After Lula: The Brazilian Workers’ Party in Transition

May 12, 2011

The day before the first round of the 2010 elections, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took his likely successor, Dilma Rousseff, home to where it all started—the ABC Metalworkers’ Union building in São Bernardo do Campo, an industrial city to the south of São Paulo. Rousseff followed Lula out the doors of the building and into a packed crowd that roared with excitement. Climbing into a nearby car, they slowly caravanned through the streets, flanked on all sides by supporters who sang and danced to the campaign songs, and cheered for the homecoming and the future.


It was here that Lula got his start as a labor leader more than three decades ago, and where he led hundreds of thousands in the first major strikes against the Brazilian dictatorship. At the time, this São Paulo suburb was the hub of Brazilian industry, and the ABC Metalworkers’ Union was the heart of the labor movement, which by 1980 had founded a radical new movement that would give power to the people—the Workers’ Party (PT).


The PT fought to end the dictatorship and democratize Brazil. Its activists prided themselves on their militancy, ethics, transformative politics, and practices of democratic internal debate. But in order to win elections, the party had to make concessions. Over the course of its evolution, the party dropped the word “socialist” from its platform and embraced coalitions with rival parties. It even took kickbacks and paid for votes; scandals ensued. The largest was the mensalão, or “big monthly payment,” scandal, which broke in mid-2005. Representatives in the Brazilian Congress had been paid off for several years to support key projects introduced by the Lula administration. The crisis rocked the party to its very core just months before Lula’s bid for reelection in 2006. Now, after Lula’s highly successful second term, the party appears to have recovered from the scandals. But where is it headed?




At the ABC union building two days after Rousseff’s resounding 56% victory in the runoff presidential elections, union leader Silvio Nascimento was resolute.


“After all of the scandals, it lifted a curtain, and stirred a debate within the PT,” Nascimento explained. “It helped us to wake up in time. To learn from our own mistakes.”


The mensalão scandal led sectors of the PT to speak of refounding the party and the left.1 Defections were inevitable. A current within the PT, the Socialist Popular Action, split from the party, carrying five congressional representatives to the fledgling Socialism and Freedom Party, which had been created the year before by another group of left-wing PT congressional representatives who had been expelled in 2003 for voting against Lula’s social security reform.


As a result of the scandal, according to Francisco Menezes, co-director of the Brazilian Institute of Economic and Social Analysis (IBASE), in Rio de Janeiro, the party began to lose its diversity. “Of course everyone was still rooted in the principles of the party,” Menezes said. “But you lost important figures who would make the internal debate more dynamic.” With the majority of the party defections coming from the left-wing currents, the PT was pushed toward the political center.


The mensalão scandal also forced the resignation of top PT figures, including the last two presidents of the party and the treasurer. Lula responded by replacing several ministries with non-PT ministers from among the governing coalition. Lula also distanced himself from the party, even decreasing the size of the PT star in his 2006 electoral propaganda. In some ways, electorally, his steps were rewarded. The middle-class voters who defected over the scandals were replaced by poor voters, largely from the impoverished Northeast, who cared more that for the first time the government was looking out for them. In 2003–4, Lula had launched a subsidized residential electricity program, a literacy campaign, and Zero Hunger—a package of social programs including soup kitchens, water cisterns for rural communities, and Bolsa Família (Family Stipend), a monthly cash support for low-income families with children in school. By the end of 2006, more than 11 million families received Bolsa Família benefits.2 This contributed to a huge shift in electoral support, giving Lula and the PT the voters who had eluded them for decades.


A central theme in Rousseff’s 2010 electoral strategy was convincing these voters that she would “stay the course” and continue the policies initiated by Lula and his government. Bolsa Família and other social policies were so important in the 2010 electoral campaign that Rousseff and her closest challenger, José Serra of the Social Democrat Party, fought over who would best implement these programs to ever growing numbers of people.


