It is not all about Lula any more

In a surprisingly short amount of time Brazil's Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) have come to be seen by many as the party of the establishment. The result has been a swathe of protest votes that have cost Dilma Rousseff an electoral majority and lead to a second round in which the Greens, though eliminated, may yet play a deciding role.

The ‘magic’ of Brazil’s popular President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, failed to secure his protégé candidate, Dilma Rousseff, a first term victory in this week’s presidential elections, which will now go to a run-off ballot at the end of the month. Watching the results come in with a group of activist from the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) it was not difficult to see why.  Rousseff had fought a good campaign. Her campaign videos were slick and glitzy. Her alliances with the powerful deal-brokers who dominate Brazilian politics at the local level were smart and strategic. And she had fully capitalized on her most important asset, Lula’s phenomenal popularity. The final video before polling day had the two of them engaged in a one-on-one conversation from different parts of Brazil that made me hope they had photo-shopped in the background scenes if only to cut down on the accumulated air miles. 


Yet the lack of enthusiasm for Rousseff amongst ordinary PT activists was palpable and seems to have been shared by the country at large. The surprise story of the election was the success of the Green party candidate, Marina Silva, a founding PT member and Brazil’s environment minister until two years ago. Silva’s campaign had seemed to have made very little impact and she was lagging at around 10 per cent in the polls until the final week. The Greens have no real base in Brazilian politics and their only other notable figure is Fernando Gabeira who has unsuccessfully run for Mayor and Governor of Rio de Janeiro. The final days of campaigning, however, saw Silva’s popularity rise to 14 per cent according to the exit polls and nearly 20 per cent of the actual votes received. Almost all of these additional votes came at Rousseff’s expense and the 47 per cent that she achieved will force her into a run-off with her Social Democrat (PSDB) rival Jose Serra. Serra, who also fought a lack-lustre campaign, only polled 33 per cent of the vote and so the odds of him pulling off a second round victory are extremely long. However, there is no mistaking the contrast between the despondency of the PT and the euphoria of their PSDB rivals who now appear to have momentum on their side. Gabeira, like Silva a former PT member, has already declared for Serra and it seems likely that the Green party nationally may follow suit. Silva has said that she will ‘consult with civil society’ before making a decision. Insiders say neutrality may be the best that can be hoped for. Silva polled particularly well in the cities – beating both Serra and Rousseff in the country’s capital Brasilia – and amongst young people. She also captured a large chunk of the powerful evangelical Christian vote, who hold particular sway in the violent and impoverished favelas. Part of the backlash against Rousseff seems to have been down to a viral internet campaign accusing her of support for abortion. A hastily arranged attendance at her grandson’s baptism gave the appearance of opportunistic damage limitation. Rousseff’s biggest problem, though, is that she has come to symbolise all that Brazilians detest most about their politics. Writing in the Guardian, a week before the election, Raul Zibechi hymned Rousseff’s imminent election as one of Lula’s ‘miracles’, on a par with is achievement of ‘lifting millions of Brazilians from poverty’. It is ‘still all about Lula’ said Vincent Bevins when it became clear that the voting would go to a second round. However, the voters of the world’s third largest democracy seem to disagree. The two most discernable trends in the election, which also saw Brazilians elect members of their Congress, Senate, state Governors and assemblies, was support for incumbents who were seen to have performed competently and punishment for those tainted by corruption. 

Generally speaking the more economically developed south voted for candidates linked to the PSDB alliance, while the poorer north and east voted for PT and its allies. However, PT picked up Rio Grande do Sul, whose capital Porto Alegre hosts the World Social Forum, and came close to taking Brasilia. Allies of PT also took Rio de Janeiro, although PSDB easily outpolled them in the two largest cities Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais.  PT failed to win Brasilia outright, despite facing a deeply compromised former Governor who was forced out of the election on corruption allegations and put his wife’s name on the ballot at the last minute, largely due to concerns about their own candidate’s ethics. Mirroring the national pattern protest votes went to the Greens and a Trotskyist spin-off from PT who picked up 20 per cent of the vote between them. Brasilia also returned two PT-aligned Senators for the first time in its history, showing that the party would probably have done better had it not relied on some of the questionable political alliances that it made. The same could be said for PT in Brazil as a whole. The so-called Mensalão (big monthlies) scandal, by which PT attempted to govern the country in Lula’s first term by paying-off rival politicians, implicated almost all its existing leadership, but shocked its support base. Lula promoted Rousseff precisely because she came from outside his faction-ridden party. She helped him to form a far more stable coalition during his second term with the centrist Brazilian Democratic party (PMDB) and this is one of the parties now backing her election bid.  The alliance with PMDB also brought a formal end to what remained of PT’s reputation as a radical alternative party. Rousseff’s strong backing for Brazilian agribusiness provoked Silva’s resignation as environment minister. PT’s support for Jose Sarney, of PMDB, a former President and the target of repeated allegations of corruption, cronyism and family nepotism led to more resignations of long-standing party members.While political commentators frequently point to Lula’s phenomenal popularity, it is less frequently noted that this largely came after his decision not to try and change the constitution to seek a further term in office. Indeed, perhaps when the history books are written, many may see this contribution to the consolidation of democracy in Latin America as one of his greatest achievements. Lula has also, of course, presided over a strong period of economic growth – largely, but not exclusively fuelled by a rise in the price of its agricultural exports. Poverty has fallen dramatically and inequality has also diminished – bucking the global trend. Inflation remains low and this has meant that his two main social achievements – a rise in the minimum wage and the Bolsa Familia social programme – have dramatically improved many people’s lives. Violence has also diminished in much of the country and a start has been made in overhauling some of theinstitutions of justice. Yet the state remains crushingly large, bureaucratic and prone to corruption. Social spending overwhelmingly favours the rich and is financed by high levels of indirect taxation that bear hardest on the poor. Unreformed, the country’s pension system will eventually lead to bankruptcy.  Brazil has increasingly asserted itself on the international stage – although it has still not gained a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – leading the UN Mission in Haiti and with a larger diplomatic presence in Africa than Britain. However, its opportunistic alliance with Iran and questionable voting record on human rights issues has diminished its moral authority. PT needed to renew itself after Lula and figure out what it actually now stands for as a party. Instead Lula hand-picked a successor who had never held elected office in her life, only joined the party a few years ago and went through no democratic selection procedure. Rousseff has also been accused of involvement in kick-backs and dirty tricks, which damaged her campaign.  It is small wonder that Silva – a founder of PT and colleague of Chico Mendes, who is still venerated as a virtual saint within the party – became the focus of discontent. Silva’s emotional links to PT may yet cause her to throw her weight behind Rousseff in the second round. The daughter of an impoverished illiterate family of Amazon rubber-tappers will surely find it difficult to align herself with the wealthy elite of Sao Paulo that Serra represents. But the real lesson for PT from the first round of voting is that the party needs to learn to stand on its own. It is not all about Lula any more.