Brazil’s Opposition Parties Try to End Disarray

Aécio Neves from the PSDB wants to be Brazil's next presidentWhile President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva tries to put together a government from the 11 different parties which support his administration, the two main opposition parties – the PSDB and the PFL – are trying to recover from their resounding defeat in the presidential elections.

The PSDB, which fielded the failed candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, is showing signs of a split while its ally, the PFL, is considering a radical review to broaden its appeal that may even result in a change of name.

Both parties face another four years in which they will try to form a strong opposition to Lula and, at the same time, gather strength to put forward a separate or joint candidate to win the presidency in the 2010 elections. It will be a tough task.

Last years’ presidential election should have been a walk over for the PSDB-PFL ticket. The bribes-for-vote scandal which erupted in mid-2005 ended up tearing Lula’s government to pieces and destroying the credibility of the Workers Party (PT). The scandal was a gift to the opposition.

As it unraveled throughout the rest of 2005, new examples of corrupt and criminal behavior within the government started to appear on a daily basis. Revelations piled on top of each other as Congressional investigation committees were shown live on television and the print media dug up mountains of muck.

Things cooled down somewhat in 2006 but practically on the eve of the first round of polling some PT members were caught by the police with around R$ 1.7 million (about US$ 800,000) in cash they allegedly intended paying in return for some dirt on the PSDB candidate for the São Paulo state governorship, José Serra.

The PT’s incompetence in resurrecting the scandal in such a clumsy way was unbelievable and was one of the reasons why Lula did not win outright in the first round although he still came within a whisker of doing so. Despite all this propaganda material falling into their hands, neither the PSDB nor the PFL could capitalize on it and Lula ended up crushing Alckmin by a 60%-40% margin in the second round.

Under the Constitution Lula cannot stand again (although the anti-Lula media is making a lot of suggestions that he may try and do so) and he has no heir apparent. By contrast, the PSDB has two good potential candidates – Serra, who lost to Lula in 2002, and Aécio Neves, the governor of Minas Gerais.

The problem for the PSDB is that these two are rivals for the party’s nomination. The PSDB needs to get the right candidate the next time round since one of the main reasons for the defeat in the latest election was the way in which Alckmin was chosen.

A self-appointed four-man team, which included former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Neves, was unable to persuade Serra or Alckmin to stand down and left them to fight it out. The party membership was not consulted and when (to most people’s surprise) Alckmin emerged victorious he was seen as a second-rate choice.

There are signs that the PSDB has learned a lesson. It says it will be more democratic in the way it chooses its future candidate and there has even been talk of US-style primaries. A number of working parties have been set up to update the party’s program, carry out a survey of its strengths in each state and study how to be more effective in getting its message over to voters.

Contacts are being made with social democratic parties in other countries to learn from their experience (although how that will help is a bit of a mystery) and a national conference of members will be held later this year.

Meanwhile, the PFL is taking a more radical approach. The chairman, ex-Senator Jorge Bornhausen, announced after a meeting with its leaders on February 8 that the party would change its name to the Democratic Party as part of its new strategy to draw new members and support. It is no coincidence that it wants to use the name of one of the main parties in the US.

The PFL has a strong brand but it is seen as a center-right party with strong links to the Northeast. It also emerged from the Arena party, which supported military rule, and presumably believes that calling itself the Democratic Party will remove that lingering drawback.

Its best-known member is not Bornhausen, who comes from the southern state of Santa Catarina, but Senator Antônio Carlos Magalhães from Bahia, a classic "colonel" as traditional politicians from the Northeast are known.

Bornhausen wants to end this image but it will take more than a name change to do so. First of all, although the PFL claims to be a center-right party it makes no attempt to push its political agenda (if even it has one). It claims to be against high taxation and in favor of privatization but has done virtually nothing to show that it is serious.

It wants to end the tax on financial transactions, which is one of the most onerous and unfair in Brazil, but has done nothing to do so except talk about it. It was interesting to see that, despite its center-right approach, its members voted for the Communist candidate in the election to the chairmanship of the House of Representatives.

It is a pity that the PFL has not done a better job because every democracy needs strong parties representing the main political beliefs. A strong center-right party which believes in low taxation, less state interference, a free market economy and greater individual freedom is needed.

However, the PFL has not shown itself to be this kind of party and has indulged in the pork barrel politics and corporate statism which has left Brazil where it is today, a country with no fresh political ideas and politicians who have little to offer except words and gimmicks like changing the names of their parties.          

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2007

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