Rousseff’s place as Lula’s chief of staff since 2005 helped her to win the day. This was clear at the final rally in São Paulo before the first round elections. Beneath a thick rain, thousands of PT supporters packed into the massive samba stadium. Rousseff was applauded, but the real hero was Lula. Cheers for the outgoing president echoed over the crowd when he took the stage. It took several minutes for them to quiet enough for Lula to speak. Some of Lula’s fans that night were longtime PT supporters, but many were new converts from the poor communities outside the city who had come by the busload to see their hero and his likely successor. This is the shifting face of the PT.


With the help of Lula’s social programs, the PT has won over a lower-class electorate that is traditionally used by politicians for their votes and then ignored once in office. Lula made good on his promises, and voters responded. In 2006, Lula won between 60% and 86% of the valid votes in the impoverished North-Northeast. This was the same region that had voted overwhelmingly against Lula (55% to 70%) in his first presidential run in 1989, in part because of the media spin that Lula would socialize what little they had. The charismatic young neoliberal candidate Fernando Collor de Mello was portrayed as poised to carry them into a new era of success.3


While these voters came out in droves for Lula in 2006, they did not necessarily vote for the PT across the ticket. In 2006, for the first time, the PT actually lost seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. This points to two trends: (1) Low-income voters identified with Lula—born to a poor family in the Northeast—although they did not necessarily connect with the PT, and (2) poor PT supporters cared more about social benefits, like Bolsa Família, than the leftist political ideology that invigorated supporters in the party’s early years.


With this shifting electoral base, under the Lula government, the PT became both more populist and personalist, but nowhere near Brazil’s historic Getúlio Vargas or Argentina’s Juan Perón. While Lula has always been the shining star, the PT itself remains too important. Now out of office, Lula will take a backseat.


“Lula will only be called upon if there is really a moment of crisis, and Dilma is attacked by the opposition. Then it is possible that he will be called to support Dilma. But on the other hand, Rousseff is going to follow his lead,” said Igor Fuser, a political scientist at the Cásper Libero University in São Paulo.


Fortunately, Rousseff’s election opened the window of opportunity further for change. Although she also came from the grassroots struggle against the dictatorship, she did not emerge through the unions or the PT. She is a new figure and an outsider. So much so that ABC’s Silvio Nascimento believes that her candidacy would have been rejected by the PT party leadership had Lula presented her in his first term, before the corruption scandals.


She is also the figure who perhaps best characterizes the PT’s new face, having been appointed as Lula’s chief of staff after top party officials were forced to resign following the mensalão scandal. Her candidacy and presidency marked a shift away from the personalism of Lula, and a point of unity for the PT.


Already in December there was more cohesion than ever before from the various PT currents jostling for political power in the new Rousseff government. This is at least partially due to the “maturity” Nascimento spoke of shortly after Rousseff’s victory. “It is important for the people to try to resolve their problems inside the party, to resolve their issues in the debate,” he said.


According to Bernardo Cotrim, director of political education of the Rio de Janeiro State PT, there is more space for dialogue and synthesis today within the party than before. “The crisis of 2005 played a role of opening this up,” he explained. “Principally from 2002 to 2005, the majority of the decisions were very centralized, with a position that at times could even be considered authoritarian. This has improved a lot.”




In the 1980s, the PT revolutionized local government, opening democratic space to the community through processes like participatory budgeting, and popular councils. But slowly the party slid into the games of everyday Brazilian politicking—adapting to the tough realities of getting elected and holding offices across the country.


Since at least 1995, internal party power had been dominated by a faction known as the Majority Camp, which prioritized winning elections over grassroots activism. Led by Lula, José Dirceu, and their São Paulo allies, the majority coalition won all but one of the party’s national internal elections.4 Meanwhile, Lula consolidated the lessons learned from previous PT elected offices. In the presidency, he only took on the political fights he knew he could win, which explains why his foreign policy was much more progressive then the rest of his platform. The PT tabled some of its historic demands, such as urban and agrarian reform.


