the official election TV propaganda began and the big electoral machines moved into action that relatively favorable situation evaporated.

In one corner stood the PT and its political allies, supporting Lula, and in the other corner was Geraldo Alckmin, the candidate supported by an alliance between the PSDB and the PFL. The material and organizational resources behind these political blocks had decisive weight. The Left Front could not compete. This disproportion was amplified by the law that allocates radio and TV airtime for party political broadcasts, which is based on results from the previous election, when the P-SOL and Left Front did not exist.

The organizational weakness of the P-SOL and the Left Front made it impossible to draw into the campaign all those who wanted to help. Part of the electorate that identified with Heloisa also realized that her support was too weak to offer an electoral alternative. The pressure to vote tactically increased, especially in the final weeks when the distance between Lula and Alckmin shrank and it began to look as if the election would go to a second round.

Another difficulty for the Left Front campaign was that its organizational weakness was also a political weakness. In most states it proved impossible to build a unified political leadership. Because of internal differences both within the P-SOL and between P-SOL and the other parties of the Front, only a manifesto was distributed. The drawing up of the Front’s government program was never finished.

The differences among the three parties that make up the Front aren’t an obstacle to adopting a unified platform, but organizing the debate necessary to develop the platform proved impossible. Brazil is also a huge country, where it is difficult and costly to organize national meetings.

This does not mean that Heloisa Helena and the other candidates of the P-SOL and the Front did not present programmatic alternatives. However, the fact that there was no officially approved programmatic document limited the impact that these alternatives had, and opened up Left Front candidates to criticism.

Another political limitation of Heloisa’s campaign was that she spoke much more in the first person than as representative of a political project. To some extent this was inevitable. The logic of the presidential contest is that the candidates stand, not their parties or fronts. This was magnified, too, by the fact that Heloisa Helena had national standing while the organization behind her was a still in its infancy, still without a collective leadership, and at a time of little mobilization.

Another negative repercussion, although probably of little significant impact on the results, was the issue of decriminalizing abortion. Although the position of the great majority of P-SOL and of the Left Front is in favor of decriminalization, Heloisa Helena, for personal reasons of conscience, is against. The media spotted this discrepancy and persistently asked her about her position (which no other candidates were asked).

In the first round, Lula won 46.66 million votes, which is 48.61% of the valid votes (excluding blank votes and spoilt ballots). Alckmin got 39.97 million votes, or 41.64%. Placing third, Heloisa Helena received 6.575 million votes, or 6.85% of the valid votes. Senator Cristovam Buarque, of the PDT (usually regarded as a left populist party), won 2.64%.

To win more than 6.5 million votes is a very impressive result for a candidate who was always identified as “radical,” and who, in the final televised debate, stated her reason for running was the need to reassert the commitment to socialism, which the PT had abandoned. The votes for Heloisa were mainly votes for an ethical, anti-neoliberal platform.

Helena won more than 17% of the vote in the state of Rio de Janeiro — a state usually considered the most politicized in the country — and 25% in her home city of Maceió, even though this is in the Brazilian northeast, the region most benefited by the Lula government’s assistance programs, and where he got his biggest votes.

In the first round approximately 10% of the Brazilian voters, in casting their vote for Heloisa Helena or Cristovam Buarque, opposed both versions of the neoliberal model.

The P-SOL elected three federal members of the National Assembly (Luciana Genro in Rio Grande do Sul, Ivan Valente in São Paulo and Chico Alencar in Rio de Janeiro) and three members of State Assemblies (Gianazzi and Raul Marcelo in São Paulo and Marcelo Freixo in Rio de Janeiro). Neither PSTU or PCB candidates were elected.

Thus the P-SOL comes out of these elections weaker, as a party, than it went into them. This is explained mainly by the small size and extreme fragility of the P-SOL as a party and by the enormous difficulty of achieving unity in action. The P-SOL was not robust enough or extensive enough to stand candidates in sufficient numbers to have a real presence in key regions and sections of society. We lost part of the political capital we brought from the PT, including elected positions in state and national assemblies.

