For more than a decade, Brazil has aimed to champion social policies to tackle poverty and redistribute wealth under the governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, but political and economic crises increasingly signal that the ruling party may need to regroup to protect its social gains and stay true to its progressive project.
As Rousseff’s approval ratings sit at a record low, the economy spirals downward, and political opponents seek to undermine and discredit the PT government and impeach Rousseff, upholding social gains and PT power is not guaranteed.
“The PT is in a very delicate position, including in terms of internal party lines,” Sabrina Fernandes, PhD candidate at Carleton University, told teleSUR English. “The alliances, concessions, compromises, and outright austerity measures taken this year are no longer outshone by social investments and policies that helped the party maintain a general leftist appearance ever since it attained federal power.”
Rousseff has been criticized from the right for allowing the economy to flounder. A right-wing opposition group led by PMDB House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a staunch opponent of the president, is adamantly trying to impeach Rousseff over accusations that she broke budget laws last year to increase electoral spending. Rousseff supporters claim the impeachment drive is effectively an attempt at a “parliamentary coup.”
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The PT has also been criticized from the left for sidelining progressive priorities and neglecting its labor and movement foundations to focus on the party as an establishment. Some left-wing supporters have criticized the government for betraying progressive campaign promises by rolling out austerity measures this year in a last-ditch attempt to save the economy.
Some high-level PT members are also embroiled in country’s Petrobras scandal, garnering criticism that - with the held of ideological private media - has spurred a wave of anti-government protests focused on corruption and economic woes.
Meanwhile, some members of the PT have broken off to join forces with the more conservative Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), signaling a fractured political scene.
As Fernandes put it, “the impeachment process, corruption scandals, and the fumbling economy are the consequences of the political turmoil caused by a crisis of governability, rather than the turmoil itself.”
As political crisis continues to foment in the South American country amid major electoral setbacks for the left in Latin America in this year, questions about the future of the ruling PT and its place in the wider left loom large in Brazil.
Challenges for the Left
Since Rousseff was re-elected, she and her PT party have faced a major opposition campaign to discredit the government, while the country has also suffered a crippling economic downturn.
As Daniel Bin, professor at the University of Brasilia, explained to teleSUR English, the most immediate challenge to the ruling PT is the task of keeping Rousseff in power despite opposition attempts to impeach her. But Rousseff’s PT government, despite claiming to be a progressive force, has also implemented various “regressive measures,” said Bin, which runs the risk of discrediting the party among its left-wing base of support.
A man dressed as Batman holds a banner saying “Dilma Out” during a protest against the president, March 15, 2015, Rio de Janeiro. I Photo: EFE
“The PT is an originary-left party implementing center-right policies in economics,” Bin told teleSUR English, adding that Rousseff’s recent replacement of pro-austerity former Finance Minister Joaquim Levy could be a sign of an impending shift to the left. “Nevertheless, I fear the government will keep implementing reforms as the ones prescribed by neoliberals.”
Many analysts agree that if the PT wants to survive as a major political force, it will have to focus on solidifying the support of the labor and social movement base that brought it to power in the first place.
According to Fernandes, who researches issues left fragmentation in Brazil at the University of Brasilia, the changes need to be deep. “The PT has to refound itself as a genuinely left party if it means to retain internal and external support,” she said. “PT members are fleeing to other leftist parties or leaving the idea of a left organized around parties at all.”
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She said that the PT will need to diversify its support beyond its traditional base in the Landless Workers' Movement and Central Workers' Union, key movements fighting for socialist reforms, to include other other grassroots groups that could play determining roles in the political future of the country.
“The left in general needs to find a way to stop the infighting and rally against the right and the main struggles the population faces in an effort to politicize and build ties to the people,” said Fernandes.
But unless progressive movements see their needs and demands heard and represented in the PT and its policies, the government is likely to continue to see its support dwindle.
Bin also called for fundamental rethinking of PT’s direction. “As the main and biggest once-left party implementing so many neoliberal policies, it seems the left has lost a good portion of its references amongst people,” he explained, adding that there is a growing sentiment among Brazilian people that “all parties are the same,” even if this does not reflect the reality.
Connecting to Grassroots Struggle
With significant electoral setbacks for the left in Argentina and Venezuela this year and ongoing right-wing attempts to destabilize governments in Brazil and Ecuador, grassroots organizing is increasingly key in defending progressive politics in the region.
For many, political challenges in Brazil call for widespread social organization in the grassroots left to make its presence known through occupying public space in the face of right-wing resurgence.
“Occupations are growing as an effective measure for making specific demands,” said Fernandes. “We've seen it with the movement in their demands for housing, and more broadly other right to the city issues, and the students who occupies their schools to prevent their closure.”
Bin agreed that the way forward for the left is to “go to the streets,” which means taking back the streets that have traditionally been a stronghold of progressive movement organizing but that “the right nevertheless started to occupy.”
Members of trade unions and social movements march in support of the government of Dilma Rousseff and against the impeachment in Sao Paulo on Dec. 16, 2015. I Photo: EFE
According to Bin, examples of such powerful mobilizations include self-organized movements of high school students in the states of São Paulo and Goias to resist proposed “commodity-inspired reforms” in public education. In São Paulo, the protests successfully pressured the local government backed down on reforms, while students in Goias are still fighting for their demands, Bin explained.
These and other movements are crucial spaces of left-wing resistance and alternative building that the PT should align itself with and tap into if it wants credibility as a truly leftist party. But as it stands, the PT doesn’t seem to be doing enough.
“I am not sure left parties are connected to these new grassroots movements,” said Bin.
Fernandes agreed that youth are an important base that “should not be ignored,” particularly as the right-wing is increasingly taking cues from the left in terms of organizing and populist strategies.
Maintaining, but more importantly further building, grassroots social movement support is a major challenge and opportunity for left-wing political forces in Brazil, and across the region, to strengthen progressive electoral options.
Next Steps in Brazil
A successful impeachment against Rousseff is a possibility. The lower house of Congress is expected to vote on whether to proceed with the process by the end of March, and if a two-thirds majority votes in favor of recommending impeachment, the process move the Senate for a final decision.
With the PMDB divided over the issue, Rousseff could still rally enough votes to block the impeachment. But emerging rifts and political defectors within her own party, combined with increasing exasperation over economic recession, could weaken her support.
But this year’s fiscal austerity could be headed for a shake-up following Rousseff’s recent appointment of Nelson Barbosa as Finance Minister to replace Joaquim Levy.
Unlike Levy, the pro-austerity, U.S.-trained former bank executive and IMF economist who spearheaded cuts to social programs, Barbosa has vocally opposed austerity measures and subscribes to the PT’s traditional camp of economic policy based on state spending and market protections.
While scrapping unpopular budget cuts will likely help Rousseff, as the turmoil continues to unfold it also seems likely the PT will have to do more and look toward strengthening its movement base to avert a worsening crisis.
And the challenges for the left still are deeper and more long-term than just the immediate issue of impeachment. According to Fernandes, the PT’s “capitulation,” including undermining a number of social programs this year, “not been thoroughly digested yet,” and the consequence of a generalized “left melancholia” may have serious impacts on dividing the left in terms of political positions and strategy.
In this context, Fernandes stressed that “politicization, base-building work, and media democratization” are key in the future of Brazil’s left.
But ironically, as Bin pointed out, the impeachment attempt could be a blessing in disguise as an unlikely opportunity for building unity on the left.
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