PT and Bolsonaro: from the Normalization of an Anomy to the Rise of Fascism in Brazil

By Hugo Goeury

On 28 October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. With 55.13% of the vote, he defeated his opponent Fernando Haddad of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) (PT), with a margin of 10,750 million votes. Running under the slogan “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone,” Bolsonaro, an ex-military captain, was supported by the most reactionary forces of the Congress, the so-called “BBB” parliamentary group. Standing for “Bíblia, Boi e Bala” (Bible, Beef and Bullet) BBB representatives defend the interests of the evangelical, agribusiness, and arms sectors. But when it comes to Bolsonaro himself, “fascist” is the most apt descriptor. 

An outspoken advocate of the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985, Bolsonaro has lamented the junta’s favor for torture over mass extermination and argued that “the situation of the country would be better today if the dictatorship had killed more people.” During the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he dedicated his vote to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the head of the infamous Brazilian intelligence agency under the military regime responsible for torturing the so-called “subversives,” a group that included Dilma herself. 

During one of his campaign meetings in the state of Acre, Bolsonaro called on his supporters to “shoot all the PT members,” using a microphone stand to mimic a machinegun. A week before the second round of the presidential election, he declared that his political opponents – whom he dubbed “red outlaws” – would be “banished from our homeland,” affirming after his election, they would have to choose between “going overseas or going to jail.” To the delight of the thousands of followers that had gathered in his support, he implied that his government would finish the job started by the dictatorship, declaring: “it will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.” 

Bolsonaro’s bellicose remarks are not limited to his political opponents. Over the years, he has aggressively attacked virtually any social group that doesn’t belong to his restricted social class of evangelical, straight, white males. He described the birth of his fifth child, his only daughter, as “a moment of weakness.” In 2003, after Congresswoman María do Rosario’s accused him of promoting rape culture, Bolsonaro replied that she wasn’t worthy of being raped by him. On another occasion, he declared that he would rather have one of his sons die in a car accident than learn that he is gay. He also contends that people could “beat the gayness” out of their children. He once compared black activists to “animals” that should “go back to the zoo,” and described the descendants of the Brazilian slaves as being completely worthless, adding: “they’re not even good for procreation.” 

The election of such an openly racist, homophobic, misogynist proponent of political violence, a mere three decades after the return of democracy to Brazil begs an important question: how did we get here? I would argue that the answer is partly to be found in the failures and shortcomings of the PT, which governed the country between 2003 and 2016 under the leadership of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2010), and later by Dilma Rousseff who succeeded him in 2011 and was impeached half way through her second term in August 2016. 

Credit: Rio Times

Until the recent past, the PT could be considered as a sort of “anomaly” within the Brazilian political system (Hunter, 2007). Contrary to other mainstream parties like the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB) or the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) which can be defined as “clientelist and personalistic electoral machines,” the PT was formed in 1980 through a coalition of labor unions, grassroots organizations, and Christian communities rooted in liberation theology. Whereas Bolsonaro has always been nostalgic for the military dictatorship, the PT and the various movements associated with it played a crucial part in opposing the military regime and working towards the democratization of the country, from the strikes of the 1970s to the mass protests of 1984 demanding direct elections of the president. In a context marked by a lack of clear ideological cleavages between the country’s main political party and a political life dominated by clientelism and patronage, the PT emerged as “the first mass party in Brazil with predominantly socialist ideas, and the only mainstream political party with activists and a life outside electoral period” (Kuncinski, 2005: 25). 

Until the mid-1990s, the PT leadership remained extremely critical of the Brazilian political apparatus. In this system, winning elections was an end in itself, rather than a means to political change. Instead, the PT refused to compromise its radical agenda for electoral gains. At that time, the PT’s ambition was to work towards the construction of socialism in the country as the only way to liberate the Brazilian working-class. For the vast majority of the party’s members, this radically ambitious program could not be sacrificed to bourgeois democracy. Consequently, the PT refused to build political alliances with parties that didn’t share their radical vision. Lula himself, who lost three consecutive presidential elections before being elected in 2002, “insisted that electoral losses were not necessarily political defeats if the PT managed to get its name out and promote the party’s program” (Hunter, 2010: 25). 

