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Interview: Leôncio Martins

Interview: Leôncio Martins

He was the first to show that the kings were not going about naked, but that they were even well dressed. Political scientist Leôncio Martins Rodrigues studied what the social makeup of the Brazilian parties was and discovered that the party could be of the workers, but, in their majority, its affiliates were really from the middle class in search of social ascension. The former chair professor at USP and Unicamp accompanied the strikes that were to lead to the emergence of the PT and is a fierce critic of the voracity of many militants of the party who “came from further down and are getting their faces sticky with power”. After all, he explains, “the new elites, however much they present themselves as radically different from the old ones, tend to reproduce the conduct of the previous dominating groups”. In this interview, the researcher warns that today’s crisis started some time ago, when the PT began to conquer bits of the apparatus of the State until arriving at the center of power.

What are the causes of the current crisis through which the PT is passing? Ate they present-day, or do they reflect past errors of the party?
– Answering in a way that is at the same time naïve  and cynical: the present crisis only happened because of the discovery of the scheme for corruption. If not, if the scheme had not become public, it would probably be very well, thank you. But I think that the crisis does not reflect past “errors” of the party’s trajectory. The acts that, euphemistically, are called “errors”, only began to happen when the PT started to conquer bits of the apparatus of the State, culminating with the taking of the federal government. They were therefore side effects of the growth of the party and of the conquest of power.

Why do you classify as a euphemism the use of the term “error”?
– I understand that the use of the term “error” serves, in a semi-conscious way, to attenuate the gravity of the conduct of the top leaders of the party. Would anyone say that Maluf ( former São Paulo governor indicted for corruption) committed an “error” by sending money abroad illegally? I do not believe one can talk about “errors” to designate cases of corruption or of ethically condemnable conduct. Erroneous actions are those that do not prove to be adequate to reach a given objective. They are about ends, and not means. In this case, the PT erred when it acted ineptly, allowing the illicit acts to be discovered. Errors are habitually actions or judgments that are not desired by their authors, which happen against their will. It was not the case of the PT leaders, who knew very well what they wanted.

So, the past of the party more to the left does not respond for the acts of the present?
– I understand that the socialist doctrinaire conceptions and the theoretical explanations of the PT, since its foundation, were theoretically mistaken but not ethically condemnable.

How to understand such an intense inflow of corruption into the historical ranks of the party?
– Firstly, it has to be pointed out that in Brazilian politics there has always been a propitious field for corruption. If it didn’t exist, the new political elite that has arisen by means of the PT would have behaved in another manner. Usually, the new elites, however much they present themselves as being radically different from the old ones, tend to reproduce the conduct of the previous dominating groups.

Is there a chance of the party managing to get some space in the 2006 elections, or will it be a general debacle?
– A more precise prophesy is difficult. Many variables have to be taken into account. The safest prognosis, but for that very reason the vaguest and closest to the blindingly obvious, is that the PT must lose many votes, and many of its current members of parliament, in the Chamber of Deputies and at other levels of the political system, will not be reelected. But, as far as the party as an organization is concerned, the damage has been done, and it will be hard to put it together again. The party machine has now been affected, and the party is more divided than ever. Worse still: Lula and the PT leaders have lost legitimacy. But the extent of the damage in the electoral results of the PT in 2006 is more difficult to predict. What makes any prognosis difficult is the fracture at the base that supports the Executive in Congress and the decomposition of the Lula government as a PT government.

How so?
– The government has come to depend, more than ever, on the PL, PP and PTB and part of the PMDB, and on political leaders like Senators José Sarney and Renan Calheiros. The small left-wing parties, like the PCdoB and PSB, continue with Lula, but the composition of the government does not remotely recall a left-wing government.

