Political crisis in Brazil: Opportunities and challenges for the left

Below, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is reposting two
views on the current political crisis and the situation facing the left.

Both articles first appeared at Socialist Project

Brazil’s Political Rupture and the Left’s Opportunity

By Alfredo Saad-Filho “Out with Temer – direct elections now!” Amid meltdown in Brazil, the left calls for democracy, while the right must find ways to deny the people a voice.

The Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) won the country's presidential elections four times in a row; first with Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-06, 2007-10), then with his hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-14, 2015-16). During its 13 years in office, the PT changed Brazil in many ways; four are principally worth mentioning, as they would come to play key roles in the elite conspiracy to impeach Dilma Rousseff and destroy her party.

First, the PT democratized the state. It implemented the social and civic rights included in the 1988 ‘Citizen's Constitution’, and advanced Brazil's emerging welfare state across several fields of social provision.

Second, the PT changed the social composition of the state through the appointment of thousands of leaders of mass organizations to positions of power. For the first time in Brazilian history, millions of poor citizens could recognise themselves in the bureaucracy and relate to close friends and comrades who had become ‘important’ in Brasília.

Third, PT policies contributed to a significant improvement in the distribution of income, through the creation of millions of unskilled jobs, a rising minimum wage, and higher transfers and benefits.

Fourth, although the government never abandoned the neoliberal macroeconomic policy framework imposed in the 1990s, it gradually introduced, in parallel, neodevelopmental (that is, expansionary Keynesian) policies that helped to secure faster growth, higher profits and wages, and distributional gains.

Successes and Failures

Yet the PT failed to reform media ownership, which secured the space for a virulent opposition aligned with the country's neoliberal elites. The party also endorsed a model of distribution based on financialization, consumption, low-paid jobs, and transfers: essentially, both the rich and the poorest gained, while millions of skilled jobs were lost through the ‘globalization’ of production, privatizations, the simplification of managerial structures and new information technologies. They sliced not only the number of ‘good jobs’ in manufacturing, but also middle management posts, and increased precarity even for relatively senior jobs.

The Workers’ Party elicited mounting opposition by the neoliberal elite and the upper middle class both because of what it did do, and because of what it failed to do. PT economic policies irked finance and most of the bourgeoisie; they suffered losses because of greater state intervention, the reduction of interest rates and the economic downturn since 2011; they also resented the perceived loss of their control over state policy under Rousseff.

The upper middle classes were alienated from the PT because of their ideological commitment to neoliberalism, and because the party supported the economic and social ascent of the working class. The upper middle classes were also tormented by losses in their income and their dislocation from the outer circle of state power.

Rousseff repelled most professional politicians because of her unwillingness to conform to the established principles of pork-barrel politics. The government lost the support of large segments of informal workers, notably the flocks of Pentecostal churches that opposed the expansion of civic rights and progressive values, with flashpoints around Dilma's opening toward the liberalization of abortion and citizenship rights for homosexuals.

Finally, the expansion of the courts, the Attorney General's Office and the federal police – in terms of size, resources and powers – enabled them to launch a devastating attack on the PT.

These elite groups converged around an aggressive ‘alliance of privilege’ that was cemented ideologically by the mainstream media. The weakness of the political parties of the right enabled the media to take up the mantle of the opposition, hunting down the PT systematically, drawing upon a discourse which incorporated right-wing values, neoliberal economics, and strident allegations of corruption.

The Revolt of the Elite

The revolt of the elite was triggered by Dilma Rousseff's re-election in 2014. Her victory came as a surprise to the alliance of privilege, who underestimated the capacity of the PT and the left to mobilize a progressive coalition drawing upon the working class and the poor.

However, Rousseff's triumph was fragile, and coincided with the continuing deterioration of the economy, which has plunged the Brazilian economy into the worst crisis in its recorded history. The distributional improvements that had legitimized the PT administrations stagnated. Repeated policy failures, the media onslaught, and the disorganization of the government's base within the most right-wing congress in decades, combined to create a generalized dissatisfaction that focused on the state.

Since 2005, the mainstream media and the judiciary launched successive waves of attack against the PT, with corruption emerging as the ideal tool to fell the Rousseff administration. The lava jato (carwash) operation, pioneered by the federal police since 2014, revealed that a cartel of engineering and construction companies had bribed a group of politically-appointed directors of the state-owned oil conglomerate Petrobras, in order to secure a virtual monopoly over oil and other contracts. Those bribes allegedly channelled funds to several political parties, among them the PT.

