Dismantling the democracy we wanted for Brazil

Gradually, the old mechanisms of the oligarchic democracy were reintroduced, including the misalignment between the elite’s representative rights and the participatory rights of people in general.

Paulo Henrique Martins
15 July 2016
open Movements

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Education workers protest against money spent on the Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 6, 2016. Silvia Izquierdo / Press Association. All rights reserved. The political uncertainties in Brazil are not so unlike the uncertainties of all the Latin American countries that have invested in the democratization process in the past decades, fueled by the refusal to return to a dictatorial system.

The case of Brazil is relevant and thought-provoking because it exposes the limits of the democracy we wanted, on one hand, and the dark prospects of an oligarchic democratic process biased in favor of the economic, financial, political and bureaucratic elites, on the other hand.

The democracy we wanted – we, left-wing supporters – was above all a participatory democracy in which the elected representatives would support the desires of the majority with respect to a decentralized and transparent political system, promoting social inclusion, equal access to collective goods and freedom of speech.

The current democratic system, developed since 1984 when the first free elections in the country took place marking the end of the dictatorial period, however, does not correspond to the set of features sought after by the democratic left-wing. Gradually, the old mechanisms of the oligarchic democracy have been reintroduced, in which a misalignment is seen between the elite’s representative rights and the participatory rights of the people in general, in decisions regarding the full exercise of their citizenship. Therefore, we believe the dismantling of this broad and inclusive democracy we wanted is in progress.

In oligarchic democracy, the representative system is built around financing from private funds, assets and financial donations from third-party organizations for the benefit of ‘their’ candidates, as well as support from religious entities, such as the Pentecostal churches, which often persuade their followers to blindly vote for their own leaders.

These elite-promoting procedures of the democratic system were made legal in Brazil as a result of two initiatives. One is to do with the process of recruiting, selecting and nominating political candidates willing to run in parliamentary elections, by means of lists compiled by political parties. These are often unrelated to the concrete, local demands of urban and rural communities. These procedures arose from what is known as ‘coalition government’, in which the president of the republic and the executive power depend directly on negotiations and bargaining strategies involving parliament and government members, concerning the allocation of public positions such as ministries and board membership in state-controlled corporations. Such proceedings afford little transparency to the distribution of public funding to investments, public policies and maintenance of the state apparatus.

In a political context where the president of the republic had the support of a strong popular base, as was the case with Lula, the pressure made by conservative political groups was relatively offset by fears of parliamentary representatives losing the support of voters as well as political campaign contributors. This strengthened the independence of the executive power. In the case of presidents with less charisma such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Dilma Rousseff, governing remains an unstable and uncertain experience.


As the conservative political elite sensed no threat to their electoral fortunes, personal and corporate pressures from Congress members on executive power became much more intense. The interest in political, religious and corporate questions undermined any prospects for medium and long-term planning. And the institutional inability to plan at the national level undermined the Dilma government. This happened simultaneously with the appropriation of the state apparatus by political and economic private corporations, and increasing political instability, jeopardizing the future prospects of those democratic achievements obtained since the 1980s.

The rise to power of the Workers' Party (PT) and Lula was, despite everything, not enough to reverse the hegemony of the oligarchic democracy. Quite the opposite. In order to manage state power, PT leaders had to concede important political spaces to the conservative elites and bargain for positions and public funds, which ended up contaminating PT’s democratic program.

This led to many leaders straying away from the ethical ideals initially propagated by the democratic left, historically sympathetic to the trade unions’ cause, especially those located in São Paulo’s ABC region, where large car-manufacturing plants are located. During Dilma’s government, this ideological-political distortion of the Workers’ Party has intensified, contaminating the left-wing political programs which were now increasingly dependent on Lula's prestige in order to face down the conservative tendency of the political system.

The progressive degradation of the prospects for the broad, inclusive, participative, Utopic democracy we had wished for stems from this combination of factors, which mark the growth of conservative and utilitarian interests, on the one hand, and the devaluing of popular and social participation in political decisions, on the other. Nevertheless, the collapse of the democratic program does not take place solely in the field of party politics. The growth of materialistic utilitarianism was also made possible by an ideological campaign led by the conservative mass media and with the goal of stimulating mass consumption and the ensuing de-politicization of the common people.

It’s important to point out that PT leaders, including Lula, are also responsible for the growing social alienation of some segments of the workers, as they maneuvered public policies such as “Bolsa Família” (a welfare program), not in the interest of increasing community participation in local and district political actions, but in order to stimulate consumption and protect manufacturing industries.

