The left after Jair Bolsonaro

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By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL*

What could be the path for a new Lula in post-Bolsonaro Brazil?

When the project to overthrow Dilma Rousseff took to the streets, Congress and the media, with the government showing itself to be singularly incapable of reacting, the end of the PT moment of the Brazilian left was predicted. A party born in the heat of the labor struggles of the late 1970s, which had grown in institutional politics and won the presidency of the Republic four times in a row, should have been capable of a much more vigorous reaction against the plot prepared to harm it.

For those who followed the mobilization in defense of the mandate that the president won at the ballot box, it was clear that the resistance came much more from new youth, feminist, black, LGBTQI+ and peripheral groups than from an already aged and accommodated PT militancy. Many defended legality without even supporting the government, as expressed by the wonderful banner seen in some demonstrations: “Stay, Dilma, but improve”.

Lula did not come out unscathed. He had been the greatest popular leader in Brazil's history, no doubt, but he had been put on the defensive. Solidarity with the former president, against the judicial and media persecution he was suffering, was expressed by democrats of different stripes, but there was almost a consensus that his time was passing. He was a very strong name for 2018, sure, but he could be knocked out of contention easily. The act in front of the Metallurgist Union of São Bernardo do Campo yielded beautiful pictures, but the truth is that the reaction to Lula's arbitrary arrest was weak. Whether because Lulism opted for a demobilizing path, which reduced political participation to voting, or because the incessant campaign to deconstruct the former president's image had yielded results, the fact is that his leadership seemed emptied, impotent.

The 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections were not the catastrophe for the PT that some fearful ones predicted, but they revealed a fragile party. PSOL, appointed as a possible successor, grew little in the popular vote, but attracted younger leaders and seemed to embody the promise of renewal. Guilherme Boulos was defeated in the São Paulo mayoral election in 2020, but reached the second round, well ahead of the PT candidate. Many did not hesitate to hail him as the future of the left in Brazil.

The scenario changed with the liberation and recovery of political rights by former President Lula. He grew up politically in jail, due to the undeniable dignity with which he faced prison. Even for those who already understood the inanity of the processes prepared by Lava Jato, the exposure of the strangers of the operation was shocking, as proof of the deep corruption of vast sectors of the Judiciary and the Public Ministry – which also favored Lula, the main target of what was being evidently, it was a veritable conspiracy against Brazilian democracy.

But more important was the political climate at the time of his release. The country was going through the worst part of the health, economic and social crisis triggered by the pandemic, with the Bolsonaro government insisting on denialism, indifferent to the human costs. The hope that it would be possible to remove him from office had already dissipated, with the government's openness to Centrão, the right-wing opposition's hesitation, concerned with not compromising the economic agenda that it shares with Bolsonarism, and the STF's repeated preferential option. for temporizing. Lula emerged, then, as the one who was able to give voice to the revolt and promise the resumption of a path of sanity, stability and development for Brazil.

There is a long way to go before next year's elections, in a tumultuous scenario – starting with the threats of a new coup, trumpeted every day by the President of the Republic. But, at the moment, Lula is the clear favorite. Bolsonaro's evident desperation is the best indication that he himself assesses that his chances at the polls are slim. The so-called “third way” does not seem capable of becoming viable and oscillates between insisting on seasoned names that show poor performance or seeking a newcomer, an uncertain maneuver at a time when the anti-politics discourse loses traction. And Ciro Gomes, once again his own candidate, burned on the left since his promenade Parisian in 2018, has difficulty gaining credibility with the right, risking falling short of its historic ceiling of 12% of the vote.

Lula doesn't just enter the race as a favorite. It is quite likely that he will emerge as the sole leftist candidate (apart from the PSTU and perhaps the PCB, who have an irrelevant electoral record). He attracted the PSB, maintains the loyalty of the PCdoB and has a good chance of having the support of the PSOL. Deputy Glauber Braga's candidacy is set, but it mainly serves to fuel the party's internal clashes. If a candidate is even launched, Braga – as much as he has, on the left, unanimous recognition as a brilliant parliamentarian – is condemned to be a mere extra in the presidential race.

But what will Lula do with such favoritism? What could be the path of a new center-left government in post-Bolsonaro Brazil?

