The two deaths of the PSDB

Image: Plato Terentev
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By CARLOS RANULFO MELO*

The PSDB is over and there is nothing to celebrate. In his absence, the void left by the center-right was occupied by the most truculent and reactionary movement that the country has experienced since redemocratization.

There are two ways in which a party can die. One is due to the lack of votes, which may wane election after election or disappear altogether. Another is of a programmatic nature – in this case, the party may even maintain some political expression, but its denomination no longer does justice to its political practice. The PSDB fits into both cases.

The graph below shows the percentage of deputies elected by the party to the Chamber between 1990, its electoral debut, and 2022.

The numbers speak for themselves. Coming out of the MDB's ribs, the toucans won 7,6% of the seats in the Chamber in 1990 – there were 76 elected representatives. The percentage grew until 1998: 99 vacancies, which gave the party 19,3% of the votes in the house.

From then on, a decline began that, in today's eyes, seems irreversible. The slow fall has two distinct moments. The first corresponds to the period of the PT governments, between 2002 and 2014. The PSDB – as happened with its first-time ally, the DEM – felt the long stay in the opposition and saw its representation retreat to 10,5 of the Chamber in 2010, percentage that was repeated in 2014. In these two years, the party depended crucially on São Paulo and Minas Gerais to maintain a medium-sized bench. Both in 2010 and in 2014, the two states contributed with 39% of the deputies elected by the toucans.

The 2018 election would mark the second moment of the fall, when the party had its strength in the Chamber reduced to 5,7% of the seats. The situation got even worse in 2022: there were only 13 elected representatives, 2,5% of the house. The party that governed the country for eight years was reduced to a small party. In the two years in question, its caucus in São Paulo was restricted to six and five deputies respectively – for comparison purposes, between 1990 and 2014 the party had elected an average of 14 deputies in the state. In Minas, there were five elected in 2018 and only two in 2022.

The result was only not worse due to the federation formed with Cidadania – federated, the two parties elected 18 deputies. The PSDB/Cidadania federation obtained the eighth vote for the Chamber of Deputies. With 4,52% of the valid votes, its performance was slightly better than that of the PSOL/REDE federation, which reached 4,29%. Judging by the magnitude of the retreat after 2014, the toucans, whether or not the federation is maintained, have plenty of reason to be concerned about the barrier clause for 2026.

If the first moment of retreat can be explained by the difficulties imposed by the period in opposition to PT governments, the second has nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, the party even experienced growth right after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. In the 2016 municipal election, the toucans elected 803 prefectures, second only to the MDB. Its aggregate vote was the highest in the country – 17.612.608 votes, a growth of 25% compared to 2012. A clear sky seemed to unfold and 2018 was just around the corner.

But here comes Jair Bolsonaro, the unforeseen consequence of the movement that began with the interruption of Dilma Rousseff's mandate. In Minas Gerais, the party lost what looked like an easy race against the worn-out government of Fernando Pimentel (PT). A few days before the first round vote, Romeu Zema was “discovered” by Jair Bolsonaro’s voters and jumped by single digits in the polls to lead the succession race and the subsequent victory in the second round. In São Paulo, the party was saved: in the absence of a candidate who fell in with the preference of the Bolsonarist electorate, the toucans placed the “bolsodoria” in place.

But the election of João Doria said it all. The PSDB had lost its place as a containment element to the PT to the extreme right. Lacking a social base, the party went through the period of the Lula and Dilma governments anchored in anti-PTism and suddenly lost its fundamental support point with the electorate. The fight against the PT had passed into the hands of Jair Bolsonaro and would be conducted in his style. Worse still, in the view of the former captain, the PSDB started to be presented as part of the accursed heritage – communist, anti-Christian and enemy of the family – that would be leading the country to the downfall. Toucans and petistas would be flour from the same bag.

The party's second death came to a head in 2014 when Aécio Neves chose not to recognize Dilma Rousseff's victory in the presidential election and cast doubt, without any evidence, on the vote count. Unusual and strange to democratic practices, the gesture would later be mentioned by Jair Bolsonaro in his attacks on the TSE. From then on, the PSDB, led by the former senator from Minas Gerais, dedicated itself to plotting the interruption of Dilma Rousseff's mandate, abandoning any and all “institutional reserves” and working for the radical legislative obstruction of the elected government.

The mischaracterization of the party continued in the aforementioned “bolsodoria”. More than a campaign strategy, the election of João Doria represented the departure of toucans, in their cradle, from their historical lineage. Throughout Jair Bolsonaro's first term, the PSDB adopted a dubious stance. If he didn't join the government, he wasn't able to take a firm stand against its most absurd measures either. In the vote on the PEC that instituted the printed vote, the bench in the Chamber split in half and the then deputy Aécio Neves abstained.

In 2022, the party decreed its second death. Indifferent to the abundant evidence available regarding the authoritarian character of the government of Jair Bolsonaro and the repeated signs regarding the risks of a second term, the Brazilian Social-Democracy Party definitively abandoned any pretense of living up to its name and went into hiding, to to use the words of Simone Tebet (MDB), behind neutrality in the second round of presidential elections. As if that wasn't enough, his candidate for the government of São Paulo activated the despair mode and ran to the airport to receive the candidate of the PL for the Presidency. Meanwhile, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Tasso Jereissati and José Serra, to name the most prominent names, declared their support for Lula.

The PSDB is over and there is nothing to celebrate. In his absence, the void left by the center-right was occupied by the most truculent and reactionary movement that the country has experienced since redemocratization.

*Carlos Ranulfo Melo He is a retired full professor at the Department of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Removing Chairs from Place: Partisan Migration in the Chamber of Deputies.

Originally published on the website election observatory.

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