Brazil: New Challenge from the Left?

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers' Party (PT) have faced strong criticism from the left since the beginning of Lula's first term in 2003. Although the 2010 presidential elections are still distant, some sectors disillusioned by the Lula administration are already attempting to build a left-leaning alternative to the PT. And, for now, it seems that effort is resonating with the Brazilian electorate.

February 23, 2009

At swift glance, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s reign has been brilliant: rapid economic growth, Brazil regarded as a regional power, Lula’s personal approval at an astounding and record-breaking 84 percent, with the grace note of esteem from the international left.

But a harder look reveals otherwise. Lula and his Workers' Party (PT) have faced opposition from the Brazilian left since the beginning of his first term, in 2003. Although the 2010 presidential elections are still distant, some sectors disillusioned by the Lula administration are already attempting to build a left-leaning alternative to the PT. And, for now, it seems that effort is resonating with the Brazilian electorate.

The PT's slow, ugly turn to the right is by now well-known. The shift began before Lula’s election. According to leftist critic James Petras, in the 1990s the “PT expelled militants, converted the party from a 'movement-party' to an electoral party and transferred decision-making from popular assemblies to parliamentary and state officials.”

Once elected, Lula’s decisions were scarcely shocking: neo-liberals in key government ministries, failure to advance agrarian reform despite the signal support of the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in his campaigns, and a shoddy commitment to his poor base, mostly limited to initiatives like "Zero Hunger," which gives families subsidies through its Bolsa Familia program. Eminent Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira denounces these programs as the most cynical kind of charity; as Oliveira says, "Lulismo takes poor people out of politics into clientelism.”

Oliveira is a co-founder of the Brazilian Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), which is overtly critical of Lula and the PT. The PSOL’s origins lie in Lula's first year in power, when the President's supporters and more radical factions in the PT collided over a proposed pension reform. The plan, which was ultimately pushed through congress, severely cut back pensions for workers in the public sector.

Among the dissidents was PT Senator Heloísa Helena, a trained nurse and long-time social activist from the northeast state of Alagoas. For Helena, the neoliberal pension reform made her uneasy alliance with Lulismo intolerable. When Helena and a handful of other rogue PT politicians voted against the reform, the PT expelled them from the party.

So Helena and the other renegade PT members formed the PSOL on June 6, 2004. The party was officially recognized over a year later through a petition process that amassed 500,000 signatures. The party gathered additional support from PT members in September 2005, after internal elections further solidified the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the PT’s political platform. That same year, the PT formally abandoned socialism and a massive corruption scandal emerged, further tarnishing its hardly-gleaming reputation.

The PSOL's Helena garnered a respectable 7.7 percent share of the votes in the first round of the presidential vote in 2006. Now, with Lula constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, the PSOL is again pushing for the presidency, with Helena as the presumptive candidate.

Although the presidential vote is almost two years away, preliminary polls have support for Helena ranging between 10 and 27 percent, suggesting that the PSOL’s platform is to the liking of the Brazilian electorate.

But the platform is, perhaps, not to the liking of all the members of PSOL. Latent rifts within the PSOL were exposed in a recent party congress, where a slate that brought together the party's left-wing got nearly a quarter of the total votes. A large portion of these votes came from the Socialism and Liberty Collective faction, associated with Plínio de Arruda Sampaio – an iconic figure of the Brazilian left.

At the party congress, Sampaio essentially became an alternative to Helena and has polemicized openly against moderate elements within the PSOL. Some accuse Helena of unacceptable appeasement, an attempt to avoid offending more-moderate PT voters.

Clearly enough, the PSOL has its critics on the Brazilian left. João Pedro Stedile, the MST’s leading intellectual, comments, “The PSOL tried to reconstruct a PT of the left but did not manage to do so, because the tactic, the [electoral] path is defeated. We will not accumulate the forces to vie for power through institutional paths.” The same position has been echoed by others on the left, like Marxist historian Virginia Fontes who has called the PSOL’s path “excessively electoral.”

To its credit, the PSOL has conducted organizing campaigns – for example, in Paraisópolis, a violence-wracked favela in São Paulo. Carlos Gianazzi, a PSOL congressman, has called for a grassroots "social explosion" to solve the country's problems. Helena has also publicly acknowledged the paramountcy of grassroots mobilization.

Still, it is plain that the 2010 Brazilian elections will not usher in the socialist republic the PSOL desires. But early polls are tantalizing, even if it would be a mistake to consider them anything more than gross conjectures at this point.

An almost-certain 2010 presidential contender is Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-selected heir and his minister of the presidency. In one poll, voters were simply asked to express their presidential preference. The results were telling: 21.3 percent went for Lula (despite being barred); 8.7 percent for José Serra, the governor of São Paulo, the candidate Lula defeated in 2002, and the probable candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB); and just 2.5 percent for Rousseff.

Rousseff's numbers reflect institutional weakness: PT militants’ attraction is to Lula rather than the party, although Lula is seeking to strengthen Rousseff’s candidacy by highlighting her managerial capacities and her clean record. Without Lula’s populist allure, it is no certainty that PT supporters will back Rousseff. In fact, Helena’s strength suggests that she is leaching votes from disaffected former PT supporters, angry at the party's rightward trajectory.

Serra remains the probable front-runner, and leads all the polls that include him as a potential candidate. But Helena is in second or third place in those same polls. With Serra excluded, Helena is in second place, and in one scenario, in first place, with a plurality of votes. Again, the polls are a mix of guesswork and tea-leaf-reading, but Helena’s lead over Rousseff in all scenarios suggests that the PSOL should not be dismissed.

This is particularly pertinent because Brazilian law requires a runoff vote if no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. The two candidates with the most votes participate in the runoff. If Helena faces off against a right-wing candidate, it is possible that Lula partisans—overwhelmingly impoverished, and precisely those whom the PSOL wishes to represent—would rally to her side.

Nonetheless, core elements of the Brazilian left think the PSOL will have scant staying power once the campaign season officially begins. Ricardo Antunes, a professor at Unicamp, in an interview with the leftist weekly Brasil de Fato, laments the PSOL's strategy of electoral growth. Antunes instead advocates for a sort of social movement-related politics that, he suggests, has real promise—heavy mobilizing in favelas, organizing within social movements and unions. As he puts it, “The PSOL directs its energy, none too strong, to the electoral process, and the party ends up dissipating its energies, obtaining weak results, ending up paralyzed in a struggle against giants.” Polls indicate otherwise, but the campaign season has yet to really begin.

Max Ajl is a NACLA Research Associate. He blogs at

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