A Catastrophic Election
Brazil and Latin America have been shook by the results of the first round of presidential elections in Brazil. The previously marginalized extreme right political candidate Jair Bolsonaro carried 46% of the vote and is now by far the favorite to win the runoff election in a few weeks. Bolsonaro has been the most unapologetic defender of Brazil’s previous military dictatorship, defending even the convicted Coronel Ustra - responsible for over 500 cases of torture under the dictatorship. Bolsonaro has previously come out in favor of beating gays, described having a daughter as a failure of his, told a fellow Deputy he wouldn’t rape her because she "wasn’t worth it" and has advocated gunning down members of the reformist PT. His only major critique of the military dictatorship is that it tortured when it should have killed.
Even by the twisted standards of the Latin American right in the post-Trump era, Bolsonaro stands out as an abhorrent defender of atrocity and bigotry. The content of his economic program is one of all out attacks on the working class- cuts to salaries, workers rights, unprecedented assaults on unions. In the Favelas and Peripheries of the major cities Bolsonaro - an ardent worshipper and defender of the Military Police - will signify a new wave of bloodshed and occupation. Police and Police Militias will feel renewed freedom to carry out brutal executions. The political assassination of leftist politicians like Marielle Franco (almost certainly carried out by a police militia) will be a renewed and ever present threat. Brazil already has the highest rate of murders of LGBT people; carried out by bigots who will feel ever more empowered by the victory of Bolsonaro.
Against Bolsonaro the candidate of the Left is Fernando Haddad, a moderate politician from the right-wing of the PT. Jacobin in its recent interview describes Haddad as someone who essentially painted bike lanes and is now the likely defender of democracy in Brazil. They briefly mention the 2013 protests as being “anti-corruption” and so linking them to the right-wing anti-pt protests which emerged in 2015 and afterwards. However it was precisely Haddad’s austerity measures and specifically the price hikes in transportation which provoked that initial wave of protests in 2013 that marked a popular rupture with the PT. Haddad did not hesitate to side with the Military Police and the right wing PSDB Governor Alckmin as police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and executed mass arrests of protesters. 2013 marked a turning point as the PT found itself incapable of reconciling the dictates of capital for more austerity with the interests of the Party’s social base and supporters.
As Mayor of Sao Paulo he ordered the Metropolitan police to seize blankets from the homeless, condemning some of the city's poorest and most vulnerable to die in the cold winter. He defended this saying that the intention was "only" to take away their beds. While populist rhetoric was used to justify fare hikes, saying they were necessary to subsidize benefits for students and the poor, the reality showed a massive payout and increase in profits to the select corporations which hold a monopoly on bus transportation (Profits increased 150% over four years). He supported cuts to municipal employees retirement plans, cuts to pre-school programs and a series of privatization initiatives across healthcare and education. His political trajectory in Sao Paulo is symbolic - after years of implementing austerity he was ousted by the right wing PSDB’s Doria, replaced by someone who could be more consistently relied upon to carry out the same politics without any symbolic concessions. Between his election and electoral defeat, the areas he lost the most votes were precisely in the poor peripheries of Sao Paulo.
In his previous years as Minister of Education he worked closely with and strengthened the power of the mega-corporations behind privatized education. Politically he promises nothing different from the impeached and defeated former President Roussef; left rhetoric while governing perfectly in line with the dictates of austerity. Rousseff it is worth mentioning, failed in her bid this election to enter the Senate. Haddad, of the leading PT politicians has been one of the most conciliatory, one of those who was most hesitant to call the coup a coup, one of those who has been most open to working with and collaborating with exactly the same parties which orchestrated the anti-democratic coup against the PT.
The summary is an uninspiring candidate who promotes at most, a softening of Temer’s deeply unpopular neoliberal reforms. In the aftermath of the first round, Temer himself has endorsed Haddad (not likely to win him many votes) and the old dualistic opposition between the PT and the neoliberal PSDB has been subsumed under a PT which is absorbing and adopting the old politics of the PSDB. The logic of the lesser evil has advanced to the point where the PT stands on the ground of it’s old enemies as it attempts to draw the line against the threat of Bolsonaro.