“The PT bet on institutionalism,” said José Batista de Oliveira, a leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brasília. “We respect their decision. On one hand it has been a victory and they have been able to carry out some social reforms. On the other hand it has been really bad. In the sense of grassroots organization, it was a defeat. It weakened the social struggle, and it didn’t truly alter the institutionalism of inequalities, agrarian and urban reform.”


That has not necessarily meant a decline in the social movements, but a change in their demands. While there are contradictions between the PT platforms and the realities once the PT gets into office, for Brazil’s major labor federation, the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), the PT has opened the door of opportunity.


“It’s a different context now with the PT in government. We went from a period of resistance to a period of achievement,” said Anderson Campos, youth adviser to the CUT Executive Council. “We no longer had to fight against the privatization of the public sector. Instead, we fought for a minimum wage increase. Now that employment has risen, our demand for 2011 is work with dignity. So the agenda is much more favorable today than 10 years ago.” According to Campos, Brazil’s labor movement was “far more victorious” under the Lula government than in the 1990s, winning increased salaries and workers’ rights. But on the streets during election time, the PT has followed the lead of the more traditional parties that pay “volunteers” to wave banners and hand out flyers for their candidates.


“That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago,” said former PT member, now Rio de Janeiro state legislature with the Green Party, Rogerio Rocco. “The PT is no longer a party of the street. It is no longer a party of activists. It is a party in power.”


This shift in the party has been noted by scholars. University of Texas political science professor Wendy Hunter, for example, told the Folha de São Paulo in November that “the PT changed to the point of almost being unrecognizable.”5 Pedro Floriano Ribeiro, a political scientist at Federal São Carlos University in São Paulo State, explained that these changes largely took place as a result of Majority Camp policies and the fact that “the state ties became central to the survival of the organization.”


“As the PT won elections, this brought changes to the party,” Ribeiro said. “Elected representatives in the Congress, Senate, mayors, and governors, all acquired more and more power within the party, because they control the sources of funding and they control positions that are held by the activist base.” According to Ribeiro, this process “came from the 1980s and principally the 1990s” but “increased” with the Lula government, because there were thousands of positions to be held. “So this changed the balance of power within the organization,” he said.


For Ribeiro, the PT has become a type of “cartel party” or an “electoral-professional party”—in other words, a 21st-century version of a “catch-all,” appealing to a broader base with vague proposals, like the U.S. Republican or Democratic parties, but with radical roots.6 Hunter points out that the party’s decision to increasingly contract professional consultants, publicists, and media experts “represented a break with the party’s historical aspiration to lead rather than to follow the masses,” another core characteristic of the electoral-professional party.7


In short, the PT has shifted far enough to the center to attract mainstream voters. In 2006, social programs like Bolsa Família helped to ensure the support of poorer communities, regardless of political affiliation. Meanwhile, the PT’s elected officials hold power over party leaders. Money and power largely come from the state and large corporations. This is especially important in Brazil, where political campaigns are expensive and corporations provided, on average, 11 times more money to right-wing congressional candidates than the PT in 1994, and six times more in 1998.8 With unions barred from contributing to electoral campaigns, and with the need to raise cash, Lula began in 2002 to receive off-the-book donations from big investors that did not want to “have all their eggs in one basket,” according to political philosopher and former PT voter Ruy Fausto.9 The move lifted Lula to the presidency, but it further diluted the PT platform and ultimately led to the corruption schemes that would plague the first term of his government.10


“We changed. The PT changed,” admitted PT founder and Rio Grande do Sul PT president Raul Pont. “It transformed into a more electoral party, throwing all of its effort at institutionalism. We can say it was inevitable, but on the other hand, we can’t lose our militancy, our origins, and our political identity. We run the risk of transforming ourselves in one more party of the establishment.”


