Brazil's Endgame?

President Dilma Rousseff’s tenuous political situation reflects the victories of a conservative backlash that is threatening democratic institutions.

March 24, 2016

An anti-government protest on March 13 in Sao Paulo (Marcelo Valente/Flickr)

Last week, after what the Brazilian media reported was a four-hour dinner conversation, Lula da Silva agreed to formally join President Dilma Rousseff’s government as Chief of Staff – a ministerial-level appointment in Brazil. The decision to appoint the popular ex-president came just two days after massive, nationwide protests calling for Rousseff’s impeachment. The move has been interpreted by many analysts as a way for Dilma’s embattled Workers’ Party (PT) government to regain popular support.  

Though a towering figure in Brazilian politics, the 70-year old, two-term former president has had a difficult few months. In addition to his own recent battle with cancer, Lula has found himself embroiled in the corruption accusations of the so-called Lava-Jato, or “Car Wash,” anti-corruption campaign. These accusations, which revolve around Lula’s ownership of a modest, two-bedroom beach apartment, led to the former president’s brief arrest and questioning by the police in early March.  While Lula’s appointment as a minister in Rousseff’s government offers him some reprieve from those legal troubles – in Brazil, a sitting minister can only be tried by the country’s Supreme Court – it has also triggered a number of unexpected turns in what has quickly become a national political crisis.

The Return of Lula

It is difficult to overstate Lula’s importance in recent Brazilian history or the sheer power of his charisma. Lulismo­, the one-time trade union leader’s political style of leadership, is a recognized term in colloquial and academic language alike, referring to the unique ability to forge a reformist compromise that is both pro-poor and pro-growth.  But if Lula’s return to public political life represented a ray of hope for Dilma’s beleaguered presidency, it also signaled a change in political direction for her administration. 

In Brazilian politics, the government’s Chief of Staff is charged with forging and maintaining political alliances, both within Brazil’s National Congress, as well as with political and social movements outside the halls of government. In this regard, the position plays to Lula’s strengths as a politician and negotiator.  And, at least at first, his appointment seemed likely to provide relief to Rousseff, who has found herself in a tenuous position – caught between elite class rage, on the one hand, and the PT’s increasingly disillusioned grassroots base, which opposed her government’s recent adoption of austerity measures to revive a sluggish economy, on the other. 

In recent months, Lula has joined this base in publicly rebuking the austerity policies the Rousseff government has implemented, even speaking with unions and social movements about the need to forge an alternative economic platform.  His institute, the Lula Institute, had, for the last two years, positioned itself against economic orthodoxy.  And last October, as the keynote speaker during a meeting of Brazil’s national labor federation, CUT, Lula told the audience that “no country” had ever improved its economy after austerity measures. With Lula as Chief of Staff, the potential exists for a new social pact to take hold around an anti-austerity platform, perhaps through the revival of the largely inactive Conselhão, or National Council for Social and Economic Development.  This council, originally introduced at the start of Lula’s first term, is composed of some ninety representatives of civil society, business, and labor unions, and has functioned in the past as a way to sustain a broad national pact around development goals.  Indeed, reports have indicated that one condition to Lula’s appointment was that the Rousseff government grant the former president a degree of autonomy to dictate the terms of new social and political alliances.

But at the time of this article’s writing, the road toward a new progressive social pact looks rough.  For one, Lula’s appointment has thus far triggered a week of crisis unlike any other the Rousseff government has faced.  Rousseff’s ministerial appointment of Lula was immediately challenged in the courts, and it remains unclear when and if the still popular politician will even be able to assume his new post. 

At the same time, in an unprecedented move, Sergio Mora, the judge running Lula’s corruption investigation, released to the public the audio files of a legally dubious wiretap he had ordered be placed on both Lula and Dilma. While the audio files have not revealed anything particularly relevant to the current political situation, the symbolic act was shocking to the many Brazilians who still consider Lula a larger-than-life figure. What’s more, Sergio Mora’s behavior has signaled to the country that the judiciary long ago abandoned any pretense of impartiality in resolving this crisis. 

In the wake of these revelations, an anti-coup mobilization last week drew just as many to the streets as a much more widely reported March 13 demonstration, organized by government opponents to demand Rousseff’s removal from office. A very large number of Brazilian intellectuals have also come out strongly against Dilma’s impeachment, including prominent scholars, jurists, and public figures across the political spectrum. Increasingly, many youth organizations and the country’s more radical social movements, which have until now stayed on the sideline so as to avoid being seen as defenders of the government’s economic policies, have also joined the fray. And although surveys have suggested that the very poor in Brazil have been largely absent from either side of the protests, people of color, the poor, and LGBTQ activists have been visibly present in the pro-democracy protests as well.

