The Workers Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) lost one of its most symbolic cities in the last municipal elections. Porto Alegre was won in the first elections after dictatorship in 1988 and has since then stayed “petista”. It is interesting to try to see why. There are of course several reasons for loosing an election. I see two major reasons. One is that the PT governments did not make more use of the time in power. They changed a lot but too many things remained unchanged. They put limits to politics that were unnecessary and people saw that. The other reason is that many people are disappointed with Lula’s achievement as president. The result of this was a protest vote against PT in some of their major strongholds and symbolic municipalities, like Belem do Para, Sao Paolo, and Porto Alegre.
At first sight the PT municipal governance and the participatory democracy process was resisting neoliberalism, turning it upside down. When in the rest of the world participation drops, and contempt against politicians and politics grows, in Porto Alegre participation grew and trust in the political system increased.
When the golden rules in public administration are deregulations, cut downs, and privatisations, in Porto Alegre PT introduced progressive taxes, increased public ownership and redistributed so they could expand the public sector. The recipe was to let people be part of the redistribution process, give them the right to decide over economy and welfare. Those without property increased the only property they democratically could decide over – the public sector.
When in the entire world the race to the bottom, along with the belief that corporations can act responsibly out of their own, was widespread, in Porto Alegre they put demands on the corporations. The recipe was to let citizens be part of making rules for corporations. A different kind of pressure was created. When the pressure from capital got strong, the mayor just blamed the citizens – empowered citizens. And by being different Porto Alegre was indeed a counter balance to neoliberal globalisation.
When the movement wanted to create a space of its own instead of organising alternative summits, anti trade agreement protests and other anti-things, constantly following someone else’s agenda, they went to Porto Alegre, where the first World Social Forum (WSF) was held. Every year the level of participation increased in the Participatory Budget process, and in every election the PT was re-elected, until last November when they lost the city for the first time since 1988. Why?
The participatory democracy did not develop at the same pace as participation and that created a gap between people’s aspirations and how much they were actually allowed to decide. The process stagnated. PT could have used the budget process to create even more spaces for popular decision making. The budget process created higher expectations among people who voted PT and engaged in participatory democracy.
But PT redistributed within a given space; they did not do enough to amplify that space, to raise taxes, multiply revenues that could be used to increase the level of redistribution and welfare. Public sector was increased; people did get better access to public service but at the same time people worked for free to get things working even though class differences remained big. Popular education took place in the Participatory Budget process but not more than that. People did not have possibilities to see and discuss the bigger picture. That created less mobilisation and less conflicts.
Porto Alegre could have challenged globalisation more and exploited the good examples – like putting demands on corporations and not privatising water – more than they actually did. Instead of challenging the limits many times it was said that issues were outside municipal power, and if they only could have federal state power then this would change.
And so they did win federal state power – Lula was elected president. As a candidate he called for cancellations of external debt, he was clearly against FTAA, he demanded land for the landless, but as elected president he has made agreements with the IMF and has become known as an advocate of free trade. People were disappointed and voted against PT in protest. From this the paradox emerged, that when people showed their disappointment they actually removed some of the good examples of citizen participation.
Like in Belem do Para, were PT developed the most interesting model of participatory democracy, this will now come to an end. So what can a president do if PT only has 13 percent in parliament, which is the case of Lula? He could use the people. Lula has not trusted his citizens enough, he has not mobilised, he has not created a counter pressure and by not doing that he and PT have lost ground.
Too many are making superficial analyses claiming that Lula is a reformist, comparing him with Chavez and pointing at Venezuela as the model. Everyone knows that capitalists, historically, create a crisis in response of radical politics, and it is far too simplistic to say that Venezuela could handle a crisis better because of its oil. And even though I don’t believe there are things as one model, there is one important thing to learn from the process in Venezuela. Chavez has been very intelligent to use, in an active way, the majority which is backing his politics. That was also the intelligent thing with the model of participatory democracy applied in Belem and Porto Alegre. To give the citizens power, knowing that this would increase the room of manoeuvre, to make politics and change together with people, not thanks to the people.
So now the PT are in a situation were they have power on federal level but have lost its most concrete existing examples on how to govern differently. Winning the national level has in this case been revealed as a limitation and not as a way of mounting power. According to traditional left wing theory to take power on national level was an important objective. That changed with the globalisation movement and ideas of changing the world without taking power became fashionable. But in a time when the left started to win power on state level, again that changed. It is of course much more complicated than taking or taking power on national level. But still it seems like a great paradox: that the election of Lula as president did not facilitate but on the contrary complicated the situation for local democratic experiments.
I am not in a position to judge the protest votes against PT. But I do know it raises interesting issues on why the left looses, and how taking power on national level does not automatically translate into local power. Interesting things are happening in Latin America. Recently another left wing government won power in Latin America. In Uruguay old Tupamaros leaders are in state power positions and there the Left Front, El Frente Amplio has both an elected president and a majority in parliament. It is going to be interesting to see whether they will learn from the defeat of PT in Brazil.