EN 40 years – from city halls to the presidency


By Leonardo Avritzer*

Without breaking with clientelistic and non-transparent patterns, without a reorganization of the State, it will not be possible to sponsor a process of income distribution and create a new left-wing political hegemony in the country.

In early 2020, the Workers' Party turns 40 years old. Initially founded by a small group of trade unionists and left-wing militants, the PT could have seemed an unlikely bet at that time when Brazilian democratization was still fragile. Today, 40 years after its creation, it is possible to say that no other party has influenced the history of our country so much.

The PT experienced not only an exponential growth in this period, having reached the city halls of important cities in the country such as São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Fortaleza, but also governed important states of the country, such as Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Bahia. Finally, the PT reached the presidency through the election of its greatest leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and carried out a government that transformed Brazil in many ways, due to its ability to associate economic growth and distributive policies.

However, from 2013, Brazil enters an economic and political crisis that is difficult to dissociate from the PT. This crisis, which created the phenomenon of anti-PTism, is itself part of the history of the Workers' Party. On the other hand, the crisis of the Workers' Party did not generate a more viable or effective proposal on the Brazilian left and the political actions taken against the Party led an extreme right group with pre-modern political and moral conceptions to the presidency, with profound consequences in the standard of living of the poor population and the functioning of Brazilian democracy.

PT at the local level

The PT is an exceptional creation in terms of the history of democracy in Brazil. Unlike other countries in the Southern Cone, Brazil did not have a left-wing party at the beginning of its democratization. Argentina had the Peronists, Chile the Socialists and Communists, and Uruguay the Frente Ampla.

The true history of the PT begins in 1988 when the party won the elections for the mayors of São Paulo and Porto Alegre. The 1988 electoral victories had at least three meanings: first, they showed that the electorate was willing to consider the PT fit to administer important cities in the country, ceasing to consider it a party from outside the mainstream; second, the 1988 election victory allowed PT mayors to begin implementing social policies at the local level, policies that would make the party known nationally and internationally; finally, the PT also stood out at the local level for carrying out more transparent administrations. All these elements together allowed the expansion of the PT's influence among the country's electorate, as shown in Graph 1 below:

Percentage of votes received by the Workers' Party in the elections (1994 to 2006) for President of the Republic and Federal Deputy, and respective differences in percentage points

Source: Terron and Soares, 2010

It is also worth addressing a second element, the organizational one, and how the PT responded to it between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Brazil was never a country in which parties were guided by the question of discipline partisan. The PMDB grew during redemocratization more like a disorganized front than a party. In its early years, the PT behaved like a federation of trends, but especially after José Dirceu took over as executive secretary, a hegemonic group was established, a system of majority and minority and a form of bureaucratization that proved to be successful in the first years. years, but which is at the root of the serious ethical problems that arose later.

Thus, it is possible to state that the PT approached the new century having resolved two major issues that are generally faced by all parties and especially by leftist parties: first, the question of how to transform generic political flags into social policies. The social policies launched by the PT in the new city halls, such as the participatory budget or Bolsa Família (launched in the Federal District and Campinas) worked and drew the attention of the electorate. At the same time, the proposal of an orderly functioning also allowed the party greater political effectiveness.

The PT did not realize, however, when launching the candidacy of its president and main leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, that it had not resolved two other very relevant problems, namely: it did not have a proposal on how to deal with the National Congress and , especially with the Chamber of Deputies in a situation of strong political fragmentation, and did not have a proposal on how to act in the infrastructure sector where historically large private appropriations of resources by the Brazilian State took place and continue to take place.  

The PT adopted pragmatic solutions to these two problems. In the case of Congress, it chose to follow the path opened by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and continue with a process of broad alliances with the center parties. In the case of infrastructure, he initially tried to control it from his cadres, but, as we will see later, he was not able to resist the pressures of the political system and its organizational cadres to enter the “non-politicizable” areas. ” of the Brazilian state.

The PT in the presidency (2002-2016)

Lula's election to the Presidency of the Republic in 2002 inaugurated a new cycle in the history of the PT with continuities and ruptures in relation to the previous cycle. I would venture to propose two distinct dynamics to interpret the period: the first one goes from the beginning of the government until approximately 2008 and the second dynamics goes from the 2008 crisis until the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

In the first dynamic, the main focus is the transposition to the federal level of social policies that have been successful at the local level or created with a policy community (here I use the technical term proposed by John Kingdon). This is how efforts to expand poverty reduction policies that existed in a fragmented and ineffective way during the FHC government emerged. The specific technical problems that existed at that time were faced by PT bureaucracies and specific social movements with technical capacity installed in the Ministries of Social Development, Health and elsewhere.

The interesting thing about this first moment is that it already involved strong confrontations between the so-called party bureaucratic group and the technical group. The attempt to appropriate the Bolsa Família registration by the group linked to former minister José Dirceu created one of the first conflicts within the government and ended up having to be arbitrated by Lula himself. The attempt to clean up the Ministry of Health encountered similar obstacles.

Deep down, the first of the dilemmas that would mark the PT period already appeared there and which is posed as a question for a long-term evaluation of the 40 years of the PT: the tension between the organizational dynamics of a centralized and bureaucratic party and a technical and state management policy.