A Deep Historical Debt
The roots of the current crisis reach deeper than the political crisis which has unfolded in Brazil since the impeachment of Dilma. The spectacular growth of the right wing is a crushing condemnation of a political strategy which reaches back to the initial years of the PT and it’s struggle against the dictatorship. At the end of the 1970’s Brazil’s military dictatorship was declining in the face of the grinding economic crisis. In 1974 an electoral defeat led to the beginning of a loosening of restrictions. An official opposition party was permitted to emerge and maintain a tepid, parliamentary opposition.
Lula at the end of the 1970’s had long since ceased to be a rank and file metalworker and was a paid member of the union apparatus. Lula was part of an opposition within the Union movement considered the “Authentic Unionists” but one which was permitted to exist within the structures and which was not a product of a rank and file upsurge.
Inflation provoked a series of conflicts over salary in which small but important concessions were achieved. The following year the salary proposals ignored these gains and provoked a strike among the metal-workers across companies and industries. A major conflict unfolded, at the height of the conflict Lula proposed a “ceasefire” of 45 days and afterwards settled for and achieved an agreement in which the new salaries would take account of what had been won the year before.
The ascension of the workers movement represented a major threat to the regime at a time in which it was politically weak and increasingly discredited. Yet rather than seek allies and strengthen the movement through mass mobilization, Lula led a strategy oriented towards limiting the strike to a purely economic field. He opposed building a worker-student alliance and came out against any generalized workers struggle that could have struggled legitimately to unseat the dictatorship. When interviewed by the police while under arrest during a later 1980 strike, he bragged about having worked to expel Trotskyists. His release was in part a recognition by the regime that without him the strike was producing its own more radical grassroots co-ordination which could be more threatening in the long term.
A taste of Lula’s approach is visible in this video from 1980, in which he ends his speech asking the Metal Workers to march directly home. Another is given in an account by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an account which Lula has never denied, in which Lula proposed the continuity of the strike to maintain the support of the workers only to afterwards, in the car with FHC, comment about how it was necessary to end the strike as soon as possible.
Lula and the “authentic unionists” held a perspective which they carried into the foundation of the PT, one which opposed itself to a revolutionary overthrow of the dictatorship, and aimed for a strict division between the economic and political fronts. The official Communist Party (PCB) and the Maoist PCdoB both remained tremendously influential in this era and their analysis coincided with the approach of Lula and of the bourgeois opposition. The wave of strikes and workers opposition threatened to provoke the “hard” wing of the dictatorship and close the democratic opening. Under the tutorship of this perspective, Brazil saw a painstakingly slow, gradual transition from dictatorship into a closely watched civilian rule.
The product of this soft, gradual opening is a Brazil which never truly reckoned with the horrors of the military dictatorship and which never prosecuted the criminals behind it. Ustra, the torturer to whom Bolsonaro today pays homage, died in liberty even after being official condemned as a torturer. The military retains a political prestige which has been untarnished by the kind of Truth Commissions which have substantially undermined the capacity of the Argentinian and even Chilean military to intervene politically. The compromise of the bourgeoisie and of the wing of the workers movement led by Lula - this absence of justice and truth around the decades of dictatorship in Brazil - has left an empty historical memory in which the seeds of military intervention and fascism have found fertile ground.
Bolsonaro’s rabid defense of the Military Dictatorship, of torturers, of political assassination and of military intervention is only possible because of the failure to reckon with this past. A historical debt taken on by Lula and his collaborators which is now being paid, with terrifying levels of compound interest, by the workers and oppressed of Brazil.
