PSDB, a party without a future

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By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL*

Bruno Covas, who disappeared early, represented the hope, albeit tenuous, of the PSDB's reunion with its origins.

The process of deconstruction of the Brazilian constitutional order had as its privileged target the left and, in particular, the Workers' Party. The PT lost the presidency of the Republic in 2016, with the coup that deposed Dilma Rousseff, and was prevented from returning to it in 2018, with the veto of the candidacy of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Judges, prosecutors, police, media companies and, when necessary, military leaders joined in the conspiracy known as Operation Lava Jato, with the aim of criminalizing the PT. There were years of intense persecution, without respite.

However, the PT reached the second round of the 2018 presidential elections. It lost seats, but continued to elect the largest group in the Chamber of Deputies. In the 2020 municipal elections, it showed some recovery compared to four years earlier. And, most important of all, despite the effort to build a scenario in which the relevant political alternatives would only be Bolsonaro and the right-wing opposition, the left – in particular, again, the PT – managed to impose itself as an unavoidable political interlocutor. For next year's race, Lula, with his political rights restored, is the undisputed favorite. In short: the PT survived.

The diagnosis is more complicated in the case of the PSDB. For 20 years, it seemed that PT and PSDB would backbone the Brazilian party system – which would remain fragmented, regionally dispersed and even gelatinous, as the Political Science literature never tires of repeating, but would have two poles, one in the center-left and the other in the centre-right, organizing national disputes. But the PSDB ended up engulfed by the process of institutional weakening that it helped to trigger and today it finds it difficult to remain a political actor of the first magnitude.

Strictly speaking, the PSDB was not born with the vocation of leading the center-right. When it emerged, in the midst of the work of the National Constituent Assembly, it broke with a PMDB degraded by the exercise of power. The heir to the struggles against the dictatorship, which was supposed to lead redemocratization, had become an association without a project, which brought together all kinds of opportunists. The PSDB, then, sought to rescue the lost commitments, with a clearer programmatic definition and a more demanding ethical rule. His “social democracy” was never more than a fancy name. Rather, it was a progressive liberalism and, above all, a civilizing intention. The new party's objective was to group the most enlightened sectors of the Brazilian elites and bring the country closer to the advanced capitalist democracies.

A party, in short, positioned in the center, but a center that, in the backward conditions of Brazilian politics, would pass as center-left.

However, the PT, after reaching the second round of the 1989 elections, occupied the space on the left, which the PSDB perhaps aspired to. With Fernando Henrique Cardoso becoming, thanks to the Real Plan, the lifeline that allowed Lula to avoid a victory in 1994, it fell to the toucans to lead a broad right-wing coalition. They established, in particular, an intimate partnership with the PFL (today DEM), an acronym that initially sheltered the dictatorship's evacuees who adhered to the negotiated transition to democracy. The PSDB seemed destined to replace the PMDB and become the true party of the New Republic.

The toucan government did not exactly promote the “capitalist shock” that Mário Covas had announced in a famous speech, but a plunge into the neoliberal adjustment. He adhered to the idea of ​​reducing the State and to Thatcherist practices of strangling the trade union movement. It has gone through major scandals, such as the purchase of votes for the re-election amendment and privatizations “on the edge of irresponsibility”, without major scratches thanks to its control over Congress and over the supervisory bodies.

The party swelled with supporters, many of whom left when it lost power. It always operated as an oligarchy tightly controlled by a handful of leaders. Some caciques died (Franco Montoro, Mário Covas), others were co-opted (Aécio Neves, Geraldo Alckmin), but the PSDB continued with its profile as a pragmatic party with a center-right bias. Social democracy remained in the name, but the fantasy that the toucans began to project was that of a “third way” à la Tony Blair, duly tropicalized. They continued with the discourse of human rights, democratic freedoms and social justice; they used the modern vocabulary of “participation” and “citizenship”, to the point that political scientist Evelina Dagnino diagnosed the “perverse confluence” between the liberal government and the progressive agenda of the opposition.

The success of the PT governments destabilized the PSDB. Policies aimed at repaying the social debt were carefully combined with the concern not to frighten privileged groups; the order defined by the 1988 Constitution, the one that the party's parliamentarians refused to sign, was the government's final horizon. In other words: by an irony of history, it was the PT, after all, that became the party of the New Republic.

Lula faced the turbulence of the monthly allowance and was re-elected well. He ended his second term breaking popularity records and made an almost unknown successor. Social policies made the PT loyal to an electorate that used to be guided by conservative parties. As most adherent politicians preferred to migrate to the base of the new government, the PSDB saw its allies increasingly assume the face of an ideological right. In the 2010 and 2014 elections, the candidates from Toucan took on speeches in which openly reactionary themes gained increasing centrality – opposition to legal abortion, defense of lowering the age of criminal responsibility, “meritocracy”, punitivism.

When the path of the coup began to be trodden, after the defeat of Aécio Neves in 2014, the previous situation had already reversed, in which the presence of the PSDB as a civilized center-right served to moderate its most extreme allies. It was the toucans who gave in to the radicals' discourse. They believed that they could benefit from the rising tide of anti-politics and that their allies at the time – religious fanatics, nostalgic for the military dictatorship, olavists, obscurantists of all stripes – would passively accept to return to the supporting position.

They could not be more wrong – as the fiasco in the 2018 presidential elections demonstrated, in which the party lost 85% of the votes it had won four years earlier. And, after deciding an embarrassed “neutrality” as an official position in the second round, he marched in force alongside Bolsonaro.

The rupture with the basic precepts of political civility, the adherence to MMA, also had an impact on the internal life of the party. When then-Governor Geraldo Alckmin, eager to expand his power in the PSDB, imposed João Doria's bizarre candidacy for mayor of São Paulo, he was bringing the fox into the henhouse. Without party experience, without political experience, Doria broke the balance of the toucan caciques. His truculent personalism has multiplied resentments, many of them possibly irremediable. Its short-term opportunism is incompatible with a party-building project. The loss of value of the PSDB brand is so great that even Alckmin himself, founder of the party, former governor, twice presidential candidate, is ready to change sides.

Doria's ostensible goal is to reach the presidency of the Republic next year. Despite all the effort, the São Paulo government machine and the indecent marketing of vaccination, he is skating, according to the latest polls, at around 3% of voting intentions. He cannot even unify the party itself, let alone the center-right. Many tall plumage toucans struggle to find an alternative name, whatever it may be. There are those, like Senator Izalci Lucas (DF), who do not hide their predilection for Bolsonaro; ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, taken by belated regret, hints at voting for Lula. The president of the DEM directly declared that with Doria there is no conversation.

By embarking on the coup and the deconstruction of the 1988 constitutional pact, the PSDB undermined its differential as a representative of a civilized right. By opening up ground for an adventurer like Doria, it becomes less and less able to function as the party it once was. The early disappearance of Bruno Covas thus takes on a tragic symbolism. By his last name, by the position he already held even at such a young age and by the more solid commitment to some democratic values, he represented the hope, albeit tenuous, of the PSDB's reunion with its origins.

It's hard not to see, in the mayor's death, an announcement that this door is closed. The PSDB is lacking its own physiognomy. Doria's personal project is not able to supply it, nor is anti-PTism, which is used with greater ease by other right-wing groups.

* 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).

 

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