Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. Click here to read the original article.
In 2006 Luis Inacio Lula da Silva was re-elected president of Brazil with 58.3 million votes. To this day, it’s the biggest vote total in the democratic history of Brazil. At the end of his term, he left office with an approval rating of 87 percent, according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE).
Twelve years later, as Lula sat in prison, Jair Bolsonaro, known by many as the anti-Lula, arrived in Brasilia having received 57.7 million votes. Neither Brazil nor Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) is the same. In 2019, almost 40 years after its creation, the party is faced with the dual challenges of rampant anti-PT sentiment and the post-Lula future of the party.
But according to the numbers, the PT is far from vanquished. In the 2018 presidential election, PT candidate Fernando Haddad received 44.87 percent of votes, and with 56 deputies, the PT is the best represented group in congress. In the country’s northeast, the PT remains the hegemonic political force.
Elsewhere, however, anti-PT sentiment, which began with the dismissal of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, peaked with Lula’s highly publicized trials. Aware of the societal discontent with the party, Bolsonaro staked his presidential campaign on the demonization of the party.
There are several reasons for the rejection of the PT, which has spread like wildfire through Brazilian society. First is that Brazilians blame the PT for the economic crisis that began during Rousseff’s second term.
Second is the fallout from corruption scandals: first, the 2012 Mensalão operation, which led to the prosecution and imprisonment of numerous high-ranking PT officials; years later, Lava Jato put the spotlight back on the party. For much of the Brazilian press and society, it was clear that the PT was largely responsible for the corruption plaguing the country. Betrayal is the word most repeated by those who abandoned the PT to vote for Bolsonaro: “How can I vote for them again if they are all corrupt and are responsible for sinking Brazil into its greatest crisis? I believed in them but they have betrayed us all,” says Patricia, 56, an entrepreneur who voted for Lula and Dilma, but supported the latter’s impeachment and is today a fervent anti-PT Bolsonaro voter.
Third is one of the country’s oldest and most terrible legacies: inequality. The majority of Bolsonaro voters are middle and upper class. Bolsonaro received up to 75 percent of votes in the medium and high income municipalities, but failed to reach more than 25 percent of votes in the poorest districts. Fernando Haddad prevailed in nine of the 10 poorest municipalities. Votes are similarly split by race. Bolsonaro won in nine out of 10 cities with a white majority, while Haddad won in seven out of 10 cities with a non-white majority.
And here lies a critical sociological insight essential to understanding Brazilian politics and society: the country’s contempt for the poor. The signature policies of the PT governments were the public programs of income support, such as the famous Bolsa Familia, and the related affirmative action policies that lifted 36 million Brazilians from poverty (according to information published by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics [IBGE]). With this newfound income, once-poor Brazilians bought washing machines and refrigerators, and frequented shopping centers, airports and universities—places that the inhabitants of the peripheries and favelas had never occupied. The percentage of Afro-Brazilians in federal universities, which were typically a haven of the country’s elite, doubled from 5.5 percent in 2005 to 12.8 percent in 2015 (according to IBGE data), thanks to the higher education racial quotas program enacted by the PT in public higher education.
Many Brazilians can’t forgive these redistributive policies. “That Bolsa Familia is just a way of financing the lazy and the poor of this country who do nothing. The blacks are taking away my son’s space. Meanwhile, for us, the middle class, nothing. We’re the ones who pays taxes, but who governs for us?,” says Karen, a 40-year-old businesswoman. She lives in a middle class São Paulo neighborhood and represents the sentiments of most of her neighbors. The same middle class—the IBOPE states makes 49 percent of the Brazilian population makes up the C class, or middle class, which has an average income of one to three times the minimum wage—that voted for Lula because they thought he could improve the country now point out that, despite his policies to promote social mobility for the poorest Brazilians, he also enriched the richest of the rich. They’re now fervently anti-PT.
In times of economic crisis, as the cake shrinks, class resentment rises. Nowhere is this truer than in Brazil. The most curious thing is that the 30 million or so Brazilians who had benefited most from PT policies and had risen into a new middle class adopt the same discourse of the traditional middle class. The PT expected fidelity from them. It didn’t get it. In the collective imagination, the PT became the party of the poor who ruled against the traditional and the new middle class.
