Brazil: how does the left continue to be re-elected?

As expected, the Presidential election result was the closest since the end of the dicatorship (Dilma Rousseff 51.64%, Aécio Neves 48.36%). What does it mean for the leftist governments in the rest of Latin America, and for democratic progressive projects in general?

First of all, we need to understand a little of the history of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), so Ill sketch it very briefly. As a new party formed under the US-backed dictatorship, the PT was always committed to parliamentary or liberal democracy. These very limited democratic credentials were however enriched by direct, devolved democracy where the Workers Party had local power, principally in the form of the Participatory Budget, a parallel democratic system for the distribution and spending of local government money on capital projects. In a country rife with corruption, where half of state budgets never reached their intended destination, this was vital grassroots control, and made inroads into Brazil’s clientelist system (“vote for me, I tarmac your road” – not roads in general in the municipality, but the one outside your door!). After losing three elections to neo-liberal, right-wing opposition, the PT conducted a semi-secret internal coup in the late 1990s, where the people around presidential candidate Luis Inacio Lula da Silva jettisoned the more radical policies, arriving in government in 2003 with a policy to pay off the external debt rather than cancel it. The PT now had no commitment to extending participatory democracy, its unique radical feature, on a national scale. The results of playing the neo-liberal economic game were impressive, with strong economic growth able to weather the storms of the global recession of 2008. Socialist, grassroots empowerment was replaced by welfarism – the Bolsa Familia (Family Benefit) for the poorest seemingly making the Workers Party impregnable in the north and north-east.

It also enabled the party to reach out beyond its traditional base of the organised working class, which only gave them a chance of 25-30% of the electorate, to the poorest sectors – those who traditionally often “sold” their vote for $10, a T-shirt or a pair of glasses. Through this reaching down to, and providing for, the poorer and less organised, the PT could win a landslide majority. Partly because of welfare, the poorest now vote repeatedly for a Workers Party President. This is presented starkly in the extraordinary geographical split in the 2014 election results: red in the poor north and north-east, and blue in the richer south. Actually, a first glance at the map does not reflect how extreme the division was: Dilma won no less than 79% of the votes in impoverished Maranhão, and 70% in somewhat richer Bahia, while Aécio won landslides of 65% in Santa Catarina and 64% in São Paulo state. There was also a huge division between richer urban and poorer rural areas within states. There were only three states (out of 27) where Dilma gained a higher percentage in the state capital than in the state as a whole (Espirito Santo, Rondônia, and São Paulo). In other words, people in the countryside voted more left, and people in the cities more right (the stats are here). So much for the Workers Party’s roots in the industrial proletariat! (Lula was a metal-worker trade union leader). A barometer of Aécio Neves’ defeat was his loss in his home state of Minas Gerais, where he was previously a two-term governor, but while he only took 47.6% in the state as a whole, he took 64% in state capital Belo Horizonte. 

So here we have two expressions of the “two Brazils”: rural/urban, and north/south. There is a further split down the nation as campaigned on by Dilma with the support of the hugely popular Lula. Impressively, the PT constantly emphasised that there were two models of society in contention. Compare the dismal campaign to be run by the British Labour Party under Ed Miliband next year – exactly the same model, perhaps a little bit nicer, a conflict between managers of the same system. In some ways, during their campaign, Dilma and Lula sounded more radical than they were in government.

The 50/50 voting split between poor and middle-class should concern those of us who support the successes of the Latin American left in the last 15 years. Evo Morales in Bolivia won a landslide 60% two weeks previously, but Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela only won by a measly 1.5% in April 2013.  As Michael Albert writes so thoughtfully about the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, before the recent high inflation and shortages, why were the electoral victories not more like 80%, capturing the votes of many middle-class as well as inhabitants of the favela? In the UK as well as Brazil, there is much disaffection among the reasonably waged that the poor are receiving “something-for-nothing” via social security. Among the Brazilian middle-class, the Bolsa Familia is known derisively as the bolsa-esmola, the beggars’ benefit. This is where the lack of socially-transformative direct democracy in the PT’s adminstrations may be damaging, the absence of a community empowerment which is not purely economic, and is not merely passive, something which could potentially involve the lower-middle and middle class. Looking at Venezuela, Chavez’ governments made central the development of parallel, devolved democracy, without which, with the economic problems that Venezuela now faces, the government of Nicolas Maduro would be heading for certain defeat. But coming back to Michael Albert’s critique, how is that playing out? In the favelas, communal councils are still growing and in many places thriving, but the real test of them is whether they draw people in in wealthier, opposition-backing areas, and whether the cadres of the Bolivarian revolution have any real enthusiasm for trying to roll that out.

Having fought with an anti-neo-liberal banner, and won, Dilma Rousseff has started to make conciliatory noises towards the middle class. Exactly how this develops is crucial for the future of progressive government in Latin America.


Who will win Brazil’s second round?

