Can Brazil's Workers' Party make a comeback, one year after the parliamentary coup against President Dilma Rousseff?
At 1.30pm on August 31 last year, the electronic screen in the Brazilian Senate flashed up the final vote. After nine months of impeachment proceedings, seven days of the final trial in the Senate, and 17 hours of closing speeches, the result was not in doubt: 61 in favor, 21 against. Brazil's Congress had impeached President Dilma Rousseff.
Rousseff's own Workers Party, the PT, called it a coup. So did many thousands of her supporters, and even some critics, among Brazil's social movements and the population at large.
Was It a Coup?
The Congress had, formally, followed the constitutional procedure for removing a president. But the charges against Rousseff were flimsy. She was accused of manipulating public finances to conceal a budget deficit – the so called “pedalao”. She disputed the details. But her defenders argued that, even if true, the same trick had been used by numerous governments in the past. And that there was nothing strictly illegal about it. Certainly, they said, it could not be legitimate grounds for an impeachment.
There was never even a whiff of personal corruption attributed to the PT's second president.
In contrast, 42 members of the lower house which had voted for her impeachment to proceed in April 2016, and 24 members of the Senate which took the final decision, were placed under investigation earlier this year for real crimes of corruption - another twist in Brazil's rolling Car Wash corruption scandal. Others were already under investigation.
Business Backs Temer
This irony was lost on Brazil's traditional political and business elite. Since 2003, they had tolerated the Workers Party governments of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff. They may not have liked their policies to lift millions out of poverty, or their alliance with left wing governments in Venezuela or Bolivia. But while the Brazilian economy was growing fast, they could put up with them.
Now commodity prices had fallen sharply, and Brazil had entered its worst recession in decades. The elite had decided it needed its own people in power, and was determined to get rid of Rousseff and the PT, by whatever means.
The government of President Michel Temer, who replaced Rousseff after her impeachment, came committed to a swingeing program of adjustment. Labor and pension reforms, to cut the costs of businesses, led the way. Then came a mega-package of privatizations, and a roll-back of Indigenous land rights and environmental protections to benefit the big landowners' lobby.
For most of the international media, the Temer government showed that the shift to the right in Latin America had come to stay.
Corruption Charges Engulf the Right
But the right did not have it all their own way.
Rousseff's impeachment only fueled the corruption scandal that has engulfed Brazil's entire political class. Eight members of Temer's cabinet were accused. Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Lower House who organized the impeachment of Rousseff, is now in jail.
At the end of June this year, Brazil's attorney general brought corruption charges against President Temer himself.
Not surprisingly, when these charges went before Congress at the beginning of August, they were treated very differently from those against Dilma Rousseff a year earlier. According to the NGO, Open Accounts, in the previous two months Temer had released over a billion dollars of public money to fund lawmakers' special projects. The Lower House voted to block the charges.
For the time being, Temer has survived, and business remains firmly behind his market-friendly reforms.
But for the Brazilian public, Temer's approval ratings hover at a historic low, between 5 and 10 percent.
A Comeback for the Workers' Party?
For many months, Brazil's most popular politician has been Dilma Rousseff's predecessor and founder of the Workers' Party, Lula da Silva. Most polls indicate that if presidential elections were held now, Lula would win.
But Lula has also been caught in the sights of anti-corruption prosecutors. In July, he was sentenced to over nine years in prison. The sentence has yet to be confirmed by another court, so for the moment he can still stand for president in elections due next year.
Again, his supporters say the evidence against him is flimsy or non-existent. They argue that the case is a fabrication designed to stop him running in 2018.
This week, Dilma Rousseff herself told Brasil de Fato that the moves to block Lula are the second phase of the coup that started with her impeachment last year.
'We Want to Do Better Next Time'
For many on the left in Brazil, including within the PT itself, the Workers' Party governments must bear some of the responsibility for what happened to Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
In May and June 2013, Brazil saw huge protests over an array of issues: the poor quality of public transport and other services, the right to housing and the amount of money spent on the upcoming World Cup, as well as corruption.
In response to the protests, President Dilma Rousseff seemed to shift to the left.
She talked about introducing more participatory democracy – something the PT had pioneered in local government in the 1990s, but never put into practice when it came to power at the national level. She promised to reinforce social programs.
It was on the basis of this more radical program that Dilma Rousseff was re-elected for a second term as president in October 2014.
But once elected, she appointed a surprisingly conservative cabinet, including prominent representatives of the banking sector and big landowners. To deal with the recession and deteriorating public finances, she announced sharp cuts.
This did not placate the right.
As the campaign to impeach her gathered pace, loyal social movements like the MST landless movement and the CUT trade union confederation found themselves in a quandary. They came out onto the streets to defend their president. But they also demanded that she drop her austerity programs.
For others on the left, like the PT dissidents who left the party back in 2003 to set up the Party of Socialism and Liberty, or PSOL, the problem went deeper.
They argued that from the beginning, the Workers' Party governments had made too many concessions. In order to ensure a majority in Congress, they made alliances across the political spectrum, and agreed to play by the establishment's rules. Corruption was built into the system. And in the end that system came back and swallowed them up.
Lula is now continuing his tour of Brazil's impoverished Northeast, drawing huge crowds, increasing his standing in the polls, and powerfully denouncing the right. One of his phrases as he launched this unofficial presidential campaign suggests he may be taking account of some of these criticisms. We want to return to government, he said, “not to do the same, but to do more and better.”