However, Lula’s second unsuccessful presidential bid in 1994 shed doubt on the party’s ability to win elections with its radical platform. As the party’s leadership began to question their ideological principles and political strategy, the PT engaged in a process of “deradicalization,” which allowed it to win four consecutive presidential elections (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014). Wendy Hunter (2007) calls the PT’s gradual shift away from its original radical platform and its transformation into a sort of catchall party as “the normalization of an anomaly.”

The PT’s shift towards the center of the political spectrum reflected the party’s leadership recognition that the neoliberal reforms of the mid-1990s had high levels of popular support, making them difficult to overturn. The PT also benefitted from the PSDB’s (the party of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former Marxist sociologist who developed the dependency theory before converting to market ideology) move to the right, which opened a vacuum on the center-left for PT, version 2.0.

By the time Lula ran for president in 1998, his party had dramatically reformed its discourse and political strategy. Vote maximization and electoral successes took precedence over a previous focus on developing radical policies, and the party started campaigning as reformers, rather than revolutionizers, of the current socio-economic model. Between 1989 and 1998, the PT shifted from promoting the rhetorics of class struggle and socialism – concepts that, by 1998, had disappeared from the party’s rhetoric – to embracing a typical “Third Way” approach: capitalism with a human face. The party also reneged on its initial ambition of being the vanguard party of the working-class. Rather than raising the workers’ consciousness to promote socialist project, the PT continually adapted its discourse based on the results of public opinion surveys. 

By 2002, the party’s mutation was complete. PT’s leaders hired Duda Mendonça – one of the country’s most expensive publicists, whose clients include several political figures associated with the military regime – to run Lula’s campaign. The party went to great lengths to preserve its reputation as the “party of change” while promoting a new public image: a moderate, conciliatory party working for all Brazilians. During the campaign, Lula published his now infamous “Letter to the Brazilian People,” an explicit invitation for the economic elite. In this document, Lula endorsed his support of classical economic orthodoxy; committed himself to fiscal “responsibility” (e.g. austerity); promised to service the country’s foreign debt diligently and honor the previous administration’s punitive agreement with the IMF. The party also selected José Alencar, the leader of the right-wing, pro-business, evangelical Partido Liberal (PL), as Lula’s running mate. The party had come a long way since the early days, when it deemed the country’s foreign debt illegitimate and restricted political alliances to other radical leftist parties. While these changes left the PT open to criticism from the Left, they also signified a significant decline in public disapproval ratings, from 40% in 1989 to 10-16% in 2002.

On 27 October 2002, Lula was elected to the presidency with 61.3% of the vote. The PT was able to capitalize on its original image of authenticity and commitment, underlined by its strong stance against corruption and “politics as usual.” Consequently, at a time when the neoliberal model of the Cardoso administration was running out of steam, its initial economic successes eroding and wavering public support, many still considered the PT as the only option to bring real change to the country. However, the PT’s earlier repudiation of radical ambition and its rebirth as a consensual, center-left party played the primary role in Lula’s overwhelming success: 30 million more votes than the election four years prior. 

Once in power, Lula benefitted from the commodity boom driven by Chinese demand. Between 2001 and 2005, exports increased by 64% and prices went up by 24%. A flow of foreign direct investments allowed Lula to combine economic orthodoxy with social policy expansion. The economic bonanza during his presidency allowed him to maintain a robust primary budget surplus (one which occasionally surpassed the IMF’s targets) while greatly increasing social expenditures and public investments. The number of people benefitting from federal income transfer programs increased by nearly 10 million, from 14.5 million to 24.4 million, between 1995 and 2011. Social spending increased by almost 50% – 200% in real terms, from 11% to 16.2% of the GDP. Those remarkable results were mostly achieved through the expansion of conditional cash transfers programs like the famous Bolsa Família introduced by the previous administration. As Saad-Filoh and Boito (2015) made clear, the PT always pursued the “path of least resistance” to promote improved living conditions for the Brazilian poor. This strategy implies that the government did not address the structural causes that made Brazil one of the most unequal countries on earth, focusing instead on the symptoms of poverty. While the poor saw their situation improve dramatically, the economic elite’s interests remained protected. Lena Lavinas (2017) makes a similar argument, contending that while the social policies of the Lula and Dilma’s administrations allowed millions of poor Brazilians to access to the rudiments of mass consumer society, they did virtually nothing to address the deeper and more problematic issues of social inclusion.      

