PT – the party of the popular classes

Image: Tejas Prajapati


Upon completing 43 years, two agendas that marked the founding of the PT remain present: the defense of the poorest and democracy

Founded on February 10, 1980, the Workers' Party (PT), as its name suggests, was born to represent workers. However, this association was not so automatic. A characteristic of the PT since its creation is its internal heterogeneity, since trade unionists, sectors of the left that fought the military dictatorship and the progressive segments of the Catholic Church, linked to Liberation Theology, as well as ecclesial base communities, make up the main social support sectors of the party.

The rise of the PT was very rapid. Nine years after its founding, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, founder and great leader of the party, was contesting his first presidential election. Lula reached the second round, but was defeated by Fernando Collor. At 43 years old, the PT, despite being a relatively young party, remains the largest leftist party in Latin America. In Brazil, the party was the one that most often elected the President of the Republic by popular vote – Lula (2002, 2006 and 2022) and Dilma Rousseff (2010 and 2014) – and also the party that governed the country for the longest time after redemocratization .

Not even the profound crises provoked in the party by the monthly allowance, Lava Jato, the fall of Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment of Lula were enough to shake the prestige of the PT. However, the contradictions caused by the exercise of power, especially from 2005 onwards, led to changes in the social base of support for the party.

When it was consolidated as the greatest political force in the country, in the 90s and 2000s, the PT was the party of the middle classes in large urban centers and with medium and higher education. Although it had the support of salaried workers, it had difficulty winning over the so-called “depoliticized” low-income sectors.

As of 2006, what the political scientist André Singer defined in the book The senses of lulism as electoral realignment. Since then, the party's electoral base has undergone a change due to the crisis caused by the monthly allowance, and also to the success of social policies and the economic growth experienced by Brazil.

At that moment, at the end of the Lula I government, what André Singer called Lulism emerged, with strong social penetration in segments of the electorate with monthly income of up to two minimum wages. This portion is mostly concentrated in the Northeast region, especially in the interior – the so-called deep Brazil.

This change in the social composition of the PT electorate transforms the party into what was its main objective when it was founded: to be the Workers' Party. Because of the workers' identification with Lula, the PT becomes the legend of the popular classes at the same time that it becomes increasingly dependent on Lulism.

Currently, the workers who are the social basis of Lulism – and consequently of the PT – have a different characteristic from the working class of the so-called “new unionism”, when the party was created. Using a Marxist concept, Singer defines today's Lulista social base as subproletariat, referring to the disorganized class fraction and below the proletariat in terms of their living conditions.

This definition of subproletariat corresponds to the numbers of the survey that the Datafolha institute carried out between October 25th and 27th, 2022 on party preference.

In the survey carried out by the institute, when the PT is appointed as the “Lula Party”, the party's preference in public opinion reaches 35%, being the highest in the country. According to Datafolha, those with the greatest preference for the PT/Lula Party are Brazilians with a monthly income of up to two minimum wages (44%). In the income range of more than 2 to 5 salaries, sympathy for the PT is 29%. In the higher income segments, however, identification with the PT is lower: more than 5 to 10 salaries (21%) and more than 10 salaries (22%).

When the PT appears without the mention “Partido de Lula”, the preference reaches 35% in the segment with monthly income of up to 2 salaries. The index is 27% in the income range of more than 2 to 5 wages. And in the higher income segments, identification with the PT is lower: more than 5 to 10 salaries (21%) and more than 10 salaries (22%).

In addition to the monthly income segments of up to 2 salaries, Datafolha pointed out that the preference for the PT is also high among other social sectors that also make up the poorest layers of society: wage earners without registration (36%), unemployed (46%) and housewives (36%). Added to them are the segments that historically vote for the PT: students (43%) and civil servants (37%).

On the other hand, for comparison purposes, it is worth mentioning that, among businessmen, the preference for the party is only 16%, symbolizing the preference for Lula and the PT has a strong relationship with income.

In this survey, Datafolha draws attention to the fact that among the population with a monthly income of up to two minimum wages, there is a difference in preference for the PT when "Lula's Party" is mentioned in relation to the citation of the caption without mentioning Lula, reinforcing that this identification of the most poor with the party is directly related to the figure of the president.

On the importance of having the support of the popular classes, it is worth recalling an interview with Lula given to the book Without fear of being happy, organized by André Singer, held in 1990.

In assessing the 1989 elections, Lula stated: “The naked truth is that those who defeated us, in addition to the media, were the least enlightened and most disadvantaged sectors of society […]. We have large sectors of the middle class with us - a very large part of the civil service, the intellectuals, the students, the people organized in trade unions, the so-called middle sector of the working class. My struggle is always this: to reach the segment of society that earns the minimum wage. There is a part of society that is ideologically against us, and there is no reason to waste time with it: there is no point in trying to convince a businessman who is against Lula to side with the worker. We have to go to the periphery, where there are millions of people who allow themselves to be seduced by the easy promise of housing and food” (Without fear of being happy, Scritta, p. 98-99).

Based on this sentence by Lula, it is possible to consider that the search for the support of the popular classes has always been an objective of the president, mainly because the 1989 election ended up being lost precisely in that segment of the electorate.

This link with the poorest was praised by Lula, through a post on his Twitter account, last Friday, February 10: “We founded the PT to fight inequalities in Brazil and defend democracy. In our governments, we have proved that it is possible to take care of the people. Today we celebrate 43 years together again, for the best of Brazil and those who need it most”, published Lula.

The phrase “taking care of the people” gained strength in last year's election and is related to Lula's commitment to the poorest. It is no coincidence that the priority established by the Lula III government is the fight against hunger.

Also in the 2022 campaign, during the debate on the Bandeirantes TV, still in the first round, Lula clashed with Senator Soraya Thronicke (União Brasil) which also shows the strength of Lula's relationship with the poorest. After Soraya Thronicke stated that she had not seen the Brazil that Lula was referring to – the period between 2003 and 2010 – the president declared: “Your driver did. Your gardener saw. Your maid saw that this country had improved, that she could have lunch and dinner every day, she saw that her son could go to university. And so it will be again. The poor will once again be respected”.

Another priority theme – and one that is also connected with the history of the PT – is the defense of democracy. Founded amid the social struggles waged against the authoritarian regime of 1964-1985, Lula's emergence as a union and political leader came amid Brazil's transition to democracy. And in 2023, in the first year of the Lula III government, and in the 43 years of the PT, the president and the party will be the leaders of the broad political and social front of democratic reconstruction.

Upon completing 43 years, two agendas that marked the founding of the PT remain present: the defense of the poorest and democracy. However, the influence of sectors of the socialist left in the party has been reducing and losing ground to Lulism, which is characterized by the reduction of inequalities through a political project, which, although opposing rich and poor, does not operate in political radicalization.

*Carlos Eduardo Bellini Borenstein é Master's student in Social Communication at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS).


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