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Political science

The fall of the star

PT reaches power to fall into a "political purgatory". What happened?

Looking at the chaos, at the end of the battle of Waterloo, Wellington lamented: “Next to a lost battle, nothing is so sad as a battle that has been won”. The phrase can be recycled to understand the political “purgatory” of the Workers’ Party when reaching power at last. From “the most important political fact in Brazil in the last few decades” (as it was greeted by political analysts on its emergence), it is suffering today, the surveys say, a growing discredit, in particular in what made it a “great electoral novelty”: a new form of political action, with an ethical, participative conduct, aimed at the fight against inequalities and for democracy. “Today’s crisis is a negative, other side of the ‘virtuous’ aspect of the PT’s original ideological nature: sectarianism and arrogance born of ideological mystifications. If it is in order to celebrate the electoral realism and the economic administration, the ‘big scheme’ revealed shows the absurdity of the realism, jeopardizing the PT’s ethical capital, in a kind of ‘uncultured Machiavellianism’, reckons political scientist Fábio Wanderley dos Reis. Did something go wrong?

Perhaps the answer is the Machado de Assis saying that “the boy is the father of the man”. “Lula’s election was the conclusion of a process that started in 1995, with the retaking of the internal hegemony by the more moderate groups of the PT, gathered around the Articulation group, after a mere two years in power of the left-wing currents”, says Pedro Ribeiro, from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), who is carrying out a survey about left-wing parties in government environments, taking the Lula government as a point of reference. “We must avoid this present-day simplistic Manichaeism that everything was done in view of a ‘project for power’, which, by the way, is licit for any political party. Other, more important factors acted against the PT: electoral growth, organizational strengthening, bureaucratization of the party machine, excessive approximation with the public sector spheres, distancing from the bases, increase in the participation of elected mandataries and occupants of positions of trust amongst the party leaders, lack of renewal of the staff and leaders, collapse of the agenda of the Brazilian left, and a quest for greater electoral competitiveness”, he analyzes. “In this, the victories weighed more than the defeats for the moderation and pragmatizing of the party.”

Pragmatism, centralization and moderation as problems of the PT? These characteristics do not confirm the common feeling that is used to seeing the party as ideological, radical, a “sack of ferrets” of left-wing tendencies. The PT has not actually been like that, if it ever was, for a long time. 1995, though, is the year seen by the analysts as the inflection point in a long process of transformation that has made the PT leave the Sartorian category of an anti-system party (the a priori and permanent opposition to the State) to a pragmatic postulation of commanding the State, accepting for this a union with other political forces not limited to the party’s traditional allies. The noteworthy paradox is that this “deviation” from the route was only able to happen thanks to a virtue of the party, seen, in general, as its weakness: the internal fights and divisions and the union of various tendencies.

“What distinguished the PT from other parties was the high degree of participation of the militants, against the low degree of autonomy of the leaders. Accordingly, before 1995, although Lula and his group favored a moderation of the party line, they, because of this internal democracy, were not able to impose their vision. After that, the weight of the pragmatics grew, because, enthusiastic with the positive results in the ballot boxes, the base of the party decided to give them power”, explains Brazilianist David Samuels. “If, subsequently, there was an increase in the autonomy of the leaders, this only occurred because the moderates had general support, and the choice was made to give Lula and his group additional freedom.”

A victim of its wealth? “This is a scenario experienced by left-wing parties in Europe, which became conventional electoral parties, with total independence from mobilization movements. Accordingly, the movement of the party’s structural adaptation towards national power generated the acceptance that the party executive could confer a degree of power on the leaders, isolating themselves from a firmer control by the party bodies at the base. In this way, an autonomization of the party group in the government as to the general structure and the party bases”, reckons Rachel Meneguello, from Unicamp. In short, the party itself chose, at the moment it decided to reach power, to give up its autonomy to the group that led it, which, at the limit, generated an internal elite.