Under both Lula and Dilma, it appeared that “the PT administrations limited their aspirations to the ‘reformist lite’ permitted by their unwieldy political alliances at the top” (Saad-Filho and Boito, 2015: 214). Despite being in charge of the presidency between 2003 and 2016, the PT and their leftist allies never gained control over more than 30% of either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies. As a result, the PT was forced to court political parties and individuals outside their ideological spectrum. As the years went by, the party devoted more time and resources to maintain increasingly unstable working parliamentary coalitions with unreliable partners, sacrificing traditionally strong links to leftist social movements and civil society organizations. In Mendes Loureiro’s and Saad-Filho’s (2018: 77) words, “the party’s acrobatics during this period did untold damage to the government’s reputation and its mass support.” Indeed, the PT had become increasingly similar to those much-derided electoral machines of the past. And keeping such politically incoherent coalitions alive came at a high price. In 2005, the PT was at the center of the Mensalão Scandal. This corruption scheme involved the PT making monthly payments to a number of deputies in exchange for their votes. While Lula was largely spared by fallout over this scandal  (he was reelected the following year with 60.83% of the vote), it landed other leading figures of the PT, including party president José Genoíno and José Dirceu, Lula’s chief of staff, in jail. 

On 1 January 2011, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked successor, became the first female president of Brazil. A former guerrilla in her youth and the Minister of Energy between 2003 and 2005, Dilma became Lula’s chief of staff after the Mensalão Scandal. Having never held an elected position in the past, she capitalized on her mentor’s outstanding 90% approval rate to win the presidential election. That Dilma ran with Michel Temer from the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB), the archetypical spineless political machine with no clear ideology save power-grabbing, only further solidified the PT’s integration with mainstream politics. As the shock waves of the 2008 economic crisis reached Brazil, Dilma came to power at a time when the country’s economic model was running out of steam. Consequently, Lula’s “path of least resistance,” the one which benefitted the lower classes while preserving the higher classes’ interest, came to an unceremonious end. Furthermore, the PT’s original anti-corruption appeal, already greatly tarnished by the multi-million Mensalão Scandal, continued to deteriorate as other corruption scandals surfaced with increasing speed: six members of Dilma’s cabinet were forced to resigned over corruption allegations during her first year in power. The PT’s cross-class coalition was starting to fall apart.

The bourgeoisie turned its back on Dilma’s government because of disappointing economic results: GDP growth reduced by more than half between 2007-2010 and 2011-2013. A virulent class resentment, fueled by what they considered as an “invasion” of elite spaces (universities, airports, etc.) by lower-income people of color, began to simmer. James Holston (2007: 279) mentions the elite’s negative reaction to an increasing “inability to maintain a spatial order of privilege,” one which, for example, forced them to share an elevator with their buildings’ maintenance staff. The party also became increasingly alienated from its working-class base, as the number of strikes rose from about 300 per year between 2004 and 2007 to nearly 900 in 2012 alone. The biggest challenge to the PT government from the left occurred in June-July 2013, when over a million people took to the streets. Starting in São Paulo, the movement originated as a radical left protest against increases in public transport prices but morphed into a broad critique of public spending. The protests occurred at a time when local and federal authorities were spending billions (about $15 billion compared to an original estimate of about $6 billion) on projects related to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The protests were eventually hijacked by the right and the upper middle class, who co-opted it as a virulent anti-PT campaign focusing on the issue of corruption. 

