Political Polarization Has Done Brazil a Lot of Good

Workers Party rally in Parnaíba, state of Piauí, BrazilThe test of a democracy’s health is what happens at levels beneath that of presidents, overseas observers and international media. That at least is one possible conclusion to be drawn from the two-round municipal elections held in Brazil on October 5 and October 26, 2008.

When the results were announced by the country’s supreme electoral court, it was clear that the contest over Brazil’s political direction was as sharp and open at urban as at regional and national levels. The moment revealed a Brazil where the political debate is again polarizing around competing platforms, with many indications about the shape of the next presidential vote in 2010.

The military rule that lasted since the coup d’état of 1964 gave way in the mid-1980s to a democracy that culminated in a new constitution in 1988. Since then, the election of prefeitos and vereadores – mayors and city council members – has signaled the emerging shape of national politics and propelled local candidates to the national stage.

In fact, from the election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995, Brazil’s path toward development has been driven by politics as much as by any economic platform; and the opposite poles of the Brazilian political spectrum were again on show in this election.

In the three major state capitals – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte – the results were decisive for some of the aspiring candidates for the presidency in 2010. In São Paulo, governor José Serra (from the Partido Social Democracia Brasileiro [Brazilian Social Democratic Party / PSDB] – the party of former president Cardoso) emerged from the municipal election stronger than ever.

This is because he supported the incumbent mayor of São Paulo, Gilberto Kassab of the conservative Democratas (DEM, formerly PFL), who won a decisive victory over two of Serra’s political rivals: Geraldo Alckmin (who was presidential candidate of the PSDB – over Serra himself – in the 2006 presidential elections), and Marta Suplicy (President Lula’s candidate from the Partido dos Trabalhadores [Workers’ Party] / PT).

At the same time, another adversary of Serra inside the PSDB – the Minas Gerais governor, Aécio Neves – faced his own problems. Márcio Lacerda, his favored candidate for the state capital Belo Horizonte, ended an inglorious runner-up in the first round; and even his victory in the second did not erase the weakness that had appeared in Neves’s main political base. With Alckmin out and Neves vulnerable, Serra is now clearly the leading contender to represent the PSDB in 2010; and his support for Kassab has already set the stage for a campaign alliance with the DEM.

In Rio de Janeiro, the governor Sérgio Cabral (of the nationalist-conservative Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro [Brazilian Democractic Movement Party / PMDB) did Lula a great and much-needed favor. Cabral worked heavily for the PMDB’s candidate Eduardo Paes against Fernando Gabeira (of the green party, the PV, running in alliance with the PSDB).

Paes won with 50.8% of the votes, against Gabeira’s 49.1%. This narrow victory consolidated a pro-Lula political platform in both the state and the capital of Rio de Janeiro. With Paes’s election, Cabral also strengthened the PMDB’s position in the national government and its alliance with Lula’s PT for 2010.

Divided, But Stable

The pattern of these results suggests that the next presidential elections will be organized around the same political dispute that has characterized Brazilian politics at least since Cardoso’s first term: the PSDB/DEM vs the PT/PMDB. If the elections were held today, it is probable that Serra would run with a DEM candidate for vice-president against a Lula-favored candidate (probably Dilma Rousseff) with a PMDB running-mate (governor Sérgio Cabral is now a possibility). The question is whether the still very popular president can ensure his preferred successor’s victory.

These political alliances are not as circumstantial as some Brazilians think. In fact they carry a big part of the responsibility for the country’s recent path toward a more sustainable form of development. The PT and the PSDB are the progressives in the Brazilian political arena – against the conservative DEM and PMDB; but the PSDB and the DEM are clearly more “liberal” (in the sense of preferring more market and less state involvement) while the PT and the PMDB are more state-interventionist and nationalist.

Within this polarization, two very important and new political benefits for the country emerge, which the municipal elections confirm: the constant presence of a strong opposition and a progressive power on both sides of the spectrum (with the PT or PSDB belonging to either category).

After the military regime, many Brazilian political analysts dreamed of a PT-PSDB alliance. This is still the great political objective of Minas Gerais’s governor Aécio Neves – who is trying, in a very peculiar fashion, to establish the largest possible consensus around his own name (a project that could prove itself to be, in this new Brazil, political suicide).  

An earlier alliance of this kind could possibly have changed the country faster, but the process would certainly have been more unstable than what actually happened. At this point, Brazil’s political divisions can be seen to have served Brazil’s democracy well. Two cheers, then, for checks and balances.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: www.ituassu.com.br. This article appeared originally in Open Democracy – www.opendemocracy.net.

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