Preoccupied with firming up their influence over trade unions and increasing their bargaining power over salaries, PT leaders believed that increased consumption and a higher minimum income would be enough to guarantee the support they needed in order to maintain a large electoral base, stabilizing the government. That was a clear error in judgment. Brazilian society is now paying the price for social apathy, with the dismantling of the mechanisms of the participatory democracy we wanted.

Inadequate reaction

Even more crucial is the fact that the temporary suspension of president Dilma (while the Senate rules a definitive impeachment process) has not ignited a widespread social reaction capable of reversing the conservative tendency or even avoiding the fragmentation of the entire political system.

The two most important forces in mobilizing a leftist reaction have yet to present a united political platform. On the one hand, we must point out the increased mobilization of entities linked to the PT, now in opposition to government, such as CUT (Central Unica dos Trabalhadores, Brazil's largest trade union federation) and the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, the landless rural workers’ movement). Such reactions, however, are still mostly directed to the defense of their own party, union and traditional causes. On the other hand, we observe mobilizations in the streets involving the youth, intellectuals, as well as other middle-class sectors who are coming together in order to denounce the coup d’état. In this case, there is no centralized unit, but a combination of horizontally articulated, spontaneous mobilizations, which, depending on how events evolve, may or may not fuse into a more consistent ideological and political alternative able to work towards new outlooks.

The fact remains that these spontaneous mobilizations, organized movements and union reactions are still insufficient to create a new political scene, capable of reversing the deterioration of democratic achievements. The prospects for Dilma’s return to power are close to none, considering the disappointing results of her mandate in the last couple of years: the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell 6% between 2014 and 2015 and continues to fall; public debt reached 57% of GDP in late 2014 and threatens to reach 74% in 2016; unemployment has affected more than 11 million Brazilians; and the national treasury’s debt with the financial system is unpayable unless there is a serious negotiation with banks and international finance systems.

From a political point of view, the prospect of Dilma’s return is also negligible, especially in terms of governability. It is safe to say that there is widespread political perplexity engulfing, particularly, the middle classes. This state of mind has yet to transmute into an organized political reaction, as the construction of a future demands a new stance from the democratic left in regards to the organizational challenges of a convivial and solidary national society. Said perplexity overwhelms all of those on Dilma’s side, as well as many who supported her impeachment, who find themselves now astounded by the conservative and uncertain path taken by interim president Michel Temer – who was Dilma’s vice-president, and took office after her temporary suspension.

There is, therefore, a mismatch between the intensity of the emotional uneasiness felt by a significant number of Brazilians, and the limited democratic reactions offered by the unions, left-wing parties and popular mobilizations. It is clear that the social energy directed at resisting the dismantling of the democracy we wanted is still very limited. Intellectual and popular protests against the coup are important, but not strong enough to generate a wider resistance that can encompass the construction of a new democratic project.

Social creativity

The fact remains that party and union reactions, as well as popular uprisings, have a limited lifespan. The transformation of these mobilizations into effective action requires a solid political and emotional manifesto that enables the construction of mid- and long-term programs committed to the nation’s democratization. In the absence of such, resistance initiatives become fragmented and the social energy present in public protests ends up being channeled into sincere, although politically controversial, sympathetic sentiment towards Dilma’s persona and her double strife as a former guerrilla tortured by authoritarianism, and a woman harrassed by sexism. However, sympathy for the victim does not necessarily spur on social creativity aimed at new democratic paths.

Three objectives

The way out of this political and emotional predicament, then, must come through envisioning the political priorities to be safeguarded within social life’s horizons. At this level of intellectual speculation over possible scenarios, it seems to me there are three objectives to be pursued by a new left-wing compact, since they present the potential to channel the now dispersed social impetus.

The first one is the unconditional protection of the 1988 Constitution, which warranted important advances in the reform of the state apparatus and in the implementation of innovative public policies aimed at promoting health and education. The constitutional text promoted relevant reforms in the organization of the state, generating new notions of public policy, and decentralizing state administration. Since this new Constitution, the fights for civil and environmental rights were extended, generating acknowledgment of minority and diversity rights. Bold programs such as SUS (National Health System) - which ensures everyone’s access to public health, and a decentralized care service - only make sense within the guidelines of the 1988 Constitution. Therefore, mobilizations in favor of its integrity should be the object of a broad alliance between democratic forces. For without it, most social and political achievements will come undone.