Could there be another way for the PT to survive without opting for the electoral logic?
– The revolutionary path has never been an option, nor could it be, in a party that was launched, in daylight, in Sion College, in the elegant district of Higienópolis, in the city of São Paulo, in February 1980, with the founding meeting taking place soon afterwards at the Sede Sapientiae Institute in São Paulo, between May 31 and June 1 of the same year. The majority tendency of the PT, beginning with the trade union directors, has always opted for the electoral path, although mistrust with regard to the institutions of representative democracy has always existed in a high dose in many factions that came from small Leninist groups. For this reason, the PT was at the same time a party of militancy, rejecting the bourgeois order (usually more in words than in deeds) and an electoral party with a nationalist anti-liberal ideology, colored with brushstrokes of a socialism that blended Christianity and Marxism. Having excluded the revolutionary route, electoral logic imposes itself. Nobody goes into an electoral contest with the intention of always losing. Electoral contests, in democracies, are expensive. It follows from that that, with the PT not having succeeded in transforming itself into the majority party, it had to make alliances. And they couldn’t be established just with left-wing parties. Incongruous, though, from the programmatic point of view, was the coalition with the PL, I mean to say, left with right. An alliance with the PMDB, center-right, would be less incongruous, but, were it to come about, it would cost the PT very dear, because the PMDB is a much stronger party than the PL.

The big question that is put today is how and why the transformation of the party, its bureaucratization, professionalization and electoral pragmatism, came about.
– Simple numerical growth imposes changes on any organization, whether it is a business, a trade union or a party. The number of employees, departments and hierarchical levels increases. The division of tasks and, with this, internal stratification increases as well. The Italian political scientist Angelo Panebianco indicates that the variations in size affect not only the internal cohesion, but also the political style of the parties. A large party tends to be more pragmatic and accommodating in its relationships with other parties. Furthermore, I understand that an important variable is the age of the main leaders. The more radical and confrontational youngsters from the formation of the PT, besides growing older, have remained as leaders of the party and/or transformed themselves into members of parliament and risen socially. To use jargon that is rather out of fashion: they have become bourgeois.

This can explain the institutionalization of the PT, but not its involvement in illegal acts and the corruption of some of its main leaders…
– You are right, but the explanation for this aspect that you are pointing out isn’t easy. Perhaps there has been a combination of various elements. One of them appears to be the project for reelecting Lula in 2006. For this project to be put into effect, a lot of “unrecorded” money was necessary, if we use the delicious euphemism that the ex-treasurer of the PT popularized. Perhaps the material advantages that the conquest of the top positions of public administration offer contaminated very quickly the PT members, who, compared with politicians from the other major parties, who come more from below, from the salaried middle classes or the populous classes (teachers from the public network, bank employees, some industrial workers, some laborers, all of them ex-trade unionists). But I don’t want to say with that that “the rich don’t steal”, but rather that those who come from below are not incorruptible and can be more susceptible to yielding to temptation.

Did the PT change to survive or from political opportunism, with a view to an advantageous project for power in the future?
– I would invert the cause and effect relationship. If we look at it properly, the PT profession of socialist faith was not an obstacle to its growth. On the contrary. It served to attract a young militancy that believed that all the evils of the world came from capitalism and the market. The PT changed because it grew. More precisely: the PT kept changing as it grew. You just have to look at the transformations in the party’s programs for government, more and more moderate. The PT became even more moderate in 2002 because it had grown, and the occupation of the Planalto Palace was within sight. An alliance with the PL would be unimaginable, if Lula’s chances for election were minimal.

What is the relationship between the gradual transformation of the PT and the party’s current ethical crisis and the waves of denouncement?
– I judge that the party’s current ethical crisis has no relationship with the political moderation. The current ethical crisis comes from the conquest of the Presidency and for the efforts to repeat the recipe in 2006. For the first time, the temptations of the devil were offered to leaders of the PT, Being ethical in opposition is easy. What is difficult is to continue to be so when you are in power.

