The Brazilian municipal elections ended October 31 with runoff ballots in 44 cities. Given the importance of the cities where Workers Party (PT) candidates were seeking election or re-election, many of these local elections were seen as crucial to the future of the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Someone aptly said these elections were anything but “normal.” Actually, municipal elections in Brazil have rarely taken on such a marked politico-ideological character. Local not national disputes usually dominate them.
However, from the onset the Lula da Silva government was willing to invest its political capital in these elections as a decisive step to advance its so-called Power Project. Thus, these elections took on the relevance of a plebiscite.
Once the votes were counted and the results published, the unanimous conclusion was that the Lula da Silva government and the Workers Party (PT) suffered a serious defeat – particularly by losing the country’s largest and most important city, Sao Paulo, and also the state capital of Porto Alegre, hitherto the Party’s great national and international ideological point of reference.
Large centrist and conservative segments of the population felt placed against the wall by the leftist offensive of the Lula government and expressed their displeasure and opposition in the ballot box.
Although the PT did make some gains, commentators unanimously recognize that overall the elections were a defeat for President Lula’s party and government.
Evidence of malaise and internal bickering over what happened and how to chart the party’s future is now surfacing in the press. The PT project for hegemony has been weakened. The government’s multi-party alliances are also unraveling.
Some observers see the future as a continuation or even radicalizing of the aggressively leftist policy of Presidential Chief of Staff José Dirceu and his palace staff. Others insist the elections marked the end of an era and that the PT will take the path of a well-behaved socialist party like the British Labor Party.
For now, however, the political climate is undefined and even unstable.
The PT’s electoral project and the takeover of the state machinery
From the beginning of the Lula da Silva government, the PT has embarked on an unbridled quest to put its people in government positions at all levels.
This often denounced “instrumentalization” of the state signaled from the start the PT’s desire to extend its tentacles throughout Brazil’s vast territory and especially rural areas.
“Zero Hunger,” the Lula government’s much-trumpeted food program, used its benefits to quickly turn the program into a factory to churn out new PT members and set up the PT in new places.
Thus, the PT saw the 2004 municipal elections as an important milestone in its political itinerary. It hoped to strengthen its grip by winning control of 1,000 of the 5300-plus city halls in Brazil.
This is why, as the elections approached, the Lula da Silva government circumvented and even broke election laws by placing the whole state machinery at the service of the Party. The President himself took part in this effort, causing his approval rate to drop. Furthermore, in an unprecedented move, an electoral federal judge fined the President for violating election laws. The sentence was ratified by a superior court and is awaiting a last appeal to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The Party/government effort to carry the elections was particularly conspicuous in the city of São Paulo. Press reports claim Lula supposedly put important projects on a back burner to give total priority to the crucial re-election of Marta Suplicy. For this end, he is said to have asked his ministers and closer supporters to commit themselves entirely.
Confusion between party and state became so blatant that the media strongly criticized the practice, qualifying it as a vice that was hardly democratic and likened it to similar confusion in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Results far short of expectations
In spite of all the efforts by the PT and Lula government, election results were a far cry from the expected goals:
– The PT won only 411 (7.72%) of the 5,319 city halls, very far from the 1,000 it had set as a goal;
– Only about 20% of the nearly 2,000 PT mayoral candidates were elected;
– The PT ranked sixth in municipal victories among competing parties.
Not only did the PT not meet expectations, it also suffered severe runoff defeats in very important and symbolic cities.
Analysts claim these defeats are much worse than initially imagined. They represent a considerable political setback for the PT and Lula. Many termed them “political, symbolic, strategic” defeats while others called the election a large scale “disaster” and even an “electoral thrashing.”
The main electoral fiasco was in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest and most important city.
São Paulo is the cradle of the PT, where its headquarters and organizer groups are located. The re-election of Mayor Marta Suplicy became a “plebiscite” on the policies of the Party and the government itself. President Lula made clear the fundamental importance of a victory in São Paulo for his political project. Not only did he ask his ministers to make a concerted effort to reelect the mayor, he personally became deeply involved by visiting the city and campaigning for her.
Nearly eclipsing the other candidates’ campaigns, the PT also invested huge amounts of money and employed the best political marketing techniques in her campaign. The earnest effort of the President to reelect the mayor only served to highlight the dimension of the PT’s defeat.
Porto Alegre, the capital city of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, was another great PT setback. Governed by the Party for 16 years, the city became an ideological rallying point since it hosts the World Social Forum, an international gathering of the international left.
The PT also suffered other severe defeats in the State of Rio Grande do Sul which completely eliminated its presence in important cities of that state. Note that the PT’s political domination of this state in the southern tip of Brazil was such that some people labeled it an “autonomous PT republic.”
The PT registered its worst showing in a decade in the city of Rio de Janeiro. It also suffered a number of defeats around the country, as in Curitiba, capital of the State of Parana. A detailed explanation of these defeats would unduly extend this commentary.
An unexpected reaction
The results of these municipal elections were surprising. Considering its huge political marketing machine and enormous financial resources, the PT should have influenced the wary Brazilian population much more.
Analysts went so far as to refer to “an orchestrated voter rebellion all over the country” that left analysts, research institutes and political operatives dumbfounded.
