Last week, the Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) definitively dashed ex-President Lula da Silva’s bid for a third term. Lula, as he is universally known in Brazil, played an iconic role in the transition to democracy and his imprisonment symbolizes both the progress and continued deficiencies of democracy in Brazil.
Lula was charged with money laundering and corruption for accepting $2.3 million dollars in bribes from construction firm OAS. The OAS made payments after securing important government contracts with Petrobras. With the money, Lula purchased a luxury condo in Guarajá, his former boyhood home on the paulista coast. With a six-five vote, the judges denied the ex-President’s habeas corpus plea and allowed his detention.
The 72 year-old iconic leader of the Partido de Trabalhadores (PT) now faces a 12-year sentence in a barren prison cell outside Curitiba. 8 pending cases likely portend additional jail time. Under the Clean Slate law that he himself signed, da Silva is banned from public office for 8 years. Society is divided. For his supporters, Lula is a victim being punished by conservative elites for his progressive policies that championed the nation’s poor. Doing little to challenge this narrative, the untimely Twitter post of the nation’s Army General shared ominous parallels with previous military incursions in civilian affairs. His opponents argue that in a country with a long history of impunity, politicians must be punished for their crimes. Lula and Eduardo Cunha, the imprisoned former House Speaker, are the first politicians to be held accountable. The polarization seems unlikely to abate soon.
How did we get to a point where one of Brazil’s most popular presidents might live out his days in prison garb? In his absence, what will his PT do?
Protest to Power: The Evolution of the PT
The PT emerged during the final gasps of a 21-year military dictatorship. Two years earlier, metalworkers successfully mobilized to demand higher wages and greater union autonomy. While they secured a 6 percent raise, the movement articulated support for citizen rights and greater democratization. Their leader, a little-known worker named Lula da Silva, captured the national spotlight.
Born into a poor family in the punishing Sertão region, Lula soon found himself living on São Paulo’s streets shining shoes and hawking cheap snacks. With a modest junior high-school education, he entered a vocational training program and learned metallurgy. After joining the workforce at Villares Metals, he quickly moved up the union hierarchy. Missing his pinky finger from an earlier workplace accident and speaking in a gruff, colloquial Portuguese, Lula cuts a strikingly distinct figure from the stereotypical politician. These were not the bogey-men communists the regime had been fighting. These discontents were normal Brazilians sick of inflation, repression, and dictatorship. Before the return to democracy, da Silva would be jailed for 31 days for union activities.
The PT was founded in 1980 shortly after Lula’s imprisonment. Early research by Rachel Meneguello and Margaret Keck outlined a unique addition to the Brazilian political landscape. Abandoning the “old Left dogmas” of communist parties, the PT enveloped a dynamic social movement base incorporating labor unions, landless peasants, rubber tappers, environmentalists, womens’ groups, human rights activists, progressive Catholics, professors, student groups, and public servants. Traditional political parties exhibited strong tendencies towards top-down mobilization, populism, and clientelism. The PT promised a total rupture with old-school politicking. There would be participatory decision making processes, greater bottom-up accountability, and a clear ideological commitment to social justice and democratic socialism.
For the first decade, the PT struggled to achieve significant national recognition. While they failed to garner more than 10% in the legislature, they developed strong subnational experience in places like São Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Acre. During their stints in local government, they improved municipal services and created innovative participatory budgeting processes. They ran pragmatic, clean governments. At the same time, the party leadership’s constant plugs for socialism gave the whole movement an early reputation for radicalism. After losing the presidential election for the second-time in 1994, the PT moderated its discourse and sought alliances with other parties. Changes happened because while being well-institutionalized, the party exhibited internal ideological pluralism (tendências) and encouraged broad member participation. The conversion climaxed with da Silva’s 2002 Letter to the Brazilian People. Lula promised to “increase economic growth with consistent and creative solutions to social problems.” Nevertheless, there would be “ample national negotiation” and respect for existing “contracts and national obligations.” In essence, the PT formally jettisoned revolutionary rhetoric for practical solutions and some political marketing.
In power, the PT hued true to the Letter, changing gears from perennial opposition gadfly to governing party. Contrasted with the more reckless macroeconomic policies of Hugo Chávez, Lula’s two administrations (2003-2011) saw a rising “developmental state” where the government assumed a more strategic, yet proactive role in economic affairs while respecting the basic precepts of a market economy. The Development Bank (BNDES) encouraged competitive industries and enabled large infrastructure investments designed to promote future growth. For eight years, the economy averaged 4% growth.
