Go Back

Brazzil - Politics - July 2004

Brazil's Left of Left

What does the future hold for the new leftist Brazilian party, the
PSOL? Can it compete? With the Left facing an increasingly
saturated future with at least six left-wing parties besides the
PT (including two communist parties!), the chances of a new
party like the PSOL making a big through are slim indeed.

Guy Burton

Luciana Genro

Picture It's common knowledge that Brazil has a left-wing government in the guise of President Lula and his Workers' Party (PT). But strange rumblings seem underfoot in the thicket, which is the left of the political field. Disgruntled voices are expressing dissatisfaction with the government's policies and its compromises with big business and international capital.

The PT is perceived as dominating the Left in Brazil. But if it isn't, and others are voicing protest at its measures, who are these people and what do they want?

More pertinently, does the rise of left-wing opposition to the PT present any serious threat to Lula and his government? In a short answer, probably no, but it is worth examining the path followed by this section of the Left, and where it sits in Brazil's left-wing political arena.

Recent events in the last few months also make examining the opposition to Lula and the PT particularly useful, especially since in the last month one of the grand old men of the Left, Leonel Brizola, has died, while this week the federal deputy Luciana Genro has been drumming up support for her new Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) among petistas (members of the PT) based in London.

At the beginning of June several disgruntled ex-petistas, including the senator Heloísa Helena, Babá and João Fontes, jumped ship with Genro for a new vessel. Whether it heralds a change in the Left's prospects for the future, or will be yet another cul-de-sac where others have previously ventured down, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, speculation on the future of Brizola's own vehicle, the Democratic Workers Party (PDT) had begun barely before his body had turned cold, including whether his death would mean a continuation of the current policy of opposition to the PT government, or a return to uneasy co-existence between the two.

Indeed, some commentators believe the future of the PDT is doomed without Brizola, while the prospects for a party like PSOL will be difficult, not least because there are so many other groups and individuals staking a claim out on the left.

Traditionally the Left in Brazil has been compromised throughout the twentieth century. In the early part of the century it most influential force, the Communists, were constrained by their relationship with Moscow.

And when the oligarchs consolidated power through the coup of 1930, labour was co-opted through the official unions which co-existed alongside Getúlio Vargas's quasi-fascist state, the Estado Novo.

Even after Vargas's demise as dictator in 1945 brought no relief for the Left. When he returned as an elected president in 1950, it was with the support of the unions given to a political party, the Brazilian Workers Party, set up to promote himself.

Following the coup of 1964, the new military regime wisely maintained the unions and their political patronage, ensuring that the Left remained broadly on side.

Only in the 1970s, with the end of the economic miracle and subsequent economic and social dislocation, were the old forms of left-wing organization found to be waning.

In their place arose the phenomenon of `new unionism' in the ABC region of Sao Paulo state, which propelled demands for wage rises and political liberalization to the fore. Foremost among these leaders was today's President, Lula, who was then the leader of one of the largest unions in the area.

Home-grown Communism

At the same time, these new unions were organizing themselves, they began to link up with other dissidents of the regime, including intellectuals and church activists, eventually forming the socialist PT.

But in contrast to other socialist parties, the PT declared itself unique, refusing to follow the communist models then on offer, in favour of a home-grown, grassroots-based movement.

Meanwhile, another dissident, Leonel Brizola, was building his own political vehicle. But whereas the PT aimed to break away from the past, Brizola eulogized it, claiming for himself the mantle of Getulismo and the status of father of the workers.

From a personal viewpoint Brizola's decision made sense. Like Vargas he came from the southern and traditionally independently-minded state of Rio Grande do Sul.

An early supporter of Vargas, he joined his new party in 1945 and helped set up the local branch in their home state. In the year Vargas returned to the presidency, he married the sister of a state deputy, Joao Goulart; Vargas was one of the benefactors at the wedding.

As Brizola rose through the ranks of local politics, eventually becoming governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Goulart's trajectory took him forward nationally. In 1960, Goulart became vice-president and in 1961 President when his successor, Jânio Quadros, resigned after only a few short months at the top. And when the military regime brought Goulart's government to a premature end in 1964, he took sanctuary with Brizola, before both eventually went into exile.

When Brizola returned to the country in the 1970s, he came as the successor to Goulart, and by association, Getulismo (the political movement which grew up around Vargas). When he eventually formed the PDT at the end of the decade it was consequently—and quickly—recognized as the voice of the Left.

Common Enemy

So it was that during the military regime's attempts as slow democratic liberalization faltered during the first half of the 1980s that these two streams of leftist thought existed: one the one hand, that independently emanating from the factories through the PT, which offered a break with the past and was distinctive in not having one single leader around which it rallied.

And on the other, Brizola's continuation with the past, that of the old corporate, establishment leftism, with himself as its head. The two were able to co-exist during this time, since they had a common enemy: the military regime, its political oppression and exclusion.

Of the two, Brizola's brand seemed to be in the ascendancy during the 1980s. He became governor of Rio de Janeiro state for the first time in 1983 and was one of the key opposition figures in the Diretas Já (Direct Elections Now) campaign, which ultimately brought an end to the military regime in 1984-85.

Meanwhile, the PT gained a foothold in some cities during the period, including Fortaleza, Santos and eventually São Paulo. But they were unable to hold onto these gains, losing office in the subsequent elections.

Then in 1989 it all changed. Brizola was seen to be the leading candidate of the Left in the first direct elections for the presidency. But as unexpected and unanticipated as it was, by winning 17 percent of the first round vote to Brizola's 16 percent, it was the PT under Lula who squeaked into the second round run-off against the right wing candidate, Fernando Collor.

Overnight the old-fashioned Left, which Brizola had personified, was no longer the only alternative on the Left. For Collor and his allies, this was new, uncharted territory.

Until the 1970s individuals like Lula shunned the political arena; but steadily he, and others like him, had gained their voice in the new politics of protest. By 1989 their apprenticeship has been served, and they exploded onto the scene.

Although Lula eventually lost the election narrowly—by 53 percent of the votes to 47 percent—the PT had arrived. Suddenly a party which had appeared to be on the fringe of the Left was now at its centre and challenging Brizola and the PDT.

Lula Vs. Cardoso

Into the 1990s it was the PT which made the running on the Left. In 1994, Lula was again the Left's candidate, polling 27 percent of the vote share to the eventual victor, the social democrat and former Finance Minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, whose party was allied to the increasingly neo-liberal PFL.

In that election, Brizola's PDT gained an embarrassingly low 3 percent. Admittedly the 1994 election was held in exceptional circumstances: Cardoso had overseen the Real Plan, which had brought price stability to the country and dramatically reduced inflation, which the public was overwhelmingly grateful for. The PT had also not helped itself by adopting a skeptical stance against the Real Plan, and claiming it wouldn't last.

Cardoso won re-election again four years later, in 1998. But by now the PDT appeared resigned to its decline; the PDT chose not to run by itself and Brizola became Lula's running mate in the election, bringing these two strands of leftist thought—personalist, centrist and establishment, independent, democratic and grassroots-based—together. And meanwhile the PT made steady gains in the number of parliamentarians and mayors it elected across the country.

But the fusion of these two styles wasn't to last. By 2002 the PT and PDT had gone their own separate ways. Brizola was unhappy with Lula's party and allied himself with Ciro Gomes, a personalist politician with a party dedicated to his cult in much the same fashion as his own.

Unfortunately for them, they could only glean 12 percent of the vote in the first round; losing out to Lula and Cardoso's chosen successor, José Serra, who entered the run-off. Brizola's brand of left-wing politics appeared to have finally hit the buffers.

Lula's eventual victory was complemented with an increase in the number of deputies and senators won by the PT, giving the party the largest number in Congress, albeit without a majority.

PT Discontents

But just as Lula and the PT were toasting victory, already there were rumblings of discontent. Elements within the party were unhappy at the apparent compromises the leadership had made to achieve victory, including a member of the free-market Liberal Party as vice-presidential candidate and the continuation of neo-liberal economic policies, which were epitomized by appointments made for governor of the Central Bank and in the agriculture ministry.

From the beginning of 2003, the PT discontents, led by the senator, Heloisa Helena, challenged the new government over this direction. She and others argued that the grassroots democracy of the PT was being weakened by edits being delivered from government as opposed to the party directorate.

When Lula declared that he was going to reform social security, with all its financial obligations, privileges and benefits to state workers, she and other PT discontents exploded in rage.

Arguing that this would bring ruin upon workers by obliging them to pay more, they voted against the proposals, resulting in their censure by the PT and eventual expulsion at the end of last year.

So it was that in Brasília at the beginning of June that the petistas who had been kicked out of the party, joined with others who had left of their own accord.

PSOL was founded, which according to one of the founders, Luciana Genro this week, will be "democratic and accepting of diversity and pluralism. It will be open, with plenty of debate and lessons. We want people to have a voice inside the party, which the PT no longer has."