The second objective has to do with the implementation of a comprehensive political reform that promotes the reorganization of the political party system and the electoral process, in order to restore the value of democratic participation at community and local government level. Measures should be taken towards the re-politicization of the vulnerable and working masses, so that they may participate in a more responsible and active manner in organizing political and party systems at local, state and national levels. In truth, this is exactly what the vote-manipulating, conservative elites do not want, since voters who are more conscious of the importance of their vote tend to define different priorities during elections. That is why this political reform must be the object of an ample debate and collective mobilization, in order to push conservative forces into retreat and gain acceptance for reform projects, which must pass in Congress.

The third goal is to reorganize national development models to favor the onset of plural economies, which minimize the capitalist market’s effect on society’s economic activity. In reorganizing these models, it is important to rethink the role of public policy, due to the significant presence of a redistributive state economy in the social organization of economic and social life, which represents over 40% of the GDP. It is equally important to rethink the relation between the financial and economic system, and the social function of development, in order to sufficiently overhaul the uses of collective goods such as land, water and public investment, as well as the state’s debt to the financial sector. The fact remains that the neo-developmental model adopted by PT did not fulfill its commitment to redistributing wealth and diversifying economic activity, in order to foment an egalitarian right of access to collective resources by the majority of the population. The construction of a post-developmental utopia that values collective good and a convivial attitude is, therefore, a fundamental and urgent challenge for any democratic reaction.

We are not alone

The general conditions to start this wide mobilization towards a reconstruction of the national society and the implementation of an all-encompassing democracy in the short, medium or long term are set.

Temer’s government has a fragmented foundation in the national Congress, which limits its alternatives for taking strong economic and fiscal measures, in order to fight the economic crisis and the loss of confidence in the productive sector. These uncertainties may be important assets when it comes to establishing a cultural mood befitting, short term, the social impetus in the streets in resistance to the coup, which might then be pragmatically channeled towards more consistent goals of the mid- and long-term, aimed at reorganizing our democratic processes.

The task of thinking realistically about the increasing strength of democratic forces requires a broad exchange between a left-wing political leadership, Congress representatives, unions and intellectuals, coming together to define a coherent and viable program capable of mobilizing this social impetus towards a new, political mechanism, solidary and inclusive.

Unfortunately, there is as yet no sign of this social mobilizing of forces, more in tune with democratic left ideals, contributing to such an extensive program including actions in the short, mid and long term. The intensity of the political context manipulated by the conservative media; the disorganization and imprisonment of PT leaders, with the prospect of even penalizing Lula and his relatives; the lack of identifiable leftist forces proposing distinct, viable goals - these are all the elements that exacerbate our collective emotions and further weaken our prospects of a more consistent, anti-hegemonic, ideological and political reaction.

The Brazilian case is not isolated and should serve as a warning to all democratic regimes in Latin America. It is necessary to go through a comprehensive review of the democratic left’s ideals, which have historically highlighted the struggle between civil society and the State (a typically liberal representation of democracy).

The democratic left was not able to prepare itself to face neoliberalism, which presents the market as a decisive force in rethinking what can be conceived of as both the state and civil society. There needs to be an update to the theoretical and practical foundations of participatory democracy, present in various modern intellectual traditions, such as French utopian socialism, the North American pragmatic tradition, and even in the liberal traditions that existed before neoliberalism, which postulated freedom of association and equality among all citizens under the law.

Much in the same direction, the foundations of participatory democracy in Latin America and Brazil must not discard their memories of those successive struggles for freedom such as the Zapatistas; the indigenous and black movements; the rural workers’, landless and homeless movements; and the oppressed women and mothers who rose up against the injustices of the military dictatorships.

The present moment requires a new coalition of forces sympathetic to the democracy we hope for, focused on the reestablishment of a participatory democratic practice, one that values community and associative life, and the responsibility of individuals as well as social groups in the construction of daily solidary activity in neighborhoods, communities, cities and regions. In organizing these democratic forces, let’s not forget the strategic value of Latin American and international support, including that of organized intellectual movements capable of rethinking the meaning of a democratic utopia and of a leftist ideological orientation in the twenty-first century.

How to cite:
Martins P.H.(2016) Dismantling the democracy we wanted for Brazil, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,15 July. https://opendemocracy.net/paulo-henrique-martins/dismantling-democracy-we-wanted-for-brazil


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