Amidst economic success, Lula did not forget the poor. Social spending grew from 22% to 26% of GDP. Innovative social programs like Bolsa Familia provided conditional cash transfers to Brazil’s struggling poor in a bid to halt intergenerational poverty. Coupled with a subsidized housing program (Minha Casa, Minha Vida), a nutrition program to eradicate extreme hunger (Fome Zero), and an electrification/potable water scheme (Água e Luz para Todos), Brazil under Lula’s PT was helping those most often ignored by previous governments. The inclusionary slogan was “A Country for All” and inequality fell nearly 10 percent.
Brazil’s federalism, open-list proportional representation, and high district magnitude produce a permanently fragmented legislature with 7-10 effective political parties. To govern, the PT needed to form alliances. The clientelistic, centrist PMDB (now MDB) provided the PT’s vice presidential candidates and legislative support from 2003 onwards. To grease wheels, the government hid sprawling procurement fraud to facilitate legislative support. Companies like Odebrecht and OAS routinely overcharged the government on public works projects. Those resources were then re-channeled to political parties and campaigns. The most astonishing aspect of the Lava Jato investigation (and the earlier mensalão scandal) is how widespread and systematized the corruption became. Although Lula, Cunha, and Rio’s governor Sergio Cabral represent the first scalps of the Lava Jato investigations, they won’t be the last. Many heavy hitters in Brazilian politics have no escaped suspicion, including former President Fernando Collor de Melo, Rio’s ex-mayor Eduardo Paes, the PSDB’s Aecio Neves, the PMDB’s Renan Calheiros, and even the current Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia.
Despite its ideological pluralism, the PT now suffers the paralysis of personalization. During its years in power, the PT became synonymous with Lula. Blocked by the constitution from a third term, instead of encouraging an intra-party primary, Lula imposed the organizationally strong, but socially feeble Dilma Rousseff to lead the PT into elections. While there were satisfying moments with Brazil’s first female executive, her inability to build rapport with the fractious Congress or voters spurred increasing unpopularity and her ultimate unwarranted impeachment. With Lula under investigation and now jailed, the PT seems paralyzed. Throughout the last year, the party directorate has seemed more concerned with Lula’s legal plight than the policy issues that generate votes. It lacks a substitute as Lula sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad and Bahia Governor Jacques Wagner languish with little recognition.
The Left is not always the answer. As the PT’s history demonstrates, the party of social empowerment can lapse into a corrupted, electioneering machine. Compromises and shortcuts sowed the traps for elite corruption that would make the PT activists of the 1980s cringe. At the same time, the PT and leftist parties across Latin America increased human development, social programming, trade openness, and economic growth, while simultaneously decreasing inequality and poverty. Though not flawless, the PT has anchored the Brazilian party system, creating a stable ideological spectrum, encouraging competitive, policy-driven elections, and promoting democratic consolidation.
Currently, President Michel Temer languishes with the lowest poll numbers of any Brazilian president since democracy’s return—he has even lower approval ratings than his impeached successor, Dilma. As support for democracy wanes, a growing number are expressing a preference for military rule. The only hope should be elections in October, if only there was clear hope.
As it stands, the Center-Right could capitalize on the general absence of centrists to craft a coalition of pragmatic voters. The PSDB under Gerardo Alickman would return to impose more fiscal discipline and expand the market-friendly reforms of Temer. On the other hand, an increasingly likely and disturbing scenario would see Brazil succumbing to the right-wing populist delusion of Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro combines his evangelical faith and military service with a spiteful vitriol that rivals Donald Trump. The cost of a dysfunctional, venomous populist at the helm could mortally threaten an already weakened democracy with an alienated population.
On the Left, perennial aspirant Marina Silva could combine her PT roots, anti-corruption, and pro-environment credentials to challenge the Right. Nevertheless, her volatile party (Red Sustentabilidade), evangelical background, and tendency to collapse late in the campaign undermine her second-round chances. Former Ceará Governor Ciro Gomes represents an interesting possibility from the center-left PDT, but low name recognition and a small party diminish the probability of success. While Silva or Gomes could gradually emerge to represent the left, their weak parties portend an enfeebled presidency with a sizable Congressional minority and little power to enact campaign promises.
The moment has come for the PT to recuperate its soul. To remain relevant in a rapidly shifting environment, it must return to its base and find new leaders capable of voicing the needs that captivate Brazil’s next generation. If it chooses martyrdom and laments an imprisoned past, the PT will descend into irrelevance. Voters are less concerned with Lula’s legal status than their immediate economic precarity.
Grant Burrier is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Politics and History Department at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts.