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One Year of the Lula Administration

One Year of the Lula Administration

The far left and far right in Brazil are disappointed that Lula government did not usher in a crisis.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

What has happened to Brazil under the leftist government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva? Brazilian sociologist Celi Regina Jardim Pinto offered an assesment of Lula's first year to a colloquium in the UCLA Sociology Department April 21. Professor Pinto holds a Ph.D. in Government from the University of Essex and teaches graduate political science at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre in the country's far south. Her talk was cosponsored by the UCLA Latin American Center and the Sociology Department.

Many people, both inside and outside Brazil feared that the leader of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) would end up like Salvador Allende in Chile a generation ago, with a sharply polarized population, an economic crisis, and intervention by the military. Nothing of the kind has happened, to almost everyone's surprise. When Lula took office in January 2003, Pinto said, "Even those who voted for him were concerned as to what would happen." Lula from the outset faced sharp opposition from both his right and left. On the left, Pinto said, there were three distinct hostile currents: a radical left of Lula's own party, the PT; a communist left wing outside of the PT, and a group of left-wing intellectuals. Each had different issues on which they disagreed with the new government. On the right, the Lula regime faced criticism from opposition parties, mainly the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) led by former president Ferdinand Henrique Cardoso, and the PFL (Partido da Frente Liberal), "a radical right wing with an old fashioned anticommunist discourse."

Opposition from the Left

The strongest criticism, Pinto said, "came from the left." She estimated the left wing of the PT at 30% of the PT representatives in congress. They are particularly strong in the south of Brazil, "where the PT is really very important and has been in local government for years." Pinto said there is also a strong Trotskyist group in Porte Alegro, Socialist Democracy (DS), affiliated with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, which is also critical of Lula from the left.

The hope of the PT far left and of Socialist Democracy, Pinto said, was that Lula's election would result in "renationalization of big companies, telephone, communications, renationalization of banks, radical agrarian reform. A break with the IMF and the World Bank. The radicals were waiting for this."

The Communist left wing is somewhat different. "It never accepted the PT, because the PT never accepted communism as a solution."

The intellectual left wing