An even larger anti-coup mobilization is currently being planned for March 31st, with many social movements pledging to turn out their supporters en masse.  The question now is whether, even with such mobilization, it will still be possible to reverse course.   

Impeaching Dilma

As is well-known, Dilma has been facing impeachment proceedings in Brazil’s National Congress since last year. For the last two years the “Operation Carwash” investigations have unearthed a number of kickback schemes involving the state oil company, Petrobras. Investigations have implicated politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as major Brazilian construction developers.  While many affiliated with the PT have been subjects in the investigation, the majority of those actually implicated have hailed from political parties other than the PT. Quite notably, Dilma’s own impeachment was brought forth by Eduardo Cunha, a politician from the centrist PMDB, in an act of attempted political survival; Lava Jato investigations have revealed that Cunha held millions of dollars in secret bank accounts overseas. Moreover, the legal claim for the impeachment is actually a technicality concerning the national budget: Rousseff’s government is accused of releasing funds from one year’s budget to the next, a questionable, but widely practiced, fiscal maneuver at all levels of government in Brazil.  

Until very recently, all of this made it seem that the impeachment process was unlikely to go very far: its legal basis was weak, Rousseff and the PT had enough allies in Congress to prevent it from advancing, and a significant portion of the public had no appetite for what appeared to be a thinly-veiled power grab against an unpopular, but democratically-elected, president.

But things have been changing quickly in the last few weeks. Brazil’s notoriously conservative media, controlled by just a handful of large corporations, has been marching to the drumbeat of impeachment for months, and their desire to oust Dilma has now intensified into a 24-hour a day frenzied “countdown” until the government falls. For its part, the international media has been uncritically repeating that coverage, and all-important international investor confidence seems to tick up whenever impeachment appears close.  As more and more of the important decisions in the country wind up in the hands of the Brazilian Supreme Court, dealmaking has become the name of the game in Brazilian politics.  And in that arena, the PT appears to be losing crucial political allies: at present, only one centrist party in Congress, the PMDB, stands between the Rousseff government and impeachment. With every day that passes, it seems more likely that the PMDB will throw its lot in with the opposition to assure its power in a post-PT world.

The Simmering Forces of Reaction

So how did we get to this point?  Until recently, the PT, in power for fourteen years at the national level, appeared to be the best example of a pragmatic leftist party in power, shepherding the country through a period of economic growth while not losing sight of the importance of economic redistribution.  Post-authoritarian Brazil was depicted across the world as a real success story – a country that triumphed in both lifting the poor out of poverty and consolidating democratic institutions. 

What’s more, a party that was born from social movements in a self-conscious effort to break with “old left” ways of doing politics combined good governance with the opening up of new spaces for citizen participation and novel social and economic policies that inspired many across the region and, indeed, the world.  When Lula left office in 2011, he did so with some of the highest approval ratings ever recorded in Brazilian history.  Though Dilma has struggled to retain the popularity of her predecessor, she did still manage to win reelection in 2014 – no small feat.

There has been a slowdown in the commodities market and an overall cooling of the economy, but this is not, by itself, enough to explain the Rousseff’s declining popularity.  Neither is the fact of corruption itself.  Indeed, corruption investigations have implicated politicians of most parties; a portion of congressmen on the impeachment committee itself are currently under investigation while Brazilian media has reported that some, like Paulo Maluf, are even wanted by Interpol and cannot leave the country for fear of arrest.  Despite this, anti-corruption protests have been fixated on Rousseff and the PT, suggesting that the story of the PT’s corruption problems has deeply political undertones.

The anti-government protests and impeachment need to be understood as part of a growing conservative backlash in Brazil against the last dozen or so years of PT-directed redistribution. In the last few years, especially, there has been open and unprecedented elite and middle-class hostility toward minorities, the poor, and the PT (which is, correctly or incorrectly, seen by many in Brazil as the political patron of these constituencies).  Today, Brazil’s Congress is more conservative than at any time since 1964, the year of its last military coup. Some of the country’s most popular politicians in Congress openly defend policies like torture and the extermination of indigenous peoples. So crazy has the situation become that the legislative body now includes a sizable “bullet caucus,” which supports heavily-militarized responses to crime, a substantial Christian-fundamentalist caucus, which actively opposes gay rights, and a very large rural caucus, which rejects any discussion of land reform and indigenous rights.