The Fall of the PT
The PT brought this same tepid, reformist approach towards the dictatorship to the task of governing Brazil. The corruption scandals in which the PT has been involved rarely have involved personal enrichment and far more often been a product of their simple willingness to play the political game as it was presented. To buy deputies when necessary, to forge alliances with corrupt, reactionary sectors, to chase after the support of reactionary evangelical churches, and above all to serve the interests of the governing economic elite.
The courts struggle to demonstrate Lula’s personal enrichment (the case of the supposed apartment wouldn’t stand up to any international judicial standard), however it is easy to demonstrate the complicity of the PT with a corrupt and rotten system. The first major corruption scandal of 2005 exploded around vote buying using money from state companies to secure the votes of members of minor parties. While the Lava Jato investigations have been selectively enforced against the PT, they implicate the vast majority of governing political parties.
Corruption and collaboration with reactionaries (like the major evangelical churches) was the price of political rule, the PT could win the Presidency but could achieve nothing in the Congress or Senate without dealing with a range of fundamentally corrupt parties. While the economy grew rapidly alongside the price of raw commodities, they were able to balance this alliance and achieve some significant reforms. The massive expansion of the university system and the reduction in extreme poverty were important and remain a source of much of the continued loyalty to the PT. It was for a period possible to reconcile both unprecedented profits for the banks with social programs which, even if far from sufficient, did change the lives of millions.
Yet the general economic bonanza could not last, the impact of the world crisis of capitalism began to make itself felt under Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. With the sharp change of economic fortunes it was no longer possible to reconcile the demands of Brazil’s economic elite with those of the working class and poor. The social compact eroded and the PT turned towards the implementation of the austerity measures demanded by capital. In Sao Paulo under Haddad, the fare hikes were emblematic of this and provoked the tremendous popular mobilization of June of 2013.
Attempts to put the protests of June 2013 in the same category as the “anti-corruption” and anti-PT protests which emerged afterwards are deeply flawed. The protests attracted a broad sector of society which was discontent with the PT, including sectors which would later drive the right-wing protests. However the spark of the protests was a struggle against austerity. The initial, massive protests gave way to a period where less massive protests were driven by the far left. In Rio de Janeiro the initial protests gave way to a whole period of popular struggle led by a Teachers Strike and a hugely important, victorious wildcat strike of waste disposal workers. The protests were a product of popular discontent with the austerity of the PT and its allies and saw workers take on major roles as protagonists in a series of important battles.
Even after 2013 the PT itself retained sufficient prestige for Dilma to closely win her re-election, much to the disappointment of the right and business sectors. Yet having won the election she immediately reneged on her promises to stop austerity measures. She stepped forward to implement a series of massive cuts and attacks on the working class which dramatically eroded the Party’s base of social support. The PT was vulnerable and the elite were unsatisfied with measures which in their view didn’t go nearly far enough.
The judicial and legislative coup was set in motion. The PT’s alliance with the reactionary PMDB saw Temer made Vice President, a position he used to help orchestrate the coup which took Dilma from power. The selective prosecution of Lava Jato used whatever it could find to attack the PT while giving right wing politicians with far more damning evidence a free pass. The new regime headed by Michel Temer has overseen some of the most far reaching attacks on workers rights and has been far more deeply implicated in corruption than any PT government.
Faced with a coup which stripped the PT of power, a judicial regime which has put it’s most popular candidate in prison, which doesn’t even permit Lula to speak to the press, the PT has responded at every moment with tepid surrender. They opposed the coup by bargaining with corrupt parties rather than mobilizing a mass movement; they failed. They opposed Lula’s imprisonment with judicial appeals and suits rather than strikes and mobilizations; they failed.
The PT still commands the most important unions in the country, yet has made no attempt to mobilize social power of workers against the reactionary advance which has cast them out of power. Lula delivered himself to prison without even a serious attempt at symbolic resistance; while the crowds outside where he was camped were prepared to defend him, he refused to accept even this basic measure of mass mobilization.