Part of the P-SOL leadership, rooted in the trade unions, proved unfamiliar with organizing an electoral campaign. In this sense Heloisa played a hugely important part in sustaining the relentless rhythm of the campaign in a country the size of a continent, without the material resources required.

The financial resources of the members of parliament are important elements to build the party (not only the salaries of the MPs, but the resources to contract parliamentary secretaries, who can support the building of the party, too). When the PT was a poor party (many, many years ago), these resources were the main source supporting the party’s functioning (for example, to pay for trips to meetings of the national leadership). Over the next two years P-SOL will have fewer political and financial resources. The building of the party will be more difficult.

The PT Goes to the Elections

The PT had been preparing for this election since the 2004 municipal elections, which revealed how fragile the PT was in the big centers of the Southeast and South. But once the cash-for-votes scandal broke, the party’s situation became seriously compromised. In June 2005, Roberto Jefferson, president of the rightist RTB and one of the parties that supports Lula’s government, denounced the mensalão, a monthly payment to members of parliament for votes in favor of certain projects.

While obviously not officially admitted, paying members of parliament for their support is a Brazilian practice. Traditionally this was not through cash payments, but arranging “parliamentary amendments” by which the MPs favored their electoral basis. (The novelty of paying in cash was used by the Cardoso government to approve the constitutional amendment allowing his re-election, but this was not a regular practice.)

The investigation uncovered the fact that one source of the money was a businessman, Marcos Valério, who had worked previously with the PSDB. Thus Lula’s government is not only the heir of Cardoso’s economic policy but heir to the same channels of corruption. It is not possible to know exactly the range of corruption, but it’s obvious that it is very large.

The scandal provoked the fall of José Dirceu, former president of the PT and close adviser to Lula, as well as that of many other PT leaders, but did not touch Lula, who by the beginning of 2006 was the clear favorite. The cash-for-votes scandal was buried by subsequent revelation of the “vampires” and “bloodsuckers” scandals (involving overcharging of blood supplies and ambulances to local health services).

All the commentators agree that two factors combined to make Lula’s vote lower than expected.

First was the “dossier” scandal, uncovered by the federal police. The dossier involved corruption in the Ministry of Health during the Cardoso government. The PT’s electoral campaign was arranging to buy a dossier that would implicate the PSDB candidate for governor of São Paulo, José Serra, who had been the former Minister of Health. Like many investigations of corruption over the last years, the PT and the PSDB (and their respective allies) are implicated. Neither has an interest in pursuing a serious investigation.

Second, Lula didn’t turn up to the final TV debate, held three days before the elections on the country’s main TV network. In fact Lula never turned up to any of the debates!

Nonetheless Lula managed to hold onto his identification with the poorest sections of the population, and with those living in the most “underdeveloped” regions of the country, through a combination of his charisma and assistance policies.

The Bolsa Família, the main assistance program of Lula’s government, unifies and qualitatively extends many programs that already existed. The money comes from the national government, but is distributed by the local authorities (there are state programs too). Today some 25% of Brazilian families receive money from the program, generally some $30-40 a month. It’s evident that the Bolsa Família is one of the main reasons for Lula’s victory. In the Northeast (the poorest region), where Lula received 60-70% of the votes, a little less than half of the families receive assistance.

Lula has been defeated in the South and in São Paulo, where the program touches fewer families. The Bolsa Família program carries considerable electoral weight, and the symbolism of having someone of humble origins as President of the Republic still resonates.

On the other hand, the more affluent and conservative sectors tended to identify with Alckmin, who personifies the meanest kind of neoliberalism. In addition to this, “dossiergate” demonstrated the PT machinery’s daily recourse to Mafioso methods — even jeopardizing Lula’s own re-election. This flaunting reinforced the anger of some sections of the middle class and the bourgeoisie have toward the PT.

Lula and the PT emphasized Alckmin’s identification with the rich and the policies of the Cardoso government. In the second round they increased their promises to the poor, pointing to a supposed left-wing character of their government, while at the same time giving assurances that they would not change its economic policies. They even said they will cut public spending!

Thus the social identification of the poor with Lula is more a question of a state clientele, where the use of public funds for compensatory income-support policies has an enormous impact, especially given the majority’s extreme poverty. An Alckmin government would have been the same as a second Lula government in areas like foreign policy, but there is no reason to think that Lula will break with neoliberal orthodoxy.