There was, at the beginning of the party’s life, an undeniable internal democracy. In what way did this democracy contribute towards the current state of the party?
– Firstly, it is good for it to be said that parties are necessary instruments for democracy, but they are not democratic internally. The same leaders tend to eternalize themselves in the command of any party, because the existence of leaders is part of political activity, and a party cannot change its leaders at every moment. That said, you have to look more closely at the question of the PT’s internal democracy. If we were to measure democracy by the turnover of the party’s leaders, the PT leaders have changed little, from its foundations to the present day, although there have been changes in the occupation of the presidency and of the secretariat. But the maximum and sole leader has always been Lula. In the issue of the electoral college, the PT’s leaders expelled the deputies who voted for Tancredo Neves. But to go to your question more directly: I understand that greater or lesser internal democracy is not a significant variable in determining the levels of corruption.

Is the Lula government’s almost neo-liberal way of acting a surprise, or could one already foresee this observing the development of the party?
– If we follow the changes in the PT’s proposals for government in the various presidential campaigns, we will see a progressively more moderate party, in accordance, by the way, with what was happening with all the socialist, social-democratic, workers’ and communist and ex-communist parties in the developed capitalist world. Furthermore, if it is no more, only the more believing and ingenuous militants could believe that the PT, with less than 20% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and still less in the Senate, without controlling the three main states of the federation, would adopt an orientation of the socialist kind.  Moreover, a more cynical but no less realistic question is fitting: why would the PT leaders risk themselves by putting measures of the socialist kind into practice if they were already in power?

What was the impact of the party’s initial political defeats on its transformation into a pragmatic and centralizing party?
– You have to tint what seem to be the initial defeats of the PT. They seem particularly heavy in the majority contests for executive positions, especially for the Presidency of the Republic, such as the defeats to Fernando Collor and afterwards to Fernando Henrique. But, if we examine them better, they were “victorious defeats”, which stimulated rather than discouraged. In the stand-alone elections of 1989, for the Presidency, Lula achieved 17.2% of the votes in the first round. He was defeated by Collor, who had 30.5%, but arrived ahead of great names of Brazilian politics. It is as well to remember that, on that occasion, Lula beat Brizola, by a small margin, for sure, but he arrived well ahead of Covas, Maluf, Afif Domingos, Ulysses Guimarães, Roberto Freire and Aureliano Chaves, not to mention other less well-known names. [On that occasion, 16 candidates competed.] In the two following elections [1994 and 1998], Lula was beaten by Fernando Henrique in the first round, but came out far ahead of the other candidates. In the Chamber of Deputies, the PT, which had only elected eight deputies in 1982, leapt to 16 in 1986, to 35 in 1990, now becoming a member of the club of the major parties and transforming itself, in 2002, into the largest party in the Chamber, with 91 deputies. Accordingly, the PT’s pragmatism and centralization seems to me more associated with success than with failure. The famous Letter to the Brazilians only happened because the PT realized that it had chances of ‘getting there’.

Can we, perhaps, think that the distancing of the PT’s leaders from the bases, the exacerbated centralization in the decisions of the National Directory, are due to the need for negotiating, as it did with the PL without consulting the affiliates?
– Consultations with the bases are rare in the parties. I can’t remember seeing the PSDB, the PMDB, the PFL, for example, “consulting the bases”. The important decisions, always, are adopted by the “big chiefs”, with the assistance of some advisors. The mass of affiliates and sympathizers swallow (or do not swallow) what their leaders decide. The leaders always have to have some sensitivity as to the expectations of those they lead. But, if we leave aside the mystifying discourses, decisions are conspired by small groups. Even in the assemblies, what is put to the “democratic” vote is what was decided in the wings. In some cases, the assembly opts for some proposal from the leaders. I understand that it has to be like this. Otherwise, the party (or whatever other mass organization), loses efficiency. In the case of the PT, I even think that the current vote for the choice of the National Directory, inspired on the American model of the primaries, was very democratic. But it is an expensive and lengthy procedure. Anyway, the affiliates were only left to vote for one of the leaders of the tendencies.