The real meaning of the election results must be seen by focusing on the losers not the winners. These were undoubtedly the PT and the Lula government.
In face of the PT’s leftist course, public opinion appeared to have been taken aback. Voters seem to have abandoned their initial good will toward the Lula government and used the ballot box to manifest their discontent and opposition especially in FT strongholds.
Displeasure and even hostility
Brazilians are known for their cordiality. The immense majority of the population is centrist and conservative. Reactions to political currents are usually more temperamental than ideological properly speaking. Aggressive ideological methods used by leftists in general (and the PT in particular) have always frightened the average Brazilian. This is why historically the PT and Mr. Lula da Silva himself suffered innumerable defeats in their attempts to capture the presidency.
Lula only managed to win election in 2002. This was due to a series of circumstances, including the lack of a genuine conservative alternative to his candidacy.
However, Lula’s victory was above all due to a great political marketing operation that presented the PT and Lula far removed from their leftist ideological smirk. Lula was presented as a simple man who had changed and abandoned his revolutionary convictions and the no-holds-barred extreme left.
The newly-created market image of “Little Lula, peace and love” (“Lulinha paz e amor”) spread throughout the country to convey this idea of a mellowing change.
However, after assuming the presidency, President Lula da Silva, his ministers and direct aides soon began to show the leftist face so craftily hidden during the election campaign. Government strongman José Dirceu announced a “social revolution.” The about face was such that some people even spoke of great “election fraud.”
While his economic team maintained some sort of “orthodox” economic line, Lula swung the doors wide open to radical sectors of the left, especially the so-called Catholic left linked with Liberation Theology.
The PT took the state machinery as if by assault and the government began to show authoritarian traits by curbing dissidents, subjugating Congress and openly pursing its hegemonic project.
The government has let the so-called social movements like the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and its urban counterpart roam freely and even supported their attacks on private property, land occupations and other disturbances. Lula shocked the country by wearing a MST cap and fraternizing with his MST “companions” (which replaced “comrades” in their parlance).
The Lula government did not hide their desire to control politically the Judiciary Branch making it a target of continuous attacks.
In a defense of statist centralism, the president has repeatedly attacked privatization and the “outsourcing” of the State. Many of the country’s regulations were no longer observed, scaring away potential investors.
Totalitarian measures such as efforts to control the press and gagging the Public Prosecutor’s Office have also been proposed.
Brazilian diplomatic policy has displayed a marked leftist bent by promoting a clear rapprochement with dictator Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in Latin America; and a similar rapprochement with Arab countries that sponsor terrorism in the Middle East. Several diplomatic initiatives are markedly anti-American. This can be seen in manifest opposition to American intervention in Iraq and important trade negotiations with other countries, including the United States, which were deliberately sabotaged to cater to the government’s Third-Worldly views.
All these factors gradually created and fueled pockets of malaise in several sectors of society. Frustrated in their longings for a calm and relaxed political atmosphere, large swaths of the public gradually distanced themselves from the PT government.
Lula da Silva’s popularity fell faster than opinion surveys would seem to indicate.
An unequivocal proof of this is that his support of several PT mayoral candidates in important cities has had little or no effect on voters, and above all did not stop stinging defeats.
Perhaps the most revealing indication of this unpopularity was in Belo Horizonte, capital of the State of Minas Gerais, where the PT obtained one of its few meaningful victories. The PT candidate distanced himself from the government and refused to let already-prepared radio and TV ads by President Lula supporting his candidacy go on the air.
The irritation and even hostility toward the Lula government by centrist and conservative layers of public opinion finally erupted in the latest elections in an unequivocal manner. Analysts concur that the government’s poor showing was not due to the opposition, which was weak and disorganized, but to profound public discontent.
Even the President asked why the middle class – which had given the PT considerable support in the past – has manifested such a high degree of discontent.
In a press interview, the PT’s National President José Genoíno recognized the party’s difficulty in appealing to the Brazilian countryside, particularly small towns. He attributed this difficulty to the PT’s leftist nature and language.
The future of the Lula da Silva government
If he runs for re-election in 2006, President Lula da Silva will have to adapt to a new political landscape that has emerged from the municipal elections. This picture reflects an important shift in the political balance of forces in the country, an erosion in the government’s allied base, and especially a weakening of the ongoing PT project for political hegemony.
It remains to be seen whether the PT will have the capacity to analyze and recognize the real motives for its electoral defeats and the errors of Lula’s first two years in government.
News of internecine dissention in the PT has also surfaced in the media. The PT’s secretary-general Sílvio Pereira disclosed the existence of infighting caused by the serious political setback in the elections.
For his part, Tarso Genro, a Party ideologue, announced the closing of an historic phase of the PT and the need to rebuild their political project.
In an entirely subjective reading of the election’s results, the PT’s most radical wings and the left in general blame Lula and his government for not adopting a radically socialist line from the beginning. Thus, the left proposes a “revolutionary shock” to change the political course followed so far.
Others apparently blame José Dirceu and his ideological core group in government. They propose a reform-oriented socialism in the style of the British Labor Party. Their leading figure is apparently the mayor-elect of Belo Horizonte, Fernando Pimentel.
For the time being, the Brazilian political scene remains undefined and even unstable.