That is exactly what many critical voices fear has happened, and what others within the party are fighting by returning power to the núcleos de base—the community or issue-based party cells that were once the heart of the PT, where members went to debate and organize.




The importance of the núcleos waned as the PT won elections, consolidated, and institutionalized. They still exist, but they are largely debilitated, especially after a 2001 reform to the PT statutes installed direct elections for party representatives. In most parties, the move would be seen as positive step toward increasing democracy, but for the PT, it stifled debate and grassroots participation. Before, the núcleos would choose delegates to go the PT conventions on the municipal, state, and national levels. Issues and electoral candidates were debated in lively assemblies until they could come to a decision. “All of this was lost because the meetings are worthless now,” says Ribeiro. “The members vote to elect their representatives. The meetings still happen, but they are worthless, because when you have a meeting, you already know who won majority.”


Fully aware of this, the PT in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul decided in 2009 to go back to its roots, holding vibrant municipal meetings across the state with local delegates. The move came after several years of the right-wing governor Yeda Crusius, who cracked down on social movements and helped to outlaw the itinerant schools of the MST.


“We returned to our origins in 2009 with the same methodology we had used before 2001,” explained Ubiratan de Souza, the former state coordinator of participatory budgeting. The day of the state conference in Porto Alegre, there was standing room only in the Dante Barone Theater of the Legislative Assembly, where hundreds of PT members were actively debating their next steps. The move helped to consolidate the organization around the governor’s candidacy of Tarso Genro, a former Porto Alegre mayor and minister of education and justice under Lula.


Genro won the governorship overwhelmingly in the first round of the 2010 elections. His administration is now discussing plans to reinstall participatory budgeting throughout the state, and the Rio Grande do Sul PT has launched a commission to discuss an official return to the pre-2001 statutes.


Rio Grande do Sul is not the only place that has kept the grassroots spirit of the PT alive. In 2009, 700 PT members from 28 núcleos in the São Paulo municipalities of Carapicuíba and Osasco joined forces to form a grassroots network that they call the Fórum dos Núcleos. The first experience of its kind, the fórum is helping to reignite grassroots activism in the region, holding several local meetings, trainings, and political and cultural activities.


However, Angela Donda, a longtime PT member who helped to organize the fórum admitted that having Lula in office has been a real drain on the núcleos, since their strongest leaders were picked for positions in the government. Under the Lula administration almost 23,000 positions were filled by appointees—slightly more than previous administrations.11 “This was a shock,” Donda said. “We’re still trying to overcome the lack of their leadership with the development of new activists.”


While the PT has grown tremendously in recent years—now to nearly 1.7 million members—many of the new affiliates have signed up without the political commitment of the traditional PT party activists. This was a conscious shift, promoted by PT leaders like José Dirceu in the Majority Camp, in order to make the party more palatable to the mainstream. Many at the heart of the PT believe that it was a mistake to weaken the núcleos, but there is now a debate over the next generation of organizing.


“People say, ‘We need to revitalize the núcleos!’ Then you ask, ‘Are you an activist in a núcleo?’ No. I think we need to construct other spaces to organize the masses,” Cotrim said. He pointed to the thriving blogosphere, which helped to counter the right-wing electoral media campaign and lift Rousseff to victory. “We are going to have militants over the next period that are activists over the Internet, and they are never going to come to a meeting here—ever. Principally with the youth, we have to be aware of the changing times. We have to construct new cultural environments,” Cotrim said.


On Friday, November 26, the same day the PSOL held a demonstration in downtown Rio de Janeiro, and the Rio Green Party was organizing their own núcleos, Rio’s PT organized an event called Youth and Union Action, simulcast live over Twitter. It was their first such attempt and dozens of people participated in the talk through their computers. The PT is also still working on the ground. In 2010, the party launched a series of rallies and teach-ins across the country. They plan to get more than 100,000 members involved through next year.