But what marked the first period was the possibility of presenting Brazilian society with a set of public policies that worked, dramatically moving the class structure in the country, lifting 22 million people out of poverty and creating structures for social ascension, especially through access to University education. Herein lies the PT's main contribution to the country over its 40 years of existence: having fostered a process of social mobilization and poverty alleviation that partially broke with historical structures of social exclusion and special access by the elite to the State.

The first years of the Lula government also expressed complex and problematic points that would lead to the partial collapse of the PT project and that would be expressed from 2008 or 2010. The first of these points is directly linked to the illegal forms of financing campaigns and their relations with the system of building majorities in the National Congress, in which the so-called bureaucratic organizational group became involved.

Brazil has had a form of spurious relationship between large construction companies and the political system since at least the Juscelino Kubitscheck government. There, during the construction of Brasilia, exchanges were agreed between the government and large engineering companies that continued to be valid for decades. At the same time, since the 1950s, non-transparent relations have been established between Petrobrás and Odebrecht, first in Bahia, a state that concentrated Petrobras' operations, and from the 1970s onwards at the national level, when Odebrecht began to construct the headquarters building. of Petrobras in Rio de Janeiro (see the excellent book by Pedro Henrique Pedreira Campos, Strange Cathedrals: Brazilian contractors and the dictatorship. Eduff, 2017).

When the system of exchanging political support for positions in the National Congress strengthened in the early 1990s, the relationship between the State and contractors also strengthened, especially in the oil sector. When the PT reaches the presidency and faces its first major scandal, the so-called “mensalão”, it responds by institutionalizing a semi-legal financing system that made it vulnerable, as Operation Lava Jato would prove almost a decade later. It is worth remembering that there was another alternative that by leaps and bounds ended up prevailing via decisions of the STF and the National Congress, public funding.

Thus, the PT's tenure between January 2003 and June 2013 had contradictory results. On the one hand, it was possible to implement social policies, improve the living conditions of the population, lifting many millions of people out of poverty, implementing the Unified Social Assistance System (SUAS), and improving access to education and housing. All these accomplishments cannot be underestimated, just as economic journalists from the major media do.

On the other hand, the low level of concern with corruption, the lack of a more consistent proposal for the infrastructure area that did not flirt with contractors and a more transparent way of managing Petrobras were Achilles heels during the period as a whole, which ended in June 2013, an event that allows contradictory evaluations (see, among others, Isabella Gonçalves Miranda's doctoral thesis, “Brazil in motion: the end of the New Republic and the crisis of the Brazilian left”. UFMG, 2019).

June 2013 initially represented an attempt by sectors to the left of the government to put pressure on the Dilma Rousseff government. However, there can be no doubt that sectors on the right managed to acquire the hegemony of the protests after a few weeks. The result of June 2013, not understood by either the Dilma Rousseff government or the PT, was the impracticability of both the method of forming majorities in Congress and the broad electoral alliances carried out by the PT.

It was necessary and possible to carry out two major simultaneous operations there: to institute public campaign financing to contain a promiscuous form of relationship between the PT government and construction companies that public opinion had rejected in the streets in June 2013; it was necessary to undo the alliance with the PMDB that had been making water since the previous year with the conflict around the new forest code and the provisional amendment of the ports. In other words, a risky change of course was possible, which could have meant an electoral defeat in 2014.

Today there is no doubt that this would have been a lesser evil. The direction taken by the Dilma government was contrary to this perspective. The president sent a minimal proposal for political reform to Congress, which ended up being rejected and which made it possible for a return to the previous automatic pilot: a campaign financed by contractors and an alliance with the PMDB. The rest is already history. The impeachment, the Lava Jato operation, the arrest of former President Lula.

In its 40 years, the PT has several positive achievements to claim, but it also has a set of changes or self-criticism to make. The positive demand was the capacity to govern the country for the poorest and to impose minimum limits on the reproduction of the privileges of the elites. Among all these achievements, the entry of the low-income population into public universities, which cannot be reversed, will have the greatest impact in the coming years.

Even so, in order for the PT to recover from the strong defeat inflicted on it by the extreme right sectors in Brazil, it will need to show in the coming years that it can govern without establishing promiscuous relations with the large economic groups in the country and imposing new patterns of income distribution. . With regard to new social policies and new income standards, the PT urgently needs to rethink the State's funding pattern and come up with an original proposal in this regard. Throughout his 14 years in office, the regressive pattern of the Brazilian tax structure has not changed and especially the so-called upper floor (0,1% who inhabit the top of the income pyramid in the country) has increased its distance in relation to the poorest (See the excellent article by Marcelo Medeiros et al, “The Top of Income Distribution in Brazil” in http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0011-52582015000100007&script=sci_abstract&tlng=pt).

Thus, the 40 years of the PT allow a positive balance towards its survival and a non-negligible contribution to the reduction of poverty and social mobility in the country. But they light a warning: more of the same is not possible and self-criticism about what happened, especially at Petrobras, has not yet come. The PT will return to a position of power in Brazilian society if it understands that a left-wing project in Brazil has to associate income distribution, changes in the state's organizational pattern and transparency.

Continuing with clientelistic and non-transparent patterns is not viable, as is the possibility of sponsoring an income distribution process without a profound non-corporatist reorganization of the Brazilian State. Only with these measures will it be possible to create a new leftist political hegemony in the country.

*Leonardo Avritzer is a professor of political science at UFMG.

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