But what does the future hold for a new party like PSOL, which as yet is not officially recognized, needing 438,000 signatures before it can do so? Can it offer an alternative to the PT, which despite being the largest party on the Left doesn't dominate the field?

Can it even compete against smaller parties like the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), which invariably subordinates its own presidential aspirations by allying with the PT?

Or will it suffer the fate of other splinter groups by not having the critical mass to compete effectively, including the Socialist Party of Unified Workers (PSTU), which was formed in 1994 by other, earlier, disaffected petistas, unionists and activists?

With the Left facing an increasingly saturated future with at least six left-wing parties besides the PT (including two communist parties!), the opportunity of a new party like the PSOL making a big through is slim indeed.

But Genro's ambitions don't seem limited to ensuring its present leading lights are elected. In London last week, she argued for a "constitutional assembly to reorganize and transform Brazil. We must transform society and destroy the bourgeois institutions which make up our country.

"The PT has never been socialist," she claimed, "and is associated with financial capital, including the IMF. We [PSOL] have to expand ourselves in society and oppose Lula and the PT. And in 2006 we will stand for the presidency, since we must show an alternative to the current government."

PT and PDT Split

Visionary perhaps; but she and her colleagues might do well to consider the present situation facing the PDT, which faces an uncertain future. Even though he was 82, in the months before his death Brizola was toying with the idea of standing as a presidential candidate.

In December the party's uneasy relationship with Lula ended, when the PDT pulled out of the governing coalition and adopted an opposition stance, claiming that Lula was doing little more than following Cardoso's policies. The party may also have been motivated by the disgruntlement that many on the Left are now feeling at the slow process of change by the government and Lula's falling poll figures.

While a PDT senator, Almeida Lima, argued that Brizola's death "could help strengthen the workers' movement", the political scientist Geraldo Tadeu Monteiro, reported to the Rio-based daily Jornal do Brasil that the party probably couldn't survive without Brizola and might find itself incorporated under another banner, perhaps that of the PSB.

After Brizola's death discussion began—and continues—on his ultimate successor as leader. And given the nature of the PDT as a personalist party, it is unsurprising that Lima has suggested bringing in characters like Ciro Gomes (with whom the party had an electoral alliance in 2002) and Anthony Garotinho (the former PDT governor of Rio before he switched to the PSB in a sulk a few years ago and then on to the catch-all, non-ideological Brazilian Democratic Movement Party or PMDB) to lead the party, both of whom come from the same mould as Brizola.

But if senior pedetistas (members of the PDT) are of the opinion that a politician can be brought in to lead the party, then the PDT will suffer. If a politician is bigger than his party then the prospect of stronger party identification by both politicians and the electorate will continue to be a distant dream. Furthermore, without Brizola, voters may well ask what the purpose of the PDT is. What is the core ideology of the PDT, when its leaders finally vacate the stage?

Perhaps a new leader might reverse the decision taken by Brizola to oppose the Lula government. This would enable whoever becomes leader to stand independently in 2006.

Alternatively, the increasing difficulty of a government desperate to pass legislation and the allure of ministerial patronage in return for votes may well win out.

But this uncertainty and lack of focus of what the PDT would do—indeed, what it stands for—raises valid questions of its role in the Brazilian Left and the justification for its self-appointed position as the voice of the workers and heir to Getulismo.

And those behind PSOL face a similar dilemma. Although they probably claim to be less in thrall to institutional political power than the PDT, they cannot escape the importance of representation.

Genro was at pains to suggest last week that the PSOL won't become "an electoral party"—which maybe what she imagines Lima and other vote-getters in the PDT think politics is about—but she rather spoiled her copy book when asked what she would do in the October elections in her home state of Rio Grande do Sul:

"We are debating our position in Porto Alegre. But in the second round, if it comes to it, I will vote for Raul Pont."

Pont is Porto Alegre's current mayor. And he just happens to be a member of the party she's just abandoned: the PT.

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He regularly writes for Brazzil on political and other matters. His postgraduate research on the PT administrations in Espírito Santo and Brasília was published in Gianpaolo Baiocchi's Radicals in Power (Zed Books, 2003). He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com and maintains a blog, http://guyburton.blogspot.com, where he examines issues and subjects relating to Brazil, among others.

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your comments to Brazzil

Anything to say about Brazil or Brazilians? Brazzil
wishes to publish your material. See what to do.