The catalyst of this change was a lost battle: the weak performance in its first electoral test, in 1982, which only elected eight deputies. “The slogan ‘Vote for Three, the rest is Bourgeoisie’ (Three was the number of the party in that election) reflected an eminently ideological posture, which covered up the precariousness of its programmatic formulation. Difficulties that did not pass unperceived by the leading core of the party, and, in 1983, a process started of internal restructuring that tried to clear up the question of whether the PT was a ‘front’ of organizations or a party”, reckons Marco Aurélio Garcia, an advisor to the Lula government on foreign policy. The failure in the ballot boxes gave strength to the left of the PT, which took a dim view of participation within the system, seen as an “electoral deviation”. The answer came with the creation of the Articulation of the 113, in 1983, Lula’s group, with a strong predomination of trade unionists from the so-called “neo trade unionism”, with a pragmatic orientation.

“The trade unions (in the case of the PT, they were usually trade unionist from the public sector, who did not suffer as much pressure as their colleagues from private enterprise) and the social movements of the time were all looking towards at a less radical policy with results, which included a previously unthinkable relationship with the State. As they were an important internal force inside the PT, and the party had democratic bases, they gave a gradual impulse for Lula’s moderation to gain more space”, Samuels notes. The turn of the “PT of results” was arriving. “Lula’s defeats in 1989, 1994 and 1998 are important, because they made him and the bosses of the so-called Majority Field (a union of the center-right of the party, in opposition to the minority left-wing field) demand a carte blanche from party, to expand the span of alliances, to draw closer to sectors of business and to construct a competitive and modern electoral campaign”, says Pedro Ribeiro.

To isolate the left, the Majority Field instituted direct elections in the choice of the leaders, trusting in the moderation of the average PT member, gaining even more space for internal changes. The centralization of decisions occurred with the concentration of powers on the executive, and not on the governing body, the directory.  The idea was to speed up the decisions of the party and to curb the “assemblyist” impulse that characterized it. “There was an enormous concentration of power on the leaders, without control by other levels of the party, and the Majority Field gained a disproportionate weight in the last few years”, confirms Paulo Leal, the author of the recent O PT e o dilema da representação política [The PT and the dilemma of political representation] (Editora FGV). “But let us not forget that all of this happened under democratic rules, meeting the desire of the majority of the affiliates who supported this track towards the pragmatic center, which would make it possible to win elections and power”, Samuels points out. “I agree that the moderate positions were never a minority, even in 1993, when the left formed the majority of the governing body. After all, it never managed, even when it ran the party, to prevent the logic of the electoral market to consolidate itself in the party”, Leal notes.

But the autonomization of the National Executive brought the seeds of future problems. Suffice it to remember that up until the outbreak of the present crisis, this current had under its command the six main positions in the PT: president and vice-president, the general secretariat and the secretariats for finance, organization and communication, which were occupied by the main persons involved in the cases of corruption. And the process even has a definition in political science: Robert Michels’ iron law, which shows how organization leads to oligarchization. The growth of a party brings complexities that call for professionalization of some staff, which makes an elite of party bureaucrats arise, distanced from the mass, not submitted to the control of the rest of the party body. “The interesting thing is that, if the PT’s crisis clearly confirms Michels’ law, one does not observe, as expected, a bureaucratization in the party procedures, which, added to the emergence of superbureaucrats, contributed towards the party’s permeability to corruption”, Ribeiro notes.

As Tarso Genro warned, the precepts of formalism, hierarchy of authority, documentation of processes and delimitation of jurisdictions, to use Weberian jargon, were not to be seen. In the centralization, there was an informality and personalization in dealing with party issues and decisions, the researcher from UFSCar observes, as well as in the relationship with members of the Lula government. “Not by chance, the actions of the leaders that detonated the crisis occurred precisely when the Majority Field had so much power and the external oppositions were weakened. Which shows pluralism as a healthy tendency. What toppled was the PT’s thesis that the party had constructed a system that would make the action of opportunists difficult or prevent them. But it was not capable of curbing Delúbios”, Leal notes. On leaving the party, last month, the historical PT member Plínio de Arruda Sampaio complained: “In the present-day PT, the minority is reduced to the inglorious task of legitimating the decisions of the bosses”.
“I believe that the party was never capable of constructing a simultaneously socialist and democratic project. When it was democratic, it was social-democratic. When it was socialist, it was not democratic. The PT, in short, was always Leninist, an authoritarian conception of doing politics”, accuses Clóvis Bueno, from the FGV, the author of A estrela Partida (The star split in the middle). This has been particularly reflected in the PT experience of administering cities and in Parliament. “The party has to be instrumentalized for it to conduct the policy followed by the PT members in the administrations. Without work to this effect, seeking to affirm the ruling nature of the party, what we will see will be the expansion of the distance between the party and the administrations”, preached a resolution of the Seventh Encounter of the PT, in 1990. “The question that was put was whether the mandate was the holder’s or the party’s. As the party institutionalized itself, entry into its ranks constituted a chance to become a candidate and to attain a far higher standard of salary and status”, notes Eloísa Winter, the author of the doctoral thesis PT: impasses of the left in Brazil. According to her, it is not accidental that the party shows a large number of elected politicians who come into conflict with the party’s program and principles, in total incompatibility. A serious problem, since the “PT way of governing” is one of its greatest banners, responsible for its administrative successes, such as its participative managements, one of the greatest innovations of the PT.