What has been most upsetting for Brazil’s elites – the one issue that really brings out their worst sentiments and prejudices – has been affirmative action, or racial “quotas,” in the country’s university system, a federal policy that was begun under the PT’s watch.  A traditional bastion of elite privilege, Brazil’s elite universities now set aside nearly half of their slots for affirmative-action candidates.  This policy has upset the racial order in a country where police killings disproportionately target black men and racism, though denied, is pervasive. The top schools in fields traditionally closed to Afro-Brazilians, such as medicine and law, now have unprecedented numbers of students of color.  Right-wing political sentiment and biased media reporting have tapped into elite discontent over affirmative action, and racism, both explicit and implicit, has been on very clear display at all the anti-government protests thus far. 

This is not to say there have been no internal limitations to the PT project.  To the contrary. When the PT was first founded in the 1980s, its novelty derived from its role as a party “where movements could speak,” – that is, a space where unions and social movements came together under a broad, democratic-socialist banner.  But national power and emphasis on congressional alliances have come at the expense of social mobilization and organizing.  The focus on national-level political figures and power games in Brasilia have replaced the PT’s earlier commitment to new leadership, internal accountability, and democracy.  And the shift towards austerity measures under Rousseff has put the party’s grassroots in a decidedly awkward position. 

One thing that has become starkly clear, especially since street protests against public transit fare hikes shook the country in 2013, is that the PT, after all this time in government, has become quite distanced from the new social movements emerging in Brazilian society – everything ranging from youth-led organizations to the organizing taking place in the poor and working-class neighborhoods that have benefitted most from the PT’s policies.  The very poor, for example, may be sympathetic to government policies and vote accordingly, but they today have little voice within the formal structures of the PT.

Whither the Brazilian Left?

It is hard to predict what will happen next. The situation in Brazil today is fast-moving and increasingly complex, and an overlapping set of crises – economic, political, legal-institutional – are set against a procedural vacuum for which there are literally no precedents or established procedures.  Much of Brazil’s future now rests in the hands of the country’s Supreme Court. This includes the rules for the possible impeachment of President Rousseff, the final decision about whether Lula will be permitted to hold his new ministerial post, and whether the power of the judge in charge of the “Car Wash” corruption investigation will be restrained at all.

The movements in defense of democracy are certainly gearing up for more mobilization, and this will be one important thing to watch in the coming weeks.  But for many Brazilians, the complete absence of rules to resolve political issues right now is palpable. Many believe that, increasingly, differences will be settled on the streets, or under a logic of vale-tudo, or “anything goes.” Whichever way the crisis moves next, one thing seems certain: it will be impossible for the losing side to accept the outcome as legitimate, one of the basic preconditions for formal democracy. 

Brazilian elites and many political figures on the right and center-right are betting on some kind of institutional rupture – either a presidential resignation, forced removal, or the successful impeachment of Rousseff.  On one side, opposition parties have already begun openly planning for a post-impeachment scenario. For example, José Serra, who was defeated by Rousseff in the presidential elections of 2010, has been giving interviews about the composition of and policy directives for a government after Dilma. On the other side of the divide, some PT sympathizers are preparing a strategy of resistance while others anticipate a prolonged, post-impeachment witch-hunt.

Even if Rousseff survives the crisis, the future will be an important time of reflection for Brazil’s Left, in general, and for the PT, in particular. There are a number of figures already engaged in a process of rethinking what the next iteration of electoral left strategies should look like. People like former Porto Alegre Mayor, Tarso Genro, have raised this question publically, as have individuals associated with parties that splintered from the PT, like the PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) and the PSTU (United Socialist Workers Party). Many questions need to be addressed, such as the unanticipated levels of elite backlash against the PT, the need for a media strategy that can compete with Brazil’s major media conglomerates, and of course, how to deal with internal democracy and the persistence of corruption.  Some have suggested a re-founding of the PT is needed to take on these matters; others question the decision to privilege the ballot box in the first place. 

At the moment, though, the biggest question of all is whether there will still be a semblance of functioning and legitimate political institutions once the crisis has subsided.  Throughout Latin America the so-called “Pink Tide” is in a moment of retreat. In some cases – for example, the 2012 “soft coup” against former Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo and the 2009 coup against former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya – the cost was not only the loss of progressive presidents, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions themselves.  Brazil is a large, regional power, and it would be disastrous for the continent if its crisis concluded similarly.


Gianpaolo Baiocchi is an associate professor of individualized studies and sociology at New York University, where he directs the Urban Democracy Lab.  He is also a co-author of The Civic Imagination and Bootstrapping Democracy.

Marcelo K. Silva is a professor of sociology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, where he directs the research group on associativism, engagement, and contestation.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.