“That the praise of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment”. Using the Book of Job (20:5) as rhetorical weapon was how the ultra-conservative Severino Cavalcanti chose to resign on 22 September his speakership of the chamber of deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian congress (Câmara dos Deputados). This opened an exciting period in the country’s politics which will culminate on 9 October with the second round of the election for the new president of President Lula’s governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT).
These eighteen days can be regarded as the logical product of the last seven months of relentless crisis and scandal, when the scale and depth of the corruption of Brazil’s political system by money and favours has been exposed in a wealth of unforgiving detail. But they might just also be the moment when the PT came definitively face to face with its historical mission: to change politics in Brazil.
A dark road
The first sign that something was going wrong in the PT’s overall project came in February when the election of Cavalcanti was made possible by a division inside the PT: the governing party – which could theoretically count on a majority in the lower house – had proposed two rival candidates for the speakership, and in the event lost the seat to an unimpressive congressman.
Cavalcanti ruled for 217 days, calling himself the leader of the “low clergy” and attacking homosexuals. The parliamentary political agenda was lost. Meanwhile, he got a job for his son in the state of Pernambuco and a seat for an ally at the board of the powerful Petrobras, the state oil company. After it was proved that he received money to give a restaurant a licence to work at the house, Cavalcanti resigned his post to avoid being prosecuted by the congress, which would have prevented him contesting the 2006 election.
Then came the money-for-votes corruption avalanche started in June by the then congressman Roberto Jefferson of the Brazilian Labour Party (PTB) - whose own parliamentary mandate was repealed in September, and his political rights withdrawn for fifteen years, after a chamber of deputies vote. The very figure who had denounced the PT had himself, it was revealed, been giving money to allied parties in exchange for their support of the government; so far, he is the only parliamentary victim of the scandal.
Also in openDemocracy on Lula, the workers’ party, and Brazil:
Marco Aurélio Garcia, “Brazilian future” (July 2003)
Tarso Genro, “From Brazil to the world…” (July 2003)
Ivan Briscoe, “Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula” (July 2003)
Arthur Ituassu, “Lula and Brazil: new beginning or dead end?” (May 2005)
Arthur Ituassu, “Lula: the dream is over” (August 2005)
Hilary Wainwright, “No end: the crisis of Brazil’s Workers’ Party” (September 2005)
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Three politicians near the top of the PT became embroiled in the scandal. José Dirceu lost his job on 17 June as Lula’s chief-of-staff and as the main political figure in the government; he returned to parliament and is now desperately struggling to keep his mandate. The party’s president (José Genuino) and finance director (Delúbio Soares) also resigned and there were even calls for the impeachment of President Lula.
Suddenly, for the PT, decades of work building an image of honesty and moral authority in Brazilian politics became sandcastles washed away by a sea of scandal.
A shaft of light
Yet the very persistence of the scandals created a chance of redemption. Two major elections in September-October opened up a door for Lula and the PT to start again: one for the presidency of the party and the other for the speakership left vacant by Severino Cavalcanti.
On 28 September, congressman Aldo Rebelo from a small communist party (PC do B/SP) that supports the government, was elected speaker of the lower chamber of Brazil’s congress, defeating the opposition’s candidate José Tomaz Nonô, from the rightwing PFL/AL by fifteen votes. The election required two rounds after the two main candidates were tied at 182 votes in the first round.
The tight contest in a divided house meant that there was no surprise when newspapers across Brazil revealed that the government had offered favours and bribes to ensure its preferred candidate succeeded. Severino Cavalcanti’s small Partido Popular (PP), for example, was given the green light to sack PT members working at menial levels in the ministry of the cities, which the PP controls. The PP also received 950 million reais (R$) – around $422 m – from the government on the eve of the vote to help it run the ministry and its projects.
Lula also held a meeting with Valdemar Costa Neto, leader of the Partido Liberal (PL), which used to be the party of the vice-president until recently. Costa Neto resigned from congress in August after being accused of receiving R$10 million from the PT to form the alliance which won the 2002 election.
In relation to the election for the presidency of the PT the situation is no better. The Campo Majoritário controlled by José Dirceu, José Genoino and Delúbio Soares – the ones mostly involved in the money-for-votes scandal – won 42% of the votes in the first round on 18 September with a candidate (Ricardo Berzoini) who promised lenient treatment for any members of the party found to have handled undeclared money in earlier political campaigns.
Berzoini remains the strongest candidate for the 9 October second round, even though all other factions of the party are united against the Campo Majoritário. They accuse the group around José Dirceu of manipulating the election and support Raul Pont (former mayor of Porto Alegre) for the presidency.
The opposition to the Campo Majoritário within the PT, however, comes with a price. In the first round, the current rulers of the party lost eighteen seats in the PT’s council, leaving them with thirty-four votes instead of fifty-two. The result led to the resignation from the party of long-term members such as Plínio de Arruda Sampaio - more than 400 militants in all.
After their departure, the PT will need to depend even more on the small parties which are most compromised by scandal. To make things worse, the great issue that the anti-Campo Majoritário wants to negotiate with the government is Brazil’s political economy – until now Lula’s only major asset as the 2006 elections approach.
Lula and the Workers’ Party thus face a difficult political predicament. The government and the party must face an electorate aware of their complaisance over punishment of those guilty of corruption, while attempting to show that they can govern as they have promised all their life: offering better schools and hospitals, justice and security for the people, a programme against poverty and for public benefits. Can it work? All that can be said now is that after 2005, “the more things change the more they stay the same” is not an option in Brazil anymore.