The federal police and public prosecutors made overt political use of these investigations. They disregarded evidence that right-wing parties were involved in similar cases, selectively leaked compromising information to the media, and sought to implicate the PT wherever this was possible. Prominent politicians and the managers of several large firms were routinely arrested in order to extract plea bargains. Those refusing to co-operate were imprisoned indefinitely. When they finally surrendered, the aspersions cast on the PT were blatantly used to fuel the scandal mill. Accusations against the other parties were normally ignored.

The unfolding scandal catalysed the emergence of a mass right-wing movement populated by the upper middle classes, whose grievances included a laundry list of deeply felt but unfocused dissatisfactions articulated as demands for the ‘end of corruption’ and Dilma's impeachment. Their excitement was misguided, for three reasons.

First, the anti-corruption discourse of the alliance of privilege was selective. It targeted the institutions and parties aligned with neodevelopmentalism, suggesting that their most important goal was to change government policy, rather than eliminate corruption.

Second, chatter about corruption provided a convenient figleaf, obscuring meaningful debate on economic policy. For example, the neoliberal bourgeoisie would find it difficult to campaign to curtail labour rights, cut pensions, weaken domestic industry and cripple Petrobras. However, if these goals were disguised as a ‘struggle against corruption’, policy changes could be smuggled in later, regardless of the interests of the vast majority.

Third, the coordinated attack by the judiciary and the media disconnected the PT from its sources of funding and its mass support. The loss of millions of jobs and billions of dollars in output and investment were merely collateral damage.

Lava jato was remarkable for another reason, unrelated to corruption: it was indicative of a severe distortion of Brazil's constitution, by which guarantees of the independence of the judiciary supported the emergence of a self-appointed group of ‘pure’ investigators, in fact aligned with the political right, who called upon themselves to clean up the political system.

Their mission was fortuitously supported by elites’ mounting animosity toward the PT, the sensitivities of the middle classes, the deepening economic crisis, and the paralysis of the Rousseff administration. In the mêlée, the economic crisis, rising unemployment, gargantuan corruption and a torrent of scandals became thoroughly enmeshed.

The mainstream media began trumpeting a message that the PT was at the centre of a web of thievery without precedent: Lula and Dilma were robbing the republic by day and at night, they conspired to turn Brazil into a satellite of Venezuela. Rousseff lost a voter on her impeachment in the Chamber of Deputies by 367-137, on 17 April 2016, and by 61-20 in the Senate, on 31 August.

Dilma Rousseff's impeachment was a grotesque spectacle. Her trial was overtly political, all legal niceties having been abandoned long ago, and it was transparently orchestrated by a cabal of thieving politicians. They claimed the right to impose an unconstitutional vote of no confidence on a President who had made mistakes, but committed no crime.

The impeachment process was driven by an unholy coalition between the leadership of the opposition, bitterly regretting their four consecutive defeats in Presidential elections, leading figures in the judiciary, Rousseff's traitorous Vice-President, Michel Temer, and the Machiavellian speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, who was struggling with heavy corruption charges in Brazil and in Switzerland (he would end up in prison soon afterwards, his usefulness to the coup overwhelmed by the heavy political cost of the allegations being made against him). They were trailed by a motley crew of minor characters, many of whom were accused of egregious crimes – not least corruption – and by a parade of business leaders whom the media fêted as if they were the nation's saviours.

After the Impeachment

In the following months, the administration led by Michel Temer engaged in a fully-fledged attempt to restore orthodox neoliberalism, undermine employment rights and internationalize the economy. The government's attack was impeded only by its own venality, incompetence and endless tribulations, as Temer stumbled against the law, emerging mass resistance and the ongoing threat that his parliamentary base of support would disintegrate.

This was expected. What came as a surprise was the recent split in the alliance of privilege. The main interest of capital as a whole was the restoration of orthodox neoliberalism, relying on the judiciary to continue dismantling the PT.

But by now the judicial attack had already gained its own momentum, and it has been strongly backed by the upper middle classes, which treat the judges and public prosecutors as major celebrities. In the country of football megastars, soap operas and Carmen Miranda, this is important. And indeed the media has harnessed huge revenues from popular interest in the investigations.

On 18 May, the owners of JBS, the world's largest meat processing conglomerate, agreed a plea bargain. They revealed JBS funding to 28 parties and almost 2,000 politicians, and produced evidence of large cash payments to the leader of the right wing PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) and runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections, Aécio Neves, against whom multiple accusations had already emerged but were never investigated seriously. Finally, JBS produced the recording of a conversation between one of its owners and President Temer, suggesting that JBS would pay Eduardo Cunha for his continuing silence while in jail, in order to avoid incriminating his old friend Temer.

