The PT’s New Accent and Lula’s Near-Miss


The results of the recent election show that Lula may still be vulnerable to questions about corruption in his party and faces a tough run-off election, but also that the PT is changing. A party borne of striking industrial workers in Sao Paulo state now has as its electoral base the poorer North and Northeast, the traditional bastion of landed elites. But will the PT, if it wins the election, speak with this new accent?

Yesterday, late in the evening Brasilia-time, Brazi’s Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced results that surprised many observers, but which had been feared inside the PT. Instead of a clear victory in yesterday’s national election as predicted by some, Lula fell short, capturing only 48.61% of valid votes (against his main oponent Geraldo Alckimn’s 41.64%), and forcing a run-off election in about a month. The election may prove difficult for Lula because it will be a polarizing contest in which the allegations of recent weeks and the earlier scandals of the last year and a half will likely play a central role. In 2002 Lula also faced an opponent from the PSDB in a run-off election, but at that time the PT was able to head a coalition of those dissastified with the previous eight years of Cardoso and able to mobilize anti-incubent sentiments. This run-off election may wind up being about the missteps of the administration and lingering sentiments about the corruption scandals, issues on which the PT is considered vulnerable.

Some analysts in Brazil have pointed to two very recent events that may have just tipped the election, despite Lula’s relatively favorable rating coming into it. One was the last-minute decision on Lula’s part to avoid a televised debate last Thursday. The other was the so-called “dossier scandal,” or more precisely, photos of a mountain of dollars released by the Federal Police two days before the election, allegedly intended to be used by the PT campaign to buy a dossier that proved that Alckmin had been involved in a kick-back scheme. The Estado de Sao Paulo, among others, ran the picture on its front cover on Friday.

But how did we get here?

Elsewhere I have written that earlier this year Lula’s team appeared to have emerged relatively unscathed from the set of scandals that begun a year-and-a-half ago. Before that, the PT national administration had been marked by missteps, contradictory policies, and apparent turn-arounds on key policy issues. An important international and internationalist presence in the first two years of the administration was off-set by domestic disappointments, such as stalled land-reforms and the lack of real participatory mechanisms into national administrative matters. A central concern for social movements in Brazil has been the country’s direction in its political economy – the combination of extremely high interest rates (which attracts foreign capital but stymies the access to credit by businesses and consumers) coupled with high basic budget surplus (making sure the administration spends less than it bring in, basically at the cost of social services) meant that the administration had little, very little, to spend on the social programs many thought would be at the core of a PT administration. The administration also gets less than perfect marks for its environmental record and for its puzzling defense of a lower-than-promised minimum wage readjustement.

Then came the internal political difficulties. Whatever one makes of the record of the Lula administration, or of the higher eschelons of the party, the PT itself continues to be made up of a broad base of activists with ties to (or even at the helm of) a range of social movements who were dissatisfied with these policies. This led to all manner of contention – from mobilizations at the World Social Forum to new coalitions, including dissention within the party. A number of publicized defections (and a half-dozen explusions) occurred, all moving to other parties and movements to the left of the PT. This dissatisfaction with the PT also expressed itself in the 2004 municipal elections, when the PT was severely punished in several of its strongholds, something that can only be read as a reaction to national policies. One way to read difficulties with the national administration was the political problem of its alliances; instead of anchoring its legitimacy on broad participation as local administrations have done for a decade, and as the PT platform for government called for, the PT in national power relied on an alliance with practically all ends of the political spectrum; and copying some of the worst local practices, doled out ministries and other key positions to alliance members. In terms of political economy, the administration left those decisions to some party members who felt they had no choice but to continue orthodox policies, while domestic policies turned out to be an uninspired hodgepodge of programs and opportunistic actions, thought not without some notable high moments (such the ministry of culture’s advocacy of open-source software; the discussion of reparations and slave-descendant communities; and the participation advocated by the ministry of cities).

The administration might have sunk under its own difficulites at that point, early last year, when allegations of corruption came to light. A number of improprieties about campaign financing came to light, as did a number of accusations of corruption (many of which were in the end not proven by congressional inquiry), followed by a media circus and highly dramatic political theater in congressional hearings. Alliance members abandoned the PT, as it looked like, for the first time since the election, that Lula would not be reelected in 2006, if not outright impeached before then. Some, in Brazil, declared the “dream over,” to which some notable voices like political scientist Leonardo Avritzer replied that the “PT is not over” link (Portuguese), calling for a renewal in the directory of the party. While the next party congress that took place did not provide quite the shake-up and refoundation that some were hoping for, the party did begin to chart a new course closer to its programatic goals and roots as a party of social justice and internal democracy. The strong participation of members (some 700,000 in all voted in the party election), and the renewed visibility of some party leaders close to social movements have raised expectations that the national administration, at least for remaining of this first term, would seek support among its base of movements and the poor. For at least the last year what we have seen have been a number of gestures and acts in that direction. From Lula’s part, we have seen a discourse increasingly tinged with populist and social-justice themes, and a series of publicized visits and talks in the impoverished Northeast. The administration has also emphasized its income-redistribution scheme that has reached 8 million families with direct cash transfers to those families who keep children in schools, a program credited with lifting many millions of Brazilians out of dire poverty.