The recent strategy of the PT insofar as it exists, has been one built around symbolically opposing neoliberal reforms which they see as basically necessary. The hope was that the reality of the traditional right in power would bring the masses back to the PT while they themselves could’ve avoided direct responsibility for the worst attacks. It was correct in that the Temer government has spectacularly discredited the traditional parties of the Brazilian right; however far from a popular embrace of the PT what has emerged in the new gap is a terrifying new far right.
The middle-class protests against corruption which most prominently exploded over the course of 2015-16 provided the mass movement needed to justify the maneuvers of the judicial and political elite. Sponsored by Brazil’s equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce they mobilized the middle-class and had an explicitly anti-leftist character. However the center-right which worked to spark these campaigns found itself in the long term unable to capitalize on it.
Fundamentally the major parties of the center-right were too deeply entrenched in existing system of corruption to channel and take advantage of discontent with the PT and the corruption scandals. Most of them had more members indicted than the PT itself did.
Their political and economic program is also one which has been compromised by the massive unpopularity of Temer. Temer combined practical execution of the center-right's program with deep seated corruption. His mandate has been so unpopular he didn’t even attempt to seek re-election.
A number of new political phenomenon with a “libertarian” economic perspective emerged and remain present in this election with the continued success of the MBL as well as the “Partido Novo”, both of which mount a rampant defense of Temer’s reforms and advocate for deepening the attacks on workers rights.
Compared to the center right, Bolsonaro was on the sidelines when protests began in 2014-15. Bolsonaro is not a new political figure, he has been around for decades as a marginalized figure of the extreme right in Brazilian politics. He has been able to survive upon a dependable base of hardcore bigotry. However because of his own marginalization, through this time he has been able to maintain an image of a politician who was not involved in the corruption scandals.
As the economic crisis has continued with continuing sky high unemployment and growing insecurity in urban centers his support has grown. Brazil has seen in turn the political exhaustion of both the PT and the previous center-right opposition. In the absence of any major alternative to the left of the PT, for many Bolsonaro remains the last possible solution to be tried. For the elite, he is the only candidate who has been able to garner popular support for the continuity and deepening of fundamentally unpopular economic reforms.
Yet a substantial contradiction lies at the heart of Bolsonaro’s campaign: Temer’s reforms remain overwhelmingly unpopular, yet the economic program of Bolsonaro represents a dramatic deepening of these reforms and a relentless offensive against the vast majority of the population.
Election Results and Extra-Electoral Prospects
Bolsonaro carried 46% of the vote. Haddad 29%, adding the votes of the center-left Ciro Gomes and of the Left PSOL would put Haddad at 42%. What remains between them is predominantly the vote of center-right political candidates. The 4.5% carried by the center-right PSDB, the 2.5% of the libertarian NOVO, the 1% carried by myriad smaller center-right candidates like Marina Silva. What all these share is their opposition, to a greater or lesser extent, to the PT. The electoral math heavily favors Bolsonaro. Haddad will spend the next few weeks running to the right, attempting to pick up electors from what was once the “enemy”.
The elected Congress is the most fragmented in the history of Brazil, 30 parties have been elected and the share by the largest three put together is also at a historic low. The upset victory is of course the party of Bolsonaro, which saw spectacular growth from one deputy in 2014 to 51 deputies (of 513 total) and now is the second largest, narrowly behind the PT which holds 57 The greatest collapse was seen among the old parties of the center right, particularly the PSDB and PMDB.
The ascension of Bolsonaro’s party is historically unprecedented, yet the legislature remains deeply divided and will present significant challenges to governability. The Senate is similarly divided, with the PT’s representation being halved.
The official polls however only tell one story. The implementation of a new bio-metric voting system left over a million voters, mostly poor, black and concentrated in the NorthEast, out of the election. Tens of millions chose not to vote at all, finding no inspiration in any of the political options on offer. The entire election takes place with the most popular candidate, Lula himself, prohibited from participating and even prohibited from talking to the press from his prison cell.