The reaction in Brazil was explosive. Temer, already tainted by multiple allegations of corruption and other misdemeanours, and facing difficulties pushing his neoliberal agenda in congress, was abandoned by parts of the mainstream media, who spotted a lame duck and called for his resignation or, failing that, impeachment. His political allies are jumping ship. Temer is probably doomed.

The problem for the remnants of the alliance of privilege is what to do next: the constitution suggests that congress should elect an interim president to steer the ship until the 2018 elections. The left is calling for direct elections now. Elections are unacceptable for the alliance of privilege, because the political right is divided and has no readily viable candidate.

In contrast, the left could field Lula, who is leading in the polls in spite of the attacks he has been enduring for several years, and despite the fact he is facing investigations that are certain to find him guilty of something: in a few months, he is likely to be unable to run for public office.

Despite the political chaos, the Brazilian left finds itself in a good position for the first time in several years. The genie has not only escaped from its bottle; it has gone berserk. Temer is damaged goods rather than a statesman; it has become incontrovertible that Dilma Rousseff was overthrown by a criminal gang; the alliance of privilege is split, and the left is calling for elections while the right must find ways to deny the people a voice.

The left can win this battle, and upend the conspiracy of the elites. Now is the time to fight, on the streets, in the offices, factories, and neighbourhoods: Fora Temer – eleições diretas já!

Alfredo Saad-Filho is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London. This article first published on the openDemocracy website.

Brazil in Crisis and the Challenges for the Left

By Manuel Larrabure

On Thursday, May 18, an incriminating audio recording surfaced containing the voice of current Brazilian president Michel Temer of the historically centrist, but recently turned right wing, Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). In this recording, Temer can be heard engaging in discussions of bribery with former House speaker and fellow party member Eduardo Cunha, jailed in 2016 on corruption charges. The recording was acquired by billionaire corporate executive, Joesley Batista. Batista's subsequent testimony, though lacking concrete evidence thus far, included accusations of bribery implicating 1829 candidates from 28 parties, including former Presidents Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers' Party) (Carta Capital, 2017). This is the latest in the Brazilian political saga following the impeachment of Dilma in 2016, an event best understood as a continuation in the regional tendency toward coup d’etat (Shipley, 2009; Gordon, Webber 2012).

As a result of the audio tape, Temer has lost whatever minimal popular and institutional support he previously had, with almost all sectors of society, including the powerful right wing media, now calling for his resignation. Furthermore, Brazil's top prosecutor has now opened an investigation against him on the charges of obstruction of justice, corruption and criminal organization. Lastly, the Brazilian bar association has made a formal demand of impeachment against the embattled President. This volatile political situation coincides with Brazil's deepening economic recession, now featuring double digit unemployment, a shrinking GDP, and a flailing currency. For these reasons, it is safe to say that Temer's days in office are numbered.

Protests Against Temer

Responding to the fragility of the Temer government, on May 19, the left organized sizable protests throughout the country, bringing together a wide range of progressive organizations and social movements under the banners of “Fora Temer” (Temer Out) and “Diretas Já” (Direct Elections Now). These mobilizations took place three weeks after a successful general strike organized by the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil's most important labour federation. The strike was aimed at stopping the radical neoliberal reforms to labour rights (PL 6787) and social security (PEC 287) proposed by the Temer government.

The latest mobilizations took place throughout the country on May 24, with the country's capital city, Brasilia, serving as their epicenter. On this day, 200,000 people gathered in front of the Presidential Palace reiterating the movement's central demand of direct elections. Following violent exchanges between police and protestors, including vandalising public buildings, Temer exponentially escalated the conflict by calling in the armed forces via a Presidential decree last used in 1986. The decree immediately triggered a brawl in Congress, including exchanging accusations between Temer and many of his supporters. Nevertheless, 1500 soldiers were deployed including 200 snipers. The decree was set to remain in effect until May 31. However, due to mounting pressure, Temer revoked the decree less than 24 hours after it was invoked.

Given this political climate, the possibility of a new election in the coming weeks, either as a result of Temer's resignation or impeachment, is growing fast. Constitutionally, this election would have to be indirect, meaning a new president would be elected by the National Congress. Although, a direct election by the electorate at large is also a possibility, this would require a constitutional amendment, implying a longer time frame of execution. In contrast to the left, the right would prefer indirect elections, as its current command of National Congress would allow it to essentially handpick Temer's successor. However, the right does not yet have a clear candidate, and their dogmatic and, so far, unwavering commitment to a radical neoliberal program is facing growing contestation. Furthermore, with National Congress totally discredited as a result of the scope of Joesley Batista accusations, it is far from clear that indirect elections would have sufficient legitimacy.

