A corrupt alliance with Brazil’s coup-makers

July 26, 2016

Brazil's Senate will vote again in August on whether to sanction the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers' Party (PT) in what could become the final act of a constitutional coup. But the PT's cynical maneuvers ahead of the vote are characteristic of a party that has embraced the corruption of the political system. Sean Purdy, a teacher at the University of São Paulo and militant in the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), explains where the hope lies for building an opposition to neoliberalism and injustice.

YOU MIGHT think that after having their elected president overthrown in a constitutional coup, the Workers' Party (PT) in Brazil would no longer seek dodgy alliances with the very centrist and right-wing parties who betrayed President Dilma Rousseff by voting for her impeachment.

Yet with an eye to stitching together electoral alliances for municipal elections in October and the possibility that they will win over senators to reject impeachment in early August, the PT continues to curry favor with corrupt right-wing politicians. In the process, the party has all but abandoned the very social movements and its own members that mobilized against impeachment and the illegitimate interim government.

In April and May, a large majority of federal deputies and senators in Brazil voted to impeach Rousseff for state accounting misdeeds. Former Vice President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) is now interim president while the Senate conducts further investigations. In early August, if two-thirds of senators once again vote in favor of impeachment--which is considered extremely likely by most commentators--Temer will remain president until the next elections in 2018.

Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a Workers' Party convention
Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a Workers' Party convention (Valter Campanato | Agencia Brasil)

IN THE years leading up to the election of PT founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002, the PT gradually abandoned not only its radical social democratic politics, but its political independence, pursuing alliances with centrist and right-wing parties, many with ties to the military dictatorship that reigned from 1964 until 1985. This was all done in the name of securing "governability."

The first notable sign was Lula's choice of José Alencar, an industrial tycoon from a pro-business party, as his vice presidential candidate. In Lula's first term, the party even mounted an illegal scheme known as the "Mensalão"--monthly payments to political allies to guarantee their votes in the Congress--leading eventually to the imprisonment of numerous leading PT politicians.

Despite the scandal, the continued electoral success of the PT was assured by a buoyant international market for Brazil's agricultural and mineral exports, and modest but successful social programs. Lula handily won re-election in 2006 and left office at the end of 2010 with record approval ratings. His handpicked successor Rouseff, a technocrat who had only joined the PT in 2001, won her first election easily.

It is important to emphasize that while the working class temporarily benefited from Lula's and Dilma's economic development and social programs, the middle class and the rich benefited much more.

The extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth in Brazil changed little. Neither did the political structures of a country in which electoral success, political power and personal enrichment depended on unprincipled fair-weather alliances between political parties with often extremely divergent ideologies, political programs and memberships.

Throughout the 2000s, federal, state and municipal governments led by the PT relied exclusively on such alliances for re-election. At the federal level, Lula and Dilma successfully cultivated coalitions with the PMDB and a host of small "for-rent" parties that traded their support for the PT's legislative initiatives in return for powerful ministerial positions and other posts in state companies.

Lula and Dilma went so far as to rely on corrupt ex-ministers and supporters of the bloody military regime such as José Sarney, Jader Barbalho, Delfim Netto and even the impeached ex-President Fernando Collor de Mello.

Small wonder, then, that the PT itself adopted many of the same corrupt practices--kickbacks, money laundering, bribes and illegal election financing involving state companies, banks and powerful industrial conglomerates – that their new coalition partners practiced.

All this came crashing down when the country finally confronted the global economic crisis in 2012. After a last-minute appeal to her working-class base with promises to increase social spending, Dilma was narrowly re-elected in 2014. Within a month, she had completely reneged on her election promises, appointing a banker as Finance Minister, who soon cut $50 billion from education, health care and urban services.

But this was too little, too late for the PT's allies. In the context of rising unemployment, inflation and a drastic drop in economic growth, the party's erstwhile partners quickly jumped the sinking ship, cynically using the involvement of the PT in a massive scandal in the state petroleum company Petrobras to impeach President Dilma.