The challenges are big. Since the 2016 coup, the country has been experiencing an accelerated process of deconstitutionalization, in which the pact that originated the 1988 charter was broken by a unilateral decision by the elites. What is written in it is valid or not according to the circumstances and the target of the decision. The powers that be live in a permanent arm wrestling match to see who is in charge, as the rules have lost their effectiveness. The normative horizon animated by the Constitution, of a less unfair and less violent country, was disfigured, which resulted in the shrinking of rights and social policies – the common work of the Temer and Bolsonaro governments. The other side of the coin is the dismantling of the State, through a policy of either irresponsible privatization or deliberate underfinancing. From health to science, from environmental protection to education and culture, there is no area that does not suffer the consequences of the assault on public policies.

At the same time, moved by demophobia and, even more so, by the appetite for the benefits of power, the military surrendered to the temptation of tutoring the civilian government. Finally (and without the list being exhaustive), it is necessary to remember an aggressive extreme right, which will not evaporate with the eventual defeat of Bolsonaro and which is being trained to conflagrate any democratic recovery in Brazil. One group, it should be noted, was heavily armed, given its penetration among the military, police, militiamen and also among “good citizens”, who took advantage of the recent facilities for the acquisition of pistols or rifles.

Lula, as usual, sends out ambiguous signals about what he intends to do. Declarations against privatization and in favor of the return of a State capable of promoting well-being and inducing development coexist with gestures aimed at calming “the market”, which is the fantasy name that the press gives to big capital. The defense of democratizing measures, which improve the quality of political representation in Brazil, is combined with nods to the Centrão and to negotiator religious leaders.

The path of recomposing the original Lula arch, that of the beginning of the first term, would guarantee “governability”, understood in its most conventional terms: majority in Congress, friendly relations with the business community, relative truce with the corporate media. The problem is that the conditions to achieve the counterparts (compensatory social policies, the expansion of opportunities for members of the most vulnerable groups, a draft national development project) are much worse, whether due to the retreat of legal frameworks and the weakening of the State , or by the presence of a bourgeoisie that demands an even greater share of wealth and a middle class intoxicated by the fear of seeing the distance that separates it from the poorest diminish.

In this context, a new Lula presidency would mean the normalization of the order that was established after the 2016 coup, a more perfect normalization than would be possible under any conservative politician. A left-wing president, but accommodating to the lost rights, the denationalized economy and the defiled Constitution. In defeat, Bolsonaro would be rendering one last service to the destruction of Brazilian democracy: that of embodying the goat in the room. His departure from the scene would be a huge relief – goats in the room do cause a lot of trouble. By contrast, the impression would be left that the social and political order degraded by the setbacks suffered from 2016 onwards is a possible advance, to be celebrated.

It is true that it is difficult to imagine a different scenario, of a quick reversal of the defeats of recent years, given the weakness of the popular field. But it is also convenient to include in the equation the fact that Lula can negotiate on advantageous terms. He is the favorite, which is enough to attract the mass of politicians who can't stand the hardship of being in the opposition. He is the best promise of pacification in the country, which interests everyone who sees Brazil as more than just a territory to be plundered. The right is split and without a viable name; the broad coalition of forces that came together to deliver the 2016 coup no longer operates. Therefore, it is possible to try something more than just giving in. It is possible to demand minimum commitments from the new allies – starting with the commitment to the effective re-constitutionalization of the country.

The original Lulista pact was marked by the understanding that social transformation in Brazil was blocked and that it was necessary to act with enormous tact in order not to confront privileges and guarantee the most basic thing – in the first place, the eradication of extreme poverty. The tact included, notably, avoiding any effort to mobilize and organize the popular field. The result, as it turned out, was that, by the time the ruling class decided to reverse the situation, the capacity for resistance was diminished. The reissue of an agreement in these terms, which blocks in advance any action to change the correlation of forces, is the guarantee that a democratic recovery will lead, as at other times in the history of Brazil, to a chicken flight.

The task of building democracy in peripheral capitalism is not an easy one. If in central countries the erosion of the conditions that allowed its flourishing in the XNUMXth century already leads to processes of “de-democratization”, what about Brazil, which has a ruling class that is allergic to any form of social justice and so afraid of the people it prefers, as Florestan Fernandes already observed, to remain a minor partner of international capitalism to run the risk of facing the destitute of their country on their own. For a left that aspires to return to power under such adverse conditions, it is time to use its political imagination and seek new solutions, not to go back on paths whose limits have already been demonstrated by recent history.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of The collapse of democracy in Brazil (Popular Expression).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, on August 15, 2021.

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