Finally, and most shocking, is the fact that segments of the poorest parts of Brazilian society, theoretically the PT’s firmest support base, voted for Bolsonaro. To understand this, it’s necessary to analyze the role of Evangelical churches, especially Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches, which are popular among the poorest Brazilians. Since 2014, pastors within many churches had preached a pointed moralistic critique of the PT, building the idea that the party attacked traditional family, religion and Christian values. (The number of Brazilian evangelicals has grown 61 percent in the last 10 years according to IBGE data).
How to rebuild
To recover the votes of the middle class, the PT should attack the issue of corruption, yet it is still poorly positioned to set an example. Accepting its role in the scandals would mean accepting that the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff was legitimate and that Lula’s prison sentence is fair. For PT’s current leadership, that’s not going to happen. The rhetoric of the coup and the illegal imprisonment of Lula will likely continue to accompany the party in the near future.
For the traditional middle class, the challenge of public safety is also very important. Bolsonaro represents the off-ramp from criminal populism and an iron fist against crime, insecurity and corruption, and the PT does not have a clear proposal for an issue that remains a priority among many citizens. Although the poorest Brazilians suffer the most from violence, tough-on-crime policies have always found an audience with the country’s middle class due to stigmas against poverty, Afro-Brazilians, and the peripheral population that has always permeated Brazilian politics.
The PT has two challenges for recovering the votes of the poorest Brazilians. First will be building opposition to the government’s forthcoming fiscal adjustment measures, including cuts to public spending and social policies which are at the top of the agenda of Minster of Economy Paulo Guedes. More complicated will be reconnecting with the poor of the southern and southeastern regions of the country. Doing so will require acknowledging that in contemporary politics, one cannot govern Brazil without the support of the evangelical churches. For example, large sectors of industrial workers, who formed a key component of the lulista coalition, now turn away from unions in preference of their churches. Within the party, the mantras are clear: “we abandoned our base and we must return to them.”
The PT lost touch with every-day Brazilians as it got lost in the weeds of the logistics of power and governance in Brasilia. Reaching out and reconnecting to the peripheries, favelas, Afro-Brazilians, factory workers, and unions is easier said than done. Re-mobilizing the new middle class, perhaps the most complicated issue facing the PT, will demand counteracting the discourse of meritocracy and individualism that has led large segments of these classes to reject the public policies of the PT from which they once benefited.
The post-Lula generation
The party cannot take on these challenges without a leader. Lula’s appointed successor, Fernando Haddad, a former Minister of Education and mayor of São Paulo, could be a good option because he is a young leader, is uncontaminated by corruption and has a great resume. His problem is that he is a better technocrat than a politician, and he has never been recognized as a party man. He has always remained distant from the biggest names in the party.
Another option may be current PT president Gleise Hoffman. The polar opposite of Haddad, she represents nothing new in politics and has been implicated in corruption problems. But Hoffman has the support of the party. Given that many of the traditional PT heavyweights, including José Dirceu, José Genoino and Antonio Palocci, have either served time or remain in prison following Mensalão and Lava Jato, Hoffman has assumed the role of protagonist of the party, emerging as its most visible public face following Lula’s imprisonment.
Whoever assumes the helm of PT leadership will have to lead the party into a new, post-Lula era. So far, Lula has been convicted twice, once for 12 years and once for 12 years and 11 months, both for passive corruption and money laundering. Six more trials are underway. Many speculate that Lula may spend the rest of his life in prison. It turns out that Lula, a charismatic leader under whose shadow orbited the entire party, turned out to be not only the great strength of the PT but also its great weakness. His hyper-personalism means that there isn’t a clear new generation of PT leaders. To survive, the party most overcome Lula and lulism.
Corruption, economic crisis, moral issues, and the abandonment of the base—many challenges exist for the PT, but there’s clear opportunity as well. The PT maintains its control in the Brazilian left, is well organized, and continues to dominate the northeast of the country. And, for the time being, it is the only real progressive opposition to the Bolsonaro government. Now, everything will depend on whether or not the party knows how to assume the role of the opposition and if it can comply with the mantra that is repeated so often in internal meetings: “return to the base.”