The Presidential Election and the Northern Pull

The election that took place Sunday was sharply polarized. The PT that went into the contest was a party in flux, and many social movements despite reservations went ahead and supported it. Opponents kept the corruption scandal alive. The timing and manner of release of information about the “dossier” could not have been more partisan, and it may have just tipped the balance away from the 50% that Lula needed for a first round win.

But it was also a highly polarized electorate. According to polls, Lula had high acceptance rates from the poor, and very high rejection rates from those in upper income brackets. Some of it, no doubt, has to do with a kind of popular appeal that Lula has among the poorest electors, but much of it has to do with seeing the direct benefits of the administration’s programs. Accordingly, regional votes that came in were very different. The South and Southeast rejected Lula (whereas at one point in time, a state like Rio Grande do Sul could have been counted on to vote to the left), and Lula had very high approval rates in the poorer North and Northeast. The PT elected three governors – in Piauí, Sergipe, and Bahia, states far from the traditional bases of support of the party, places rather known for the rule of notoriously conservative land-owners.

What comes next is hard to predict. Certainly there will be a media barrage against Lula and the PT. Certainly some who voted for the PT this time around will change, but it hard to guess at how many, as it is to guess how events will play out. Also unknown is how those who voted for other parties will behave.

The votes to the left of the PT came in at 6.75% for Heloísa Helena and her post-PT party, the PSOL. The “HH Factor,” as it’s been dubbed in the media, no doubt made a difference in the contest, as one imagines PSOL voters would have otherwise voted for the PT. In a system with the possibility of run-off elections these hardly count as only protest votes. Unless these voters now vote for Lula’s opponent and his center-right coalition and his platform of privatizing the remaining state-owned firms, many of these votes will go to the PT. And even if they cast blank ballots in protest, this would also help an eventual PT victory. The 2% of the electorate that went to another ex-petista, Cristovam Buarque and the PDT, will be courted by both candidates. These were also protest votes against the PT, but the PDT electorate is probably not as ideologically driven as the PSOL’s, and where these votes “migrate” is harder to predict.

Lula was far from the progressive president that many expected, and his administration was far from the creative experimentation that characterized local PT administrations. But despite the description in today’s New York Times, there are real differences between the positions of the candidates, and some of them are going to be more important to certain portions of the polarized electorate than others. Among them are the expectations that under Alckmin Brazil would return to privatizations of national enterprises and a more US-friendly foreign policy. Under Lula, we certainly will see more of the same in some respects (probably not a turn-around on political economy), but there are plans for even greater attention to gender and racial issues, a continuation of poverty alleviation programs, and perhaps the fulfillment of the promises for real participation in government and land reform.

And it is this polarization of the electorate that makes this election interesting for the future of the PT – Lula’s rejection by large portions of the middle class could mean that he’s freed from having to play at a middle-class acceptability. A clear base of support among the poor at the same time the party is freed from electoral coalitions could mean new priorities. The lack of alliances this time around could mean a cohesive ruling coalition around issues of social justice and redistribution. And the regional weight of the North and Northeast in an eventual second Lula term could cause a real shake-up within a party almost always dominated by leaders from São Paulo state. A turn to the Northeast, to address Brazil’s lonstanding regional disparities in human, economic, and social development, would be a new set of priorities for the PT and for Brazil’s national government, and fulfill some longstanding desires for equity and social justice in the country. But it means more. Social movements in the North and Northeast have for a long time operated with different horizons of possibility – unlike the South or Southeast, being “part of government” is relatively new to the lexicon of social movements there, a basically uncommon occurrence until the last two municipal elections. This, of course, means social movement practices are more likely to be untainted by the bad habits of “being government” and used to more contestatory practices against ruling elites. Today the national leadership of the PT has very few Norheasterners or Northeners. Whether the PT wins this time around is one question. Whether the PT after the election (whether it wins or loses) is able to incorporate these new actors into its leadership structure and reshape itself is another.

 

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is the author of Militants and Citizens (2005: Stanford University Press). Please visit www.participatorybudgeting.org for more posts on Brazil and on participatory democracy.

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