In a context of rising challenges for the PT, Dilma’s reelection campaign took a marked turn leftward. She argued that granting her a second term was the only way to avoid austerity measures and a return to orthodox neoliberalism. On 26 October 2014, Dilma was reelected. However, she won the presidential election with the slimmest margin since the return of democracy, and her party lost 20 of the 88 seats it held in the Chamber of Deputies. Shortly after taking power, Dilma made a U-turn, implementing a range of austerity measures to appease the upper middle class and the economic elite whose opposition to the PT grew louder daily. This turnaround was exemplified by the new Minister of Finance, the Chicago trained, neoliberal economist Joaquim Levy. Levy replaced the neo-desarrollista Guido Mantaga after almost 9 years in his post. However, while the cuts in social spending alienated the PT from its working-class base and leftist supporters, it did nothing to appease the increasingly radical attacks from the Right and the mainstream media. Within this context, the country was swept by the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) anticorruption operation. 

Led by the provincial judge Sergio Moro, Lava Jato would eventually shed light on a multi-billion corruption scheme of kickbacks, involving companies like the semi-public Brazilian oil company Petrobras (the largest Latin American company in terms of sales revenue) and construction giant Odebrecht (the biggest private company on the subcontinent). Although this corruption scheme involved nearly the entire Brazilian political class and spread across Latin America (most recently forcing Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski out of office), both Judge Moro and the mainstream press led by O Globo focused almost exclusively on the PT members connected to the scandal. From the outset, and without any evidence to back his claims, Moro accused Lula of being the master-mind behind the Lava Jato system. This conviction led Moro to illegally leak phone conversations to the press and to organize a media show around Lula’s dramatic and unnecessary arrest. With his characteristic penchant for spectacle, Moro mobilized hundreds of police officers at the break of dawn to bring Lula in for questioning. The corruption scandal breathed a second life into the right-wing anti-corruption movement that had emerged in 2013, and encouraged millions of people to protest throughout 2015 and 2016, demanding Dilma’s resignation. 

In December 2015, Congress initiated the procedures that eventually led to Dilma’s impeachment in August 2016. It is worth noting that while the broad political coalition supporting Dilma’s impeachment was able to capitalize on the massive anti-corruption movement happening at the time, the President herself was never personally involved in the Lava Jato scandal. At a time when 60% of the Brazilian Congress was facing charges of corruption or other serious crimes – 37 of the 65 members of the impeachment commission were being investigated at the time – Dilma was accused of “fiscal pedaling,” a very common tactic used at all levels of government in Brazil that artificially decreases the size of the budget deficit. The impeachment campaign was led by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha. A member of MDB (the PT’s ally in government) Cunha is now serving a 15-year sentence on corruption charge.

Dilma’s impeachment was based on legally flimsy grounds. Concealing a budget deficit is indeed illegal but is not a criminal offence that justifies an impeachment process. This imbalance been described by many commentators as a coup in disguise. As the impeachment process moved forward in Congress, the conservative media conglomerate O Globo also played a crucial part by building popular support for impeachment (Van Dijk, 2017). Recognizing the political nature of the impeachment, Michel Temer, Dilma’s Vice-President and her successor as President of Brazil, went on record later, saying that the process was triggered by Dilma’s refusal to fully implement the MDB’s neoliberal program. At the same time, Romero Jucá, Temer’s successor as president of the MDB, was recorded admitting that impeaching Dilma was the only way to quash the Lava Jato investigation.   

Once Dilma was impeached for breaking budget rules, Michel Temer became Brazil’s first sitting president to be formally charged with a crime. Even though he was charged for corruption, racketeering and obstruction to justice, the Chamber of Deputies twice voted against launching impeachment procedures against him during the first year of his presidency. Although losing the support of the economic elite and the political right cost Dilma her presidency, those same actors’ enthusiasm for Temer’s radical austerity saved his seat at the Palácio do Planalto. While the vast majority of the deputies dedicated their vote in favor of Dilma’s impeachment to God or their family, Congressman Rubens Bueno’s justified his refusal to impeach Temer pointing out the overtly political nature of both processes. He explained that he would vote “No” for Temer’s impeachment because he would vote “Yes to pension reform, Yes to labor reform, Yes to political reform.” Dilma’s austerity measures did not seem to go far enough to appease the right, but Temer’s decision to freeze all social spending for 20 years was highly praised and passed with the support of all (non-Left) political forces in Congress. 

This brings us to the fateful presidential elections of 2018.