The second round involved several state governor contests as well as the presidential election. The P-SOL decided not to support either candidate for president, even though some in the party were in favor of voting for Lula in order to defeat Alckmin. Others put forward the slogan “No vote for Alckmin,” leaving open whether people should vote for Lula or spoil their ballot.

Sociologist Ricardo Antunes, one of the founders of the P-SOL, explained his reasons for not supporting Lula in the second round in an interview with Carta Maior Agency:

It is obvious that Lula and Geraldo Alckmin are not the same, but the shape of their economic policies, including the links to finance capital and large-scale industrial capital, is. While Alckmin is the more traditional candidate of the right, the Lula government comes out of the social struggles, but ended up embracing the basic tenets of the right. In this way, Lula effectively demobilizes the social struggles.

For years, Fernando Henrique Cardoso tried to reform pensions and tax pensioners. But he failed because of the opposition of the social movements. The Lula government proved extremely “competent” in undermining the Brazilian left which was broken up and fragmented. The challenge of the P-SOL and the social movement is to bring those fragments back together again. The confusion generated by Lula is so great that he is seen by the social movements at one moment as an enemy, at another as an ally or as part of a government that is in dispute. Therefore between him and Alckmin I do not know which is worst. (10/13/2006)

This view was shared by most members. However the P-SOL did not campaign in favor of casting a blank vote. Its position was a way of respecting the views of those who had voted for Heloisa and now felt inclined to vote for Lula.

Lula won the seond round with 60.8% of the vote. He announced that he intended to implement “tough fiscal policies.”

The Future

The P-SOL and Left Front need to carefully analyze and discuss their political project. Today’s neoliberal Brazil is very different from the developmentalist Brazil of previous years, but the past still colors our political imagination.

Lula displayed great clarity in engaging with this reality, which had already been consolidated under the Cardoso government — from pension reform to the family grant scheme. During Cardoso’s government there was a paradoxical lessening in the concentration of income — a slight rise in income for a large number of poor and a squeeze on the middle classes and better-paid workers — the historical privileges of the 20,000 families who rule Brazil were preserved. In fact they prospered more than ever before. This is not a viable model for the country, but it is an effective way of maintaining stability in one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Left-wing public opinion, the organized and conscious sections of the industrial working class, those layers of the middle class and the intelligentsia that are actively engaged as citizens, have seen their identity diluted by deepening proletarianization and job insecurity. These segments, the product of a period of national developmentalism, according to the schemas of the left should have become the backbone of a new historic block, fusing with the mass of the poor. Instread they have been the losers under the new, Lula-style, regime.

There is still space for the left in Brazil (even though at the moment this is a minority space). However, any project which aims to win hegemony, seeks a just, sovereign and prosperous nation, and wants to open the way for a transition to the building of socialism, will face two big challenges.

First, it must recover the aspirations of earlier periods of developmentalism. These include growth, jobs and wages, but they also imply a series of issues that are not possible in the foreseeable future (a prosperous economy, dynamic trade unions, high-quality public health and education, the possibility of social advancement). It also means including new concerns — ecology, free access to knowledge, culture, sexuality, identity politics and anti-globalization. These are strategic issues, of particular importance to the youth, without which there can be no political recomposition of the left.

Second, it will have to re-establish links with the impoverished masses, with the majority of the population that today backs Lula at the ballot box. The poor will remain unreceptive to a left that doesn’t value income-support policies.

Lula’s neo-populism has found a stable formula for addressing the impoverished masses, just as Getulio Vargas, in the 1930s and ’40s, offered jobs and social advancement to the working class in the industrial framework of that time. In the same way that the break with old-style populism was only possible through the autonomous action of those who had been its target, so a break with Lulism will only be possible when those policies guaranteeing income and/or jobs become universal, however unlikely this is in the neoliberal world.

Beyond these more immediate challenges, of course, and something that needs to be combined with them, is the bigger challenge of rebuilding the international credibility of the socialist project and developing a new transitional program.

ATC 127, March-April 2007