The PT: what went wrong?

Democratic Brazil Divided
Edited by Peter R Kingstone and Timothy J Power
2017, University of Pittsburgh Press
301 pages, paperback

A QUESTION that undoubtedly is being asked by anyone interested in recent political developments in Brazil must be: where did it all go wrong for the Partido dos Trabalhadores?

The election in 2002 of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva as president was a watershed in Latin America’s recent history, inaugurating 14 years of PT rule that was – at least for a decade – transformative for the poorest sectors of society.

In January 2011, the highly popular Lula handed over to Dilma Rousseff, whose own re-election in 2014 appeared to demonstrate that a sea-change had occurred in Brazilian politics and the Left would be in power for the long haul.

Both presidents had impeccable popular credentials: Lula as a former shoeshine boy who had led the rise of independent trade unionism in the 1970s that had scuffed the jackboots of the generals, and Rousseff, as a former Marxist guerrilla who had resisted the country’s dictatorship after the 1964 coup and was tortured and jailed for her troubles.

In the period 2002–12, as this book points out, inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient improved from 0.60 to 0.53, indigence fell from 30% to 7% of the population, unemployment fell from 12% to 6%, real wages rose, school enrolment soared, and cash-transfer programmes contributed to the virtual elimination of hunger.

These represent staggering social achievements – underpinned by equally impressive macroeconomic gains that brought inflation and public debt under control – and hence the best advertisement possible for continued control by the PT.

Most important of all, the PT represented a new kind of politics – incorruptible, clean, ideologically motivated, and disciplined in a political system dominated by a rentier elite rotten to the core. Moreover, Lula came to power at the height of the “pink tide” of leftwing victories across Latin America, greatly enhancing Brazil’s international profile. It was on the map, a leading “BRIC” economy that won the right to stage the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Genuine participation was at the heart of this new politics, and Brazil became a world leader in giving the great unwashed a real say in their affairs, creating a network of institutional structures across this vast country that fed ideas upwards to the federal ministries which ultimately made social policy based on real intelligence from every nook of the realm.

The PT’s rise to power not only appeared to show that the Brazilian masses could finally enjoy a meaningful stake in their country’s abundant natural riches, but that its newly democratic machinery actually worked to deliver legitimate outcomes.

Yet within months of Rousseff’s second presidential victory in 2014, after a re-election campaign that was already being buffeted by a worsening economy and a corruption probe which rapidly took on a life of its own, a classic political crisis erupted. In early 2015, a wave of public demonstrations over graft gathered momentum and fatally wounded the president, even though she was not herself implicated in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) probe.

However, other members of the PT – including some of her prominent friends – were.

The president’s popularity ratings took a nose-dive amid stalling growth following the end of the commodities “supercycle”. A perfect storm of grievances set the scene for the accusations that were then levelled against her over government budgeting prior to her 2014 re-election – painting a picture of cynical manipulation of the economy for political gain.

Rousseff’s political skills finally failed her, and the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha of the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (PMDB, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) – a longstanding PT ally – turned on his master with an almost Roman zeal for betrayal. Impeachment proceedings began, and on 31 August 2016 Rousseff was finally unseated, bringing to an inglorious end the PT interregnum.

The fall had been far more rapid than the rise, confirming a picture painted so frequently of a country perpetually trapped between its own vision of grandeza and its ungovernable, feckless political system.

Nonetheless, as the editors of Democratic Brazil Divided point out, the story of Brazilian democracy has never been as bad as the worst-case scenario suggests, but nor has it ever been as good as the excessively optimistic versions made it appear. Democratic Brazil in 2017, they say, “is much as it has been for these past three decades: a work in progress in which the patterns of direction of change are mixed, complex, and never linear”. [p8 ]

For all the doom and gloom about the turbulence since 2014 that has accompanied the PT’s fall from grace, some themes from recent events point both to what the editors of this collection refer to as a “recalibration” of that democracy – which has evolved in fits and starts since 1985 when the democratic era formally began with the election of José Sarney – but also to a more profound development that, if unglamorous, augurs well for the longer-term: institutionalisation.