“This also reinforced the PT’s pragmatism and centralization, to the detriment of the ideological. Nobody is reelected with ideological platforms: you have to show that you are capable of improving people’s lives, which takes the shape of politics of results”, reckons Samuels. If what is solid breaks up in the air, a new discourse was needed, somewhat moralist, of “ethics in politics and efficiency in administration”. “Accordingly, this almost neo-liberal Lula didn’t startle me, so much criticized as if he had emerged from nothing. He was always the kind of politician who tried to play by the rules. He’s not a Chávez who doesn’t want to change just the rules, but the whole game”, the Brazilianist says. “One cannot deny that the new world economic dynamics have imposed on left-wing governments the need to put realistic economic policies into practice, alert to the difficulties of the old Keynesianism in the new world, and nobody knows how to reconcile these impositions with the social commitment in terms akin to the ideals of the left”, notes Fábio Wanderley. Be that as it may, this pragmatism, consolidated by the past elections, was a good test for Lula to be able to come face to face with the presidential coalition model that structured various previous governments. In 2002, the PT only had 18% of the Chamber. “In a fragmented Congress, governing just with the left would be impossible, and the stitching together with other parties was inevitable, under penalty of blocking the agenda of the Executive”, Ribeiro observes. “The Lula government sought retail support, by attracting the PTB (Center) and PP Center-right) by agreements and puffing up the PTB and the PL (Center). But all this generated enormous tensions in the PT’s benches and in sectors of the government that did not see these agreements as legitimate.” Hence, the logic of the faction, the split of the party. There was no lack of indignation for the fact that the executive was entering into alliances without consulting the bases, an undesirable effect of the centralization granted by the affiliates to the leaders in a democratic manner.

“Since the beginning of its government, the PT has been suffering from an ideological purgatory: the confrontation between the positions historically defended by the party and the restrictions and pressures to which a government is submitted that is responsible to society as a whole, and not just to its party or its base”, says Ribeiro. A repetition, on a federal scale, of the dilemmas of various administration, ever since the pioneering experience of Diadema, suburb of São Paulo. On this point, the virtue of the various internal tendencies may become a serious disturbance. “The pluralism of ideas and positions prevents the mummification of the party, but, at times, there is a very great channeling of energy into internal disputes on account of this. As opposition, this can be gotten round. But, at the time of governing, the logic of the party is transformed into the logic of faction, and it becomes difficult to govern, without the certainty of being able to count on the support of its party members”, says Ribeiro. “On reaching the mature stage of life, in which it holds national power, the PT shows that it is not immune to the impositions of the game between parties, of political competition and of the exercise of power. The experience of the party in government is showing the clear limits of that original party innovation and, going beyond the irregularities committed by leaders in this crisis, puts an end to the original cycle of PT life”, Rachel Meneguello avers. Exposing, perhaps, as Gianpaolo Baiocchi (from the University of Massachusetts) claims, that the “PT clearly does not yet have the know-how necessary for running the country, much less to take forward a project that bears the hallmark of the party”. There is also, perhaps, another kind of inexperience. “The administration failed in splitting power with the allied parties, and the PT ended up with far more than it deserved. For example, if Lula has the support of parties with 60% of the seats in Congress, his party should keep only one third of the total of positions. But it didn’t do this, which left the allies unsatisfied”, reckons Samuels, for whom the government also lacked substance.