If the PT had won the Collor election(1989), at that moment of the party, would we have a different government from the present one?
– I don’t know. But, considering the space occupied by the PT on that occasion in Brazilian politics, we would probably have a severe party crisis, resulting from the need for composition and alliances, on the one hand, and the more radical expectations of the militancy, on the other.

Is the pluralism in internal tendencies in the party just bad, or can it have beneficial effects for the association?
– The pluralism of tendencies is a fact linked to the origins of the party. The PT began like that. In spite of the divergences between them seeming to have an ideological and programmatic nature, the tendencies serve as a point of support for lesser leaders in the contest for local power. In the end, I think that the existence of the so-called tendencies ends up being positive for the party, because it gives room for the emerging leaders that always begin very radical, but carry on getting more moderate when they rise up or when they occupy some public position.

The history of the PT seems to follow the famous phrase of Lula, that the “socialism of the PT was constructed in the day-to-day”. Is this eternal improvisation or “spontaneity” the cause of the current shortcoming in governance that one perceives in the Lula government?
– It doesn’t seem so to me. Lula’s phrase, to my mind, comes from the fact that he has very little information about socialism and has little interest in debating this theme with the party’s intellectuals; whereas the administrative shortcomings, to my mind, have two main causes. The first comes from the inexperience of Lula himself, as he has never occupied any administrative position in government before arriving at the Presidency of the Republic. Lula was always a leader of the masses of the opposition, a function in which words are rarely in earnest. The second comes from the large number of ex trade unionists and of other PT leaders who are in the federal government and other high-ranking posts. Some have had experience in state governments (the case of Olívio Dutra, for example), but have not had federal government experience. Others not even that.

Can we understand the corruption process also in relation to this predomination of “pragmatic trade unionists” in the leadership of the party and in the government?
– Really, some ex trade unionists from the top leadership of the PT are (or have been) much linked to “unaccounted resources” and seem to be very dazzled by the enchantments of power and of money. But others that did not have a union past were as well, like the ex-deputy Genoino. It is possible that – compared with intellectually, more sophisticated people with more time of familiarity with the upper classes – those who came from lower down and rose up socially through trade unionism and politics tend to be more dazzled with the new status and new positions of power. It is a hypothesis that would need more work done on it, so as to control some variables, such as the kind of trade unionism, the dominant values in the union milieu itself, in the new political milieu which they are going into in Brazilian society… A pertinent hypothesis would be that in societies with high levels of corruption, but with high social mobility, like the Brazilian one, the new arrivals are more predisposed to imitate the traditional dominant groups, more stimulated to go up in life.

Lula today seems to want to isolate himself from the PT: how to understand this? Could it be a political maneuver?
– It could be. Lula’s prestige has always been higher than the PT’s. One scenario, which is not entirely impossible, albeit difficult to happen, would be for Lula to try for reelection supported by a coalition of parties in which the PT would not enter, or, if it were to enter, it would not be the dominant party. But for this to happen, the president needs to keep his electoral power. But these are merely cogitations. There’s a lot of water ahead yet.

What future is there for the PT, and what does it need to do to renew itself and to recover its space?
– At the moment, relatively few members of parliament and personalities have abandoned the party. Some, because they suspect that the PT ticket is still the safest for trying reelection. Others, because they are afraid of not having, under other banners, the same space that they have in the PT. (One alternative does not exclude the other). Ideology counts in a secondary manner. The main element is the possibility of election and of ascension in the political class.

Can the end of the belief in politics with ethics, which was expected of the PT, generate maturity in the Brazilian voter, or a skepticism that makes it possible for a populist to rise to power?
– Probably more the first alternative than the second. Trust with regard to politicians, which has never been high, has declined even further. But the electoral body is heterogeneous. In its poorer and more unprotected layers, disillusion may lead to the belief in the providential man. Together with the repudiation of politicians, disbelief may come with regard to representative democracy, which could lead to the acceptance, passive of enthusiastic, of an authoritarian government. But, at the moment, it seems more probable that democracy will resist.