However, the left's situation is no less difficult than the right's. Although Lula, the PTs best and only viable candidate, remains highly popular and recent polls show he would win an election, it is far from clear he will survive the current legal proceedings against him that form part of the anti-corruption operation known as Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). This is particularly true now that Lava Jato, a highly partisan and right wing affair, is acquiring a veneer of non-partisanship, as the mainstream media makes a dubious association between this investigation and the one related to the Temer bribery revelations (Watts, 2017). Furthermore, because Batista's accusations also implicate Lula and Dilma, lack of evidence not withstanding, the PT's credibility is likely to be further undermined in the court of public opinion. In short, although the PT does have a viable candidate in Lula, ongoing legal proceedings and the PT's diminishing credibility stand as major barriers to his political come back.

Perhaps more troubling for the left is that the PT does not have an adequate program for the current Brazilian economic context. It's politics of class conciliation and conflict avoidance became viable during the country's economic boom of the past decade, resulting in huge gains for capital and modest improvement for the nation's poorest (Leiva, 2008; Anderson, 2011). However, these same politics are no longer acceptable to a now radicalized right wing looking to maintain capital's profit margins in the context of a less favorable global economic outlook and a rapidly worsening domestic economy. Given this, what the left needs to defeat the proposed neoliberal reforms is a project of open class confrontation, a path the PT was never willing to take. Furthermore, after years of being in power, the PT paid a steep political price. As Perry Anderson (2016, p. 22) recently lamented:

“The Workers’ Party believed, after a time, that it could use the established order in Brazil to benefit the poor, without harm – indeed with help – to the rich. It did benefit the poor, as it set out to do. But once it accepted the price of entry into a diseased political system, the door closed behind it. The party itself withered, becoming an enclave in the state, without self-awareness or strategic direction...”

Given this, it would be naive to believe the PT would now suddenly be able to adopt the more radical posture the current moment demands.

Left of the PT?

Finally, the left outside of the PT remains small, confused and fragmented, featuring a recent split in the Trotskyist Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado, and rising tensions within the pluralist Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, in both cases related to each party's support for the impeachment processes against Dilma. Hence, if there's any hope for the left in this conjuncture, it is in the social movement left and the possibility of them combining the militancy and creativity of the uprisings witnessed in June 2013 (Larrabure, 2013) with the maturity of the current mobilizations against Temer and the coup.

Key in this process will be the strengthening of solidarity between newer social movements, particularly the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Homeless Workers Movement), and more established movements, such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers' Movement) and organized labour. Also crucial is that these movements prioritize the development of new forms of democratic participation and leadership that can address one of the central political problems to surface in Brazil in recent years, namely a profound crisis of representation, manifesting as a deep mistrust of all elite political parties (Larrabure, 2016). However, the development of new democratic capacities will inevitably be a slow process that, at best, will take years to unfold.

Given the weaknesses of both the left and right, what we are seeing in the current conjuncture is therefore a temporary political stalemate, as each side maneuvers in the context of a steady stream of scandals and deepening crisis. However, this is a situation the right wing is better capable of taking advantage of in the short and medium term, particularly given its control of the media. Unfortunately, what this means is that the neoliberal reforms proposed by the right wing, likely the most radical in the history of the country, will go forward, something that will have ripples across the region and will pose a direct threat to what remains of the ‘pink tide’. In other words, the stakes could hardly be higher. However, what remains unclear is who exactly will lead the passing of these reforms. What capital needs is someone with popular support, trusted and with the ability to demobilize the left. Someone of great political genius who can make neoliberal policies somewhat palatable to the working class. Someone good with words and charismatic, but perhaps also vulnerable and looking for personal revenge. Who would this person be? Your guess is as good as mine.

This is a perilous turn of events in Brazil, but it is also indicative of the wider impasse of the pink tide and left politics in Latin America. For a decade and a half, movements and left governments in much of the region put up a fierce challenge to neoliberalism. In most cases success was limited. However, in Venezuela and Bolivia it at least became possible to seriously discuss what not long ago seemed like a fairytale, namely a vision of a just and radically democratic society, a socialism for the 21st century. With the victory of the right wing in Argentina in 2015, Venezuela in crisis, and Brazil at a boiling point, the only way forward for the left in the region will be to engage in a process of deep reinvention. To do this, it will have to draw on its most democratic impulses, combating the authoritarian character of the new right. This will also mean exploring new alliances and political formations whose goal is, as Guilherme Boulos, the leader of Brazil's Homeless Workers Movement put it, “the profound transformation of the political system” (Lirio, 2017).

Manuel Larrabure is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Santa Cruz. His research is on post-capitalism and social movements in 21st-century Latin America. His work has been published in a number of international journals, including Latin American Perspectives, Historical Materialism, and the Canadian Journal of Development Studies.