SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 203 November 2016

PT defeat leaves opening on the left

October’s local elections in Brazil were a major defeat for the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT). Its demise allowed a certain revival of the traditional right-wing forces and, at the same time, increased disillusionment with the entire political system. Against this background, the new left represented by the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), took significant steps forward, reports ANDRÉ FERRARI, from Liberdade Socialismo e Revolução (LSR – CWI Brazil).

Taking place a little more than a month after the senate impeached the former president and PT leader, Dilma Rousseff, these local elections represented another big blow to the PT. The impeachment of Rousseff, which amounted to a coup, gave the opportunity for the right-wing counter offensive, with an agenda of carrying out hard neoliberal policies. The PT went from being the most voted for party in 2012 (17.3 million votes), to coming fifth in the first round of the October elections (6.8 million). The number of mayors it won dropped from 644 in 2012 to 261, falling from third to tenth place. It was virtually wiped out in the state capitals, only winning one, Rio Branco, capital of the Amazonian state, Acre, in the north of the country.

The collapse in PT support also occurred in its traditional strongholds. This was the case in the so-called ABC districts of São Paulo – the zone with a strong history of metal and car workers’ struggles and one of the party’s birth places. The same collapse occurred in the areas conquered by the PT in the era of Lula’s presidency (2003-11). For example, in the northeast, the party has been left in ruins.

The most symbolic defeat took place in São Paulo, which had been governed by the PT’s Fernando Haddad. This was important, as it was hoped that a renovated PT leadership would allow it to survive. Haddad emerged with 16.7% of the first preference votes, the worst result obtained by the party in the city. It was also the first time that the PT has not made it to the second round.

Growth of the PSDB

This defeat took place as the traditional right-wing party, PSDB (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira), took 53% of first preference votes for its candidate, João Doria. Doria is from a very rich family with a history as slave owners but presented himself as a ‘worker and manager’ of the city. The fact that he was not a professional politician was a point of attraction for many. His powerful anti-PT rhetoric – sometimes anti-left in general – was also a factor which attracted the most ideologically conservative sections of the middle class that have a significant social weight in São Paulo.

Apart from São Paulo, the PSDB won in more than 792 municipalities and goes into the second round (30 October) with the prospect of winning more. In 2012, the PSDB won in 701 and got 13.9 million votes. This increased to 17.6 million this time round. These gains will not, however, heal the big divisions which exist in the PSDB. Doria’s success in São Paulo will strengthen the position of the state governor, Geraldo Alkmin. He is in dispute with the party president, Aecio Neves, and the current foreign minister, José Serra, over who will be the PSDB’s presidential candidate in 2018. There is even the possibility of three candidates standing under different party banners.

The PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro) of the current president, Michel Temer, continues to control the most prefectures, reaffirming itself as the party of regional barons based on local corrupt groupings. They have 1,029 prefects compared to 1,017 in 2012. The PMDB is a capitalist party based on regional dynasties which formed part of coalition government with Rousseff’s PT.

The PMDB’s control of local authorities has remained more or less the same but it suffered a big defeat in Rio de Janeiro, where it controlled the council with the support of the state governor. Despite getting more TV time and having more campaign money, the PMDB failed to get through to the second round. In contrast, PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) did, and will now face a right-wing evangelist candidate.

It is clear that the electoral advances made by the PSDB and the right-wing will favour the government’s planned neoliberal attacks. This does not mean that it will be able to do as it wishes. President Temer is extremely unpopular and the measures he is proposing will generate a lot of resistance, especially among the youth but also the population in general. The electoral growth of the right will strengthen its position in the political institutions and infrastructure. Yet a large part of those who voted for right-wing candidates are opposed to the neoliberal agenda, voting for the right as a form of protest against the PT, or for figures they perceived as being outside the traditional political system. The new mayors elected on this basis have generated a lot of expectations that they will not fulfil. This will lead to widespread opposition.

They will also face opposition from the millions who did not vote for any party, spoiled their ballot or voted blank (despite voting being compulsory in Brazil). The growth in numbers of these people reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the electoral and political system in Brazil. Despite the clear win for Doria in São Paulo, he had a lower vote than the total who voted for no candidate: 3,085,000 for him but 3,096,000 who either did not vote or voted blank.

Abstentions, annulled or blank votes were greater in ten capital cities than the votes cast for the winning candidates. In the big cities these were concentrated in the marginalised and poorest areas. In the richest neighbourhoods, the number of abstentions and blank votes fell. In the poorest areas the increase in abstentions reflects disillusionment with the PT rather than a switch to the right-wing parties. These are the areas that a new left party, like PSOL, can reconquer in the future. This is dependent on participating in the struggles which will develop against the new right-wing councils and against attacks by the federal government. This is one of the main challenges now facing the left and the most combative social movements.

Corruption and economic crisis

There is no doubt that the collapse in the support for the PT is linked to its involvement in some of the big corruption scandals. The fact that deputies, senators, party officials and others have been imprisoned for corruption has been a big reason for the massive loss of prestige of the PT. The state’s ‘operation car wash’, allegedly inspired by ‘operation clean hands’ in Italy, was deliberately directed against the PT by the right-wing, which is still deploying it. Their objective is to ensure that Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva cannot contest the presidential elections in 2018, even if this means his imprisonment.

