Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean | Analysis

BRAZIL: The Ironies of Politics

Analysis by Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 2 2010 (IPS) - The irony of politics is that the principles upheld by a party are often contradicted in practice, in the struggle for office or the exercise of power. Brazil’s elections, in which Dilma Rousseff was chosen as the country’s first woman president, offer some apt illustrations.

The defeated Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) took a turn to the right, in spite of the left-wing origins of its candidate, José Serra, a former student leader who went into exile after the 1964 military coup, and of its more famous founder, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Founded in 1988 as a centre-left party positioned between the radical socialism of the Workers’ Party (PT) and the traditional conservative forces, the PSDB was envisioned as a modernising force. One of its early aims was to establish a parliamentary form of government in Brazil, which was rejected in a referendum.

When Cardoso — nicknamed the “prince of sociologists” — was president from 1995 to 2003, the PSDB government succumbed to the economic ideas in vogue and adopted some neoliberal policies. The privatisation of national assets and public enterprises became Cardoso’s hallmark, and the PT, then in opposition, took advantage of the unpopularity of such measures.

In turn the PT, when its candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president in 2002 and 2006, increasingly shifted to the centre-left, towards the ideals of social democracy.

Lula prioritised policies — and expanded on a mass scale some of his predecessor’s — that lifted 20 million people out of poverty, enlarged the middle class and created 14 million formal sector jobs.

The polarity between the two parties, each supported by broad coalitions, forced the PSDB into alliances with the most conservative sectors, like the centre-right Democrats, the new name for the Liberal Front which included politicians active in the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

In the recent electoral campaign, during which Lula was able to use his immense popularity to transfer his supporters’ votes to Rousseff, Serra’s candidacy was supported by right-wing groups, including conservative Catholics and Evangelicals. Defamation campaigns against Rousseff on the internet and in churches converted abortion and religious morality into central issues.

Thus the PSDB took up a position on the right, taking on a role similar to that of conservatives in two-party systems, while negating its origins and the political ideas of many of its members.

Lula and the PT were not immune to these about-faces. The party that originally campaigned as the champion of ethics is perceived today as a symbol of corruption by a large proportion of public opinion, as a result of numerous scandals affecting its administration on national, state and municipal levels.

The “mensalão” (big monthly payment) scandal in 2005 involved government ministers and PT leaders who were accused of bribing lawmakers in return for votes. It nearly brought down the Lula administration, when the president himself faced the threat of impeachment.

Such misdeeds were partly responsible for Rousseff’s failure to win outright in the first round of voting on Oct. 3, as Lula also failed to do in 2006.

In its early days, prior to the 1990s, the PT was regarded as the only “ideological” large party in Brazil. Yet in government it has stood out for its pragmatism: it has formed alliances with old “oligarchs” like former president José Sarney (1985-1990), and adopted an economic policy that allowed bankers to “profit as never before,” as Lula himself acknowledged.

Serra, torn between his convictions and the position recent history had imposed on his party, came across as ambiguous. With an eye to electoral convenience, he evaded confronting the popular Lula as much as possible.

The PSDB candidate did not defend the Cardoso government and its privatisations, and he made promises that in the past he would have criticised as “populist”, such as an immediate 17.6 percent rise in the minimum wage, and an increase in the monthly stipends that millions of poor families receive through Bolsa Familia, the Lula administration’s main conditional cash transfer programme.

As for Rousseff, in her youth she led a group that adopted armed struggle in the 1960s, with the aim of seizing power and bringing about a socialist revolution in Brazil, along the lines of the Cuban revolution.

Critics of that “adventure” question the narrative of democratic resistance against the military dictatorship which is generally used today to describe the young people who risked their lives and were tortured, or killed, in the short, unequal battle.

Rousseff’s presidential victory, along with those of other former guerrillas in several Latin American governments and parties, even the PSDB, bolsters the benevolent historic view of insurgents that has little to do with their theoretical intentions then, which were far from democratic.

They were the only ones who fought the dictatorship uncompromisingly, with their radical response to the de facto regime’s oppression of freedom of speech and other rights.

They took all the risks upon themselves, and hundreds of them died for their cause. Rousseff inherited the democratic side of the rebelliousness which could otherwise only serve a larger, revolutionary goal.

In France, the Resistance to occupation by Nazi Germany saved the country’s honour during World War II, when collaboration was the rule, even though it was a minority movement and overwhelmingly commanded by communist militants following orders from Moscow.

But perhaps the best contemporary example of the conflict between political doctrine and real-life pragmatism is China, where the Communist Party is building the greatest capitalist power of the century.

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