“At the root of this crisis, there is also the lack of policies to which the allies could adhere, and, accordingly, to reap political benefits. This would have facilitated the construction of a coalition à la former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. It is worth recalling that the ex-president’s administration bought its support ‘wholesale’ on the market, winning the solid support of entire parties”, the American explains. “Lula preferred to buy ‘retail’ and this ‘big monthly allowance’ (reference to the present crisis in which PT is accused of gaining the support of politicians in exchange of monthly payment) is just a symptom of this strategy. Support was bought at an individual level, and when someone from a party felt himself, meaning Roberto Jefferson, less ‘cosseted’, he raised issues and criticized the whole process.” For Samuels, the crisis is explained by the government’s strategy of treating allies and opposition not as a group of parties, but as a collection of individuals. “If the crisis were only the monthly graft, it would not have any great repercussions. But it is a problem deeply rooted in the PT’s administrative structure and one that has thus infected party and government. I think that there was also an error of calculation: to the extent that the FHC administration had great support from the political class, accusations of corruption were not explored seriously. I think that the leaders of the PT believed that they were going to be given the same treatment.”

“It is clear that government corruption much precedes the Lula government. What differentiates PT members as agents of corruption is their inexperience. This reminds me of the Collor affair: why did he fall with so few? Because he was a political outsider. How have people like ACM or Jefferson been such a long time in politics?”, Baiocchi asks. “If we look in a way that is not impassioned at the nature of the State and of politics in Brazil, what calls attention in this scandal is not just the corruption, but that it has been done by people not accustomed to the informal rules of the game.” The same cannot be said of the PT’s much proclaimed “hunger” for posts. “The party has come too close to the State and moved too far away from civil society. With the strengthening of the party in the public sector space, an army of party staff arose, with a great interchangeability in the performance of political appointments, that is to say, they were people summoned to take part in various PT governments at different times”, says Ribeiro. “The formation of this staff is linked to conceptions that differentiate the PT from the other parties: the importance given to the political upbringing of its militants and an attempt to create ‘a PT mode of governing’, with the systematization of experiences and practices, taken from one administration to another.” In other words, the “filter party” conceived by Umberto Cerroni, of the Italian Communist Party. Hence, according to the researcher, after discounting the exaggerations of the opposition and the press, the PT really did occupy a large number of federal posts, in an intense process of party patronage. “The party was the only one that could occupy them with its own staff, experienced in other administrations; hence the amazement of the other parties, accustomed to the indications of ‘protégés’ and identified with a certain leader, and not with this or that party.”

The problem is that, as a large part of the PT did not see the alliances made by the party leaders as legitimate, the political scientist goes on, it also did not see legitimacy in the division of power.  “Hence the fight for the same public sector spaces with leaders of allied parties more accustomed to this institutional occupation, like the PTB and the PMDB”, he says. “The crossing of the tenuous line that separates patronage from corruption was one of the factors that led to this crisis.” What can one expect of the future? A Lula outside the PT? “Although a PT sympathizer certainly votes for Lula, someone who likes him is not necessarily a  PT supporter. This indicates that Lula is larger than the party, but also that he is not essential for the growth and survival of the PT”, Samuels ponders. “He cannot survive without the party, other than as a star without a course”, reckons Clóvis Bueno. “For a long time, PT supporters would define their ethos from a refusal of personalism. ‘In the PDT, there are Brizolists ( Brizola, former governor of Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul), in the PT, there are petistas’, it would be said. What is happening today is a paradox: in the name of saving his mandate and reelection, Lula is helping to make the PT unviable”, Paulo Leal criticizes. Should one celebrate the PT’s misfortune?

Political force
“Only those who have no commitment to democracy rejoice with the ‘decadence’ of the PT. Because, in spite of the ambiguities, contradictions, lack of clarity, and even the current mess, the PT is the country’s most important political fact in decades”, is Clóvis Bueno’s defense. “What is gained with the PT is the political force that emphasizes popular participation in politics, in a country where the majority does not know how to differentiate ideologies of the right from those of the left. The PSDB and the PFL may even offer a model of administrative competence, but they have never managed to offer anything in the emotional field of politics, which should not be slighted”, Samuels ponders. “The Brazilian voter is going to get more cynical, since the PT was supposedly the non-cynical, but hopeful alternative. Now, it is not clear what the party can offer the voters in terms of emotional reasons to support it.” Different Waterloos, but with the same finale.