With a mere 3% approval rate, it became evident that Temer would not be a competitive candidate in the national elections. Every single poll gave Lula a considerable advantage over his closest rival, Jair Bolsonaro, indicating that he was extremely likely to make a triumphant return to lead the Federal Republic of Brazil, but there was a catch. In July 2017, Judge Moro had finally achieved what had been his not-so-secret objective all along: convicting the ex-president on corruption charges. Lula was sentenced to 9 years in prison for receiving a beachfront apartment as a bribe in exchange for awarding the construction company OAS a series of public contracts. If Dilma’s impeachment lay on shaky ground, Lula’s trial was even more legally- and ethically-tenuous. Given Judge Moro’s repeated public declarations stressing his conviction that Lula was indeed guilty, it was undeniable that a presumption of innocence would not apply to the ex-president. The court’s eagerness to secure a conviction before the presidential election catalyzed the fastest trial of its kind in Brazilian history. João Pedro Gebran Neto, a close personal friend of Moro and one of the three appeal judges that had confirmed and actually extended Lula’s original conviction, drafted his opinion in 100 days.  In contrast, the other Lava Jato cases he managed took an average of 275 days. It should also be noted that Lula’s conviction was not based on any material proof – there was none – but instead on the testimony of Leo Pinheiro, OAS’s ex-president.  Pinheiro’s sentence was then reduced from 30 years to 2 years. After the Supreme Court rejected his writ of habeas corpus, Lula was jailed on April 7th, 2018. In the following months, while every appeal was dismissed, the PT still maintained that Lula remained the party’s candidate and rejected any notion of a Plan B. It named Fernando Haddad, former Minister of Education under both Lula and Dilma and the mayor of São Paulo from 2013 to 2016, as its official candidate on September 11th, the last day to approve each party’s presidential candidate. This left Haddad, a relatively unknown politician on the national stage, with a mere month to campaign before the first round of the presidential election. Despite a rise from a mere 4% to 25% in polls in a matter of weeks, he remained far below the 40% threshold of voters that still supported Lula. The PT’s reluctance to even consider finding an alternative to Lula for the 2018 election was an obvious consequence of the personalist regime politics embraced by the party in the late 1990s and exemplified by the PT’s 2002 campaign slogan, “Lula, president.” Bolsonaro won the election with a margin of more than 10%. 

By 2018, the PT was no longer considered a force of change in Brazil. After giving up any truly transformative ambition it had in the late 1990s, the party was considered by many Brazilians as the archetypical “politics as usual” corrupt political machine. Under Lula, the PT’s ability to lift millions of people out of poverty while preserving the elite’s interests provided it with a broad base of support. But as the years went by, the party neglected its traditionally affiliations with social movements, more concerned with cultivating advantageous political alliances with right-wing parties and the economic elite and the upper middle class. As Bolivia’s Vice-President Álavaro García Linera (2016: 11) reminds us, “whatever happens in the world, [those groups] will never change their antagonistic attitude towards left-wing governments and processes of social emancipation.” The Brazilian case is a clear example of this tendency. Dilma’s austerity measures failed to appease the conservative sectors of Brazilian society and alienated the party from its working-class base. It is doubtless that the Lava Jato corruption scandal was orchestrated by the Right to cut off the PT at its knees, culminating in Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s incarceration. The politicization of the judiciary system was made even more blatantly apparent when Sergio Moro agreed to serve as Jair Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice. Yet, as Linera tells us, the defeats suffered by progressive governments in Latin America over the past years are the fault of both Left’s adversaries and the Left’s own shortcomings. 

I believe that the election of the fascist Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil can be explained, at least partly, by the PT’s transformation (“the normalization of an anomaly”) which encouraged it to abandon its transformative potential and become the party of the status quo. This shift created a political vacuum for Bolsonaro to fill, the only one to bring ideas of radical change to Brazil’s people. The Brazilian experience is relevant worldwide, in France, the United States, in Italy, in the Philippines. The failure of traditional liberal and social-democratic forces to articulate a viable alternative model has fueled the rise of ultra-right movements. These movements successfully capitalize on popular discontent with the punitive, austere programs inherent to the dominant model of neoliberal “democratic” political economy. 

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