Even were Haddad to achieve a victory in the second round it would be far from a guarantee of democratic stability. Bolsonaro has already declared his refusal to accept any result other than his victory; and every vote for him, an unapologetic defender of the military dictatorship, is a blank check written for potential military intervention. While it is difficult to analyze to what extent more outspoken elements of the Brazilian military represent the high command, Generals have already felt comfortable threatening the Supreme Court in the event it had decided in favor of Lula. An unstable PT government; incapable of resolving the economic crisis, incapable of addressing the causes behind the ascent of the far right, incapable of offering an economic program which workers and the poor would actually be willing to defend, is a government which would be extraordinary vulnerable to a potential military coup.
Violence against the Left has already dramatically accelerated in the few days since the election. Reports of PT supporters, or of anyone wearing red, being beaten by supporters of Bolsonaro have begun to come in from across the country. A supporter of Bolsonaro stabbed a PT supporter 12 times, murdering him over having voiced his opposition to Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s response was to state that it was an “excess” for which he couldn’t be held responsible. In his own rhetoric Bolsonaro has advocated gunning down PT supporters, leaving little question as to his personal taste for fascist repression. Political assassinations like that carried out against Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro, and which are more common in many poor, rural areas outside the major cities are likely to dramatically increase.
The present crisis is in part a product of the Left’s failure to project a significant alternative to the PT’s project of government. The major party to the left of the PT, the PSOL, had a much poorer showing in the Presidential elections this year partly as a result of it’s failure to effectively differentiate it’s program from it’s support for the PT. Most of the candidates of PSOL represent a more purer, corruption free dedication to the same ideas behind the original foundation of PT. They continue the fruitless search for a “progressive” bourgeoisie and a path towards sustainable and progressive national development. Social democracy has been in a process of disintegration in the rich countries of the first world and there is little room for it’s revival in a poor country like Brazil. PSOL has seen some minor gains especially in state legislatures and local positions; but these gains are incremental and pale in comparison to the drastic growth of the far right. There is nothing for the left to celebrate in the electoral results.
What has already begun to unfold is a series of attacks on supporters of the PT and those who openly oppose Bolsonaro. A capoeira teacher was murdered in the North-East, a student was beaten bloody at a university campus, a women had a swastika carved into her stomach by attackers. White terror is being unleashed by the most reactionary and active supporters of Bolsonaro, a terror which will be executed by civilian and police organizations. The terror will come from above if he wins, or continue to surge from below and attempt to seize power if he loses.
Regardless of the result of the election, the urgent task for the left, workers, lgbt people, blacks, women and the opposition in general is the organization of self-defense. The social conjuncture will not yet allow Bolsonaro to implement a Pinochetist or Videlist solution, but it won’t be for lack of desire on his part or that of his hardcore supporters. The PT itself has shown no will to fight for or defend even the most basic democratic rights of its own party; against a terror executed from above and below by fascist and police elements it will be up to the extreme left to take the lead. Despite the danger in this there is an opportunity to rebuild and retake the initiative. As Trotsky commented on the United Front in Germany:
“Election agreements, parliamentary compromises concluded between the revolutionary party and the Social Democracy serve, as a rule, to the advantage of the Social Democracy. Practical agreements for mass action, for purposes of struggle, are always useful to the revolutionary party.”
The character of the coming struggles, many of which will be life or death, will compel a much more active resistance; one in which hopefully the left may have the opportunity to contest the hegemony of the PT and its parliamentary passivity over the working class.
The political and economic program which Bolsonaro embodies right now and the reactionary alliance he has marshaled behind him will not be able to long endure the shock of Brazilian economic reality. Whether the movement behind him cracks or recomposes itself on a new even more terrifying level will depend on the ability of the workers and oppressed to resist the coming attacks. The PT upon which precarious hopes for democratic continuity are now stacked has already been exhausted as a political option. The center cannot hold and the hopes of the workers and oppressed will depend on a life and death struggle against the coming white terror.