It didn't matter that many of these same politicians were even more implicated in corruption than the PT or that Dilma herself had not committed any crimes. The chorus for impeachment was soon joined by well-organized and -funded white middle-class opposition groups, the corporate media and a biased judiciary which had always been uneasy with the left-wing traditions that the PT historically represented.

IT IS particularly astonishing, then, that in the midst of the impeachment of its own president and the openly pro-business and anti-worker politics of the interim government, the PT continues to engage in the same parliamentary cretinism that has undercut its own base of support.

While some PT politicians and rank-and-file militants have called for a complete rethinking of the party's strategy, tactics and practices, the real powers--Lula, Dilma and the former trade union bureaucrats and party functionaries that dominate the party's leadership core--have maintained the same business-as-usual politics.

This was first seen in the militant demos and occupations by social movements in reaction to the impeachment votes in the House and Senate in April and May. In addition to its inability to mobilize its own shrinking base, the PT leadership, including Lula and Dilma, consistently called for moderation.

After a successful occupation of the president's office in São Paulo and a sizable demonstration outside the house of interim President Temer, the militant homeless workers' movement (MTST) was told to tone it down.

Militants against impeachment, whether from the PT or not, have simply been used as maneuverable masses whenever it is in the direct interests of the party leadership. But when the mobilizations threaten to get out of hand, the PT washes its hands of militancy. This has confused and demoralized many thousands of genuine activists who want to build a militant fightback against the illegitimate Temer government.

Most recently, the PT and its chief misnamed ally, the former Maoist Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), displayed the same attitude in the election of the new president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Instead of rallying around the left-wing alternative candidate, Luiza Erundina, from the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), the PT leadership instructed its 58 deputies to vote in the first round for the candidate from the PMDB, the very party that orchestrated impeachment. In a hopeful sign, 13 PT deputies voted for the candidate from PSOL.

In a runoff election, the PT leadership called on its deputies to vote for the right-winger Rodrigo Maia--who had voted in favor of impeachment of Dilma and was the candidate of the Temer government. The PCdoB likewise tried to mobilize its 11 deputies to vote for Maia, who eventually won.

Even so, 24 PT deputies and two from the PCdoB joined the six deputies from PSOL in leaving the plenary and refusing to vote in the second round in protest that their own parties had backed an open coup supporter. This was made abundantly clear when Maia duly thanked the "left" for its support and when news surfaced that Lula himself had engineered the PT's strategy.

At the same time, the deposed President Dilma, in a desperate bid to influence the final impeachment vote in the Senate in early August, praised the economic team in the interim government, hinting that she would maintain the same personnel if she returned to power. This should come as little surprise since interim Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles, an ex-international banker, was head of the Central Bank during Lula's two terms in government.

Finally, despite the disastrous alliances with centrist and right-wing parties that has led to impeachment and furthered a neoliberal agenda, the PT decided to maintain alliances with all these parties in the municipal elections in October. In big cities such as São Paulo and Rio, PT militants will campaign alongside corrupt conservative politicians whose parties voted to topple the elected president and to support the interim government.

IT'S CLEAR that the PT does not offer a left-wing alternative to the pro-business and anti-worker agenda of the interim government, which is implementing harsh cuts to public services, social programs and labor rights.

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs of the building of a real alternative among the non-PT left.

At the electoral level, candidates from PSOL have solid chances in mayoral and City Council races in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre and other large capital cities. And multiple forces from the non-PT left who opposed the coup, but who also oppose the right-wing agenda of the interim government, are showing important signs of working together.

At the local level, activists from the new group, PSOL and the Brazilian Communist Party are engaged in serious efforts to build united fronts for the municipal elections.

On July 31, there will be nationwide demonstrations led by the MTST against the coup and the interim government, and the union movement has raised the necessity of beginning to build for a general strike. It is crucial that the social movements, the unions and the non-PT left construct a pole of attraction for PT militants and all others who want to turn the tide against the neoliberal agenda.

Further Reading

From the archives