The second round of the elections also reinvigorated exciting new grassroots activism in support of the PT. Popular musician Chico Buarque, theologian Leonardo Boff, and architect Oscar Niemeyer, together with hundreds of other intellectuals, actors, militants, and artists publicly displayed their support for the Rousseff candidacy in a way that hadn’t been seen in years. Important Afro-Brazilian figures held an event in Rio, while social movements sprang to life faced with the possibility of a right-wing upset.


“In the second round we were able to organize across an even larger and more important sector of society than we did with Lula in 2006,” Cotrim said. “We need to take advantage of this.”




Political reform is also on the lips of many active PT members. Even the PT executive council has put it high on the 2011 agenda for the next Congress, with the goal of creating a system of public financing for electoral campaigns, thereby circumventing a major cause of the PT corruption scandals.


It’s been a long time coming. The PT “paid a very high price” when Lula won in 2002, with the wind at his back “he could have pushed harder then for a political reform,” explains IBASE co-director Menezes. “The PT didn’t confront the system then, and they became prisoners to it.”


This is something Rousseff undoubtedly hopes to avoid. But at the helm of a politically diverse, 10-party coalition, she has an uphill battle before her. Although the coalition has more control over the Congress than under either of Lula’s presidential terms, finding cohesion across the political spectrum will not be easy. Moreover, Rousseff lacks Lula’s charisma and the direct connection with the people. Cotrim, for one, thinks she was a great choice because she represents what was best in the government in recent times.


“But the Dilma government will need party support for mediations which Lula didn’t need,” he said, “so the PT will need to be up to the challenge.”


And PT activists seem to believe that both the Rousseff government and the party are ready.


“I thank God that the mensalão and the other scandals happened,” said Silvio Nascimento, back at the ABC Union building in São Bernardo do Campo, where the halls are lined with posters of the union’s vibrant past. “Why? Because it was from there that we could fix things and come back to this project. To see what we want. To see what our activists want.”


But with a shifting electorate, the loss of key party activists, and the influx of non-political supporters, that “we” is changing, and with it, the definition of Brazil’s most important political movement.



Sílvia Leindecker is a Brazilian photographer, philosopher, researcher, and documentary filmmaker. Michael Fox is Associate Editor of NACLA. Their latest film, Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse to Action, was released in April by PM Press. More of their work can be found at



1. Verena Glass, “Movimentos discordam sobre posição frente a PT e governo,” Carta Maior, July 18, 2005.


2. Wendy Hunter and Timothy J. Power, “Rewarding Lula: Executive Power, Social Policy, and the Brazilian Elections of 2006,” Latin American Politics and Society 49, no. 1 (spring 2007): 19.


3. Wendy Hunter, The Transformation of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, 1989–2009 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 170, 34.


4. Benjamin Goldfrank and Brian Wampler, “From Petista Way to Brazilian Way: How the PT Changes in the Road,” Revista Debates (Porto Alegre) 2, no. 2 (July–December 2008): 248.


5. Uirá Machado, “ ‘PT mudou a ponto de ficar quase irreconhecível’, diz cientista política,” Folha do São Paulo, November 28, 2010.


6. Pedro Ribeiro, “Thesis: Dos sindicatos ao governo: a organização nacional do PT de 1980 a 2005,” Universidade de São Carlos, 2008, 8; Ibid., 271.


7. Hunter, The Transformation of the Workers’ Party, 38.


8. David Julian Samuels, “Money, Elections, and Democracy in Brazil,” Latin American Politics and Society (Miami) 43, no. 2 (summer 2001): 39.


9. Ruy Fausto, “Para além da gangrene,” Lua Nova (São Paulo) 65 (May–August 2005): 11.


10. Goldfrank and Wampler, “From Petista Way to Brazilian Way,” 251.


11. O Globo (Rio de Janeiro), “Gasto de Lula com cargos de confiança cresceu 119%,” February 22, 2010.



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