This is a term used often by political scientists, and in varying ways, but what it refers to here is how institutions and rules governing different kinds of political activity have been growing consistently stronger over time, if often away from scrutiny.

This is a crucially important aspect of democratisation, because it means that the space for rule-breaking behaviour and rampant indiscipline in party politics grows ever smaller. In a country like Brazil, institutionalisation is linked with public attitudes towards democracy, largely because institutions that function properly enhance the faith of citizens in politicians and processes, making them far less likely to favour solutions that operate outside the formal realms of political activity. Institutionalisation is crucial, as scholars have noted, to ensuring that democracy is “the only game in town”.

There is no doubt that in Brazil, as the editors point out in their Introduction, the impeachment process of 2015–16 highlights an important legacy of the Lula–Rousseff period: institutions of accountability grew undeniably stronger during the PT years.

The editors write: “As a result, so did the ability of the Brazilian state and media to monitor, identify, investigate, and ultimately prosecute individuals on corruption charges. Brazilian society has grown notably less tolerant of graft and malfeasance, yet the political system has not adapted to this new reality.” [p 8]

Nor, would it seem, has its main architect – the PT – which helps us to answer the question posed from the outset: where did it all go wrong?

If 2015 was the PT’s annus horribilis, its downfall may have arguably started as long ago as 2005, when it was gravely wounded by its first brush with corruption, the so-called mensalão vote-buying scandal. That even larger scandals would follow suggests the PT was putting its very unique selling point – a hard-fought reputation for incorruptibility and good governance – in reckless jeopardy very soon after coming to power, exposing what Benjamin Goldfrank and Brian Wampler describe as the party’s split personality. They write:

“The schizophrenic nature of the PT once in office is best exemplified by its strengthening of the state’s oversight capabilities, building on its trajectory as a party of ‘good government’, while simultaneously engaging in bribery and money-laundering. Indeed, it is baffling that many high-ranking PT officials continued such illegal activities at the same time as the PT-led government invested in transparency and participatory institutions that improved monitoring of public resource allocation.” [p54]

Goldfrank and Wampler make a compelling argument for four interwoven explanations for this schizophrenia: the rising cost of Brazilian elections, the strategic decisions of the PT’s dominant Campo Majoritário faction, the real challenges of governing Brazil that the party faced, and the establishment of new institutions designed to appeal to activists hungry for new channels for participation and transparency.

The latter arguably proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and not without some irony: as Goldfrank and Wampler note, the expansion of oversight and transparency mechanisms under the PT helps to explain why so many PT officials were subsequently caught in wrongdoing, pulling the rug from under the party’s brand and tainting it with the simple but very damaging appearance that this was yet again “politics as usual”.

We may not like the fact that the machinery of governance brings down a progressive leader – and we may also be aware how the political right, vested interests and the mass media can be far more adept at manipulating this machinery and public discontent than the Left – but there is little question that this machinery is what drives a functioning democracy and had been crucial to the PT’s appeal in the first place.

The future of Brazil’s democracy may now well depend upon the future of accountability in the country, for without it the PT singularly lacks what made it unique. The signs are not good: there is ample recent evidence from civil society organisations that Michel Temer’s administration has hidden behind the country’s crisis of austerity to allow participatory mechanisms to fall into disrepair on a vast scale.

For the Left, the onus will, therefore, be on how it performs when it comes to accountability, if it is not already too late: whining about unfair outcomes is no substitute for reputation in a country where one of the defining characteristics of politics has been corruption, as Matthew Taylor’s contribution to this collection makes clear.

As Taylor observes, Brazil now finds itself in a curious situation: “Corruption is widespread in government, with practices that undermine the basic principles of democratic rule, including equality, justice, and responsiveness. Yet democracy itself has permitted a virtuous circle of institutional improvement over the past generation, even as citizens struggle to comprehend the continued impunity with which recurring offences are met.” [p 95]