Now that Marina Silva’s “independent” campaign has ended in her rejection by the voters, we need to analyse what this means for the deciding round between the Workers’ Party’s (PT) incumbent Dilma Rousseff and her right-wing opponent Aécio Neves. Silva herself has not declared her preference, but indications are that she might favour Neves, which is further support for my argument with progressive friends who were naively backing her in the first round.

Why does it matter? Has the PT itself not evolved into a hopelessly compromised Blairite neo-liberal party, so that the election does not make much difference? As I argued in my previous article, whether Brazil turns its back on leftist governments in Latin America such as the US State Department’s bugbear Venezuela is very important for the region’s poorest inhabitants. And Washington and Brussels will be taking a keen interest in whether “their” candidate Neves could begin to reverse the independence of Latin America achieved in the last 15 years. The election is also important for Brazil’s own poor.

A striking aspect of the first round of voting in the Brazilian presidential elections was the geographical split between left and right, red in the poorer north and north-east and blue in the richer south and south-east. A danger to the progress made in Brazil in eradicating poverty in the last 12 years is the attitude and electoral heft of the middle-class in those southern areas. The “bolsa familia” which provides a basic income to the poorest families is resented by this middle-class, and frequently dismissed as the “bolsa-esmola”, or beggar’s benefit.

After Neves’ impressive showing in the first round (33.6% vs Dilma’s 41.6%), the question remains whether his surge has already peaked, having taken votes from Marina Silva as her campaign sank. The right hopes not, and all progressives should hope that the mere 30% of Silva’s voters that Dilma needs in the second round will migrate to her. The first opinion poll is tomorrow (Thursday)…

Marina Silva – darling of the liberals, menace to the poor

The first round of the Brazilian presidential election is today, and there is a new, supposedly independent, candidate to take on the Workers’ Party’s domination of the post for the last 12 years. Ex-Workers Party (PT) minister Marina Silva is running in opposition to PT incumbent Dilma Rousseff, and has the unusual benefit of support from right-wing periodicals such as the Economist, and the panting enthusiasm of liberal organs such as the Guardian. The latter derives from her mixed-race, working-class origins, and her avowed commitment to the environmental preservation of the Amazon region in which she was born. My doubts about her seem increasingly  to be shared by Brazilian voters, who have cooled towards her since she was jettisoned into candidacy by the death of the leader of her Brazilian Socialist Party in a plane crash. She stands a chance of winning however in the second round. Before leftists and supporters of the Brazilian poor attach themselves to Marina’s coat-tails, it may be worth mentioning a few points that are unlikely to appear in liberal journals.

1. Her manifesto is widely described as “business-friendly” by right-wing papers, more so than her opponent Rousseff’s. This is notable in a context where the supposedly left-of-centre Workers’ Party has hardly been hostile to big business.

2. Her proposed spending plan is modelled on the last budget of the government of President Lula’s right-wing predecessor Fernando-Henrique Cardoso. It is effectively an “austerity budget”, and it is difficult to see how this cannot harm Brazil’s millions in poverty.

3. Her foreign policy aims to re-orientate Brazil back to the US and Europe, in other words the imperial nations of the past. One of the successes of Brazil in the last 12 years has been its role in building the BRICS economies as an alternative pole, and in a Latin American context its support for regional initiatives such as Mercosur, and its defence of the major target of US attack, Venezuela. Marina Silva’s position on this is emphatically rightist. Obama and Merkel must be salivating at the prospect of her winning.

4. She left Lula’s government and then his party over what she considered its failure to protect the environment, but Beto Albuquerque, her vice-presidential candidate on the ticket, is close to the same agri-business that the PT government capitulated to, and has his campaign largely financed by them.

5. She is a social conservative as a result of her evangelical Christianity, with a position against abortion and gay marriage.

6. Her independence from the political system is exaggerated. The Brazilian Socialist Party, under whose banner she runs, is a well-established party with 6 state governors, 3 senators, 34 federal deputies and the mayors of 3 state capitals.

7. Similarly, in her early days in the PT, her tendency within the party was the very mainstream Articulação, on the right of the PT.

8. I refute the argument that candidates in any election stand apart from the traditional distinction between left and right. When people say Marina Silva has cross-class and -political appeal, this is because she is trying to triangulate a position that satisfies all, a situation which cannot hold. For instance, if you support the environment, that it is a left-wing position, and if you support big agri-business (the “ruralistas” the PT has been much criticised for making alliances with), that is right-wing. You cannot do both.

9. Neither working-class nor female Presidents of Brazil are new. Lula was a Sao Paulo metal-worker and trade unionist from the poor north-east, and Dilma is a bourgeois-origin ex-guerilla fighter against the dictatorship.

10. Marina’s possible second round victory relies on right wingers who have voted for PSDB candidate Aécio Neves in the first round switching to her, What effect will this have on policies for the benefit of Brazil’s poor?

I have many criticisms of the Workers Party in national government since 2003, but hope that Brazilians are not seduced by the media hype, and vote with their eyes open. Recent polls suggest they will.