Operation car wash will continue to be crucial for the future of the PT as its investigation comes ever closer to Lula, who is seen as the only hope for the PT to recapture its support. Even though it is a destabilising factor in the political situation for the ruling class, one of the central objectives in the coup against Rousseff was to try and limit the investigations and rescue the credibility of the political system. The other objective was to create the conditions for the application of more brutal neoliberal policies, which Rousseff wanted to introduce but was not able to for political reasons. This programme of counter-reforms is the response of the ruling class to the worst economic crisis the country has had to confront.

Yet the fundamental reason for the collapse in support for the PT is not to be found in the corruption scandals and imprisonment of party officials. These erupted in 2005 but Lula was easily re-elected in 2006. This was in the period when the country was growing economically and there was the perspective that things would continue to improve. The reason for the turmoil in the PT now is the economic and social disaster, and the failure of the PT to offer a way out through the application of left socialist policies.

Brazil is immersed in a deep crisis. The fall in GDP in 2016 will be between 3-3.5%, about the same as in the previous year (3.8%). In 2014, growth was practically zero (0.1%) and anticipated growth for 2017 will be no higher than 1%. The country faces the worst crisis in its history. The social effects have been horrendous. Official unemployment stands at 12%, which means that twelve million people are without work. In the industrial sector alone, 1.3 million jobs have been lost in one year. In the motor industry, 200,000 jobs went over two years. The crisis in industry is affecting other sectors.

On top of this, the informal sectors, based on precarious work with terrible conditions, are no longer absorbing the workforce, including those who lost employment in the formal sector. This is leading to a clear tendency to drive down pay. This will be made even worse by the counter-reforms being introduced by the Temer government, which will drive down living standards and workers’ rights. Temer openly says he is going to ‘throw the red out of Brazil’, referring to the ‘leftism of the PT’. He blames the country’s crisis on the previous Rousseff government, ignoring the fact that he served as vice-president in her administration. In reality, Temer and the traditional right are just as responsible.

An opening for a new left

PSOL emerged from the elections as a reference point challenging the PT from the left and is seen as much more viable. This is not necessarily reflected in the number of mayors and councillors it won, although PSOL did make some significant advances. The party got 53 councillors elected (10% more than in 2012) and two prefects (the same as in 2012). But PSOL also went through to the second round in two important state capitals, Belém and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Sorocaba, in São Paulo state.

In a country the size of Brazil, PSOL did not have the opportunity to fight in every municipality. It lacks the resources of the main capitalist parties that function as election machines sustained and backed by state governments and local councils, and which get generous exposure on television. The government changed the rules so that parties with fewer than nine federal deputies got less TV time. This meant that, in the majority of municipalities, PSOL had a mere ten to twelve seconds on TV! The new rules also meant that the networks were not obliged to include PSOL in TV debates. Despite all this, in the main state capitals, PSOL was able to present itself as a viable challenge to the PT from the left.

The elections saw a political polarisation which has marked the recent period in Brazil. In some regions, it was PSOL that challenged the right-wing rather than the PT. The most symbolic example was Rio de Janeiro, where PSOL is playing the role historically played by the PT nationally, as the ‘voice’ of the Brazilian left. In Rio, PSOL’s candidate, Marcelo Freixo, advanced to the second round to challenge the PRB (Partido Republicano Brasileiro – linked to the neo-Pentecostal church). The councillors elected in Rio with the highest votes were from PSOL and a far-right populist candidate.

In Belém, PSOL will challenge the sitting mayor from the PSDB. PSOL also won more than 10% of the vote in five state capitals. In São Paulo, PSOL won two councillors for the first time. The councillor with the highest vote in São Paulo was Eduardo Suplicy from the PT, who was a senator and viewed as an honest individual. Despite this, in the election for mayor, the PT was defeated and the PSDB won in the first round. PSOL will have a good opportunity to make advances in the coming period.

The elections also reflected what is called ‘the women’s spring’, due to recent struggles over women’s rights. Young, black, LGBT women were elected as councillors for PSOL in São Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte, and Porto Alegre. In Natal, in Rio Grande do Norte, Amanda Gurgel, formally a member of the PSTU (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado), stood under her own banner and won the second most votes of any candidates. However, due to the refusal of the PSTU to form a left front with PSOL and thereby secure the quota needed on a citywide basis, she was not elected. In general, the sectarian attitude adopted by the PSTU, which has provoked splits in its ranks, saw a decline in its votes, including in areas where it maintains some influence in the trade unions.

Overall, PSOL has emerged as a left alternative to the PT in the main capital cities and urban centres. The PT lost its dominant unchallenged position on the ‘left’, even though it has more elected positions and still controls the trade unions.

LSR members stood as PSOL candidates in numerous cities and states and won significant results, which have strengthened its support. Our female comrades who stood in Rio das Ostras (Rio de Janeiro state) and Bauru (São Paulo) won 10% and 12% of the vote respectively. In São Paulo, Marzeni Pereira, a sacked trade union leader from the water company, Sabesp, strengthened his position in the eastern zone of the city. The same was true in other regions. As part of the process of reorganisation of the socialist left in Brazil, new important struggles and opportunities are opening up. The LSR is looking to strengthen its position in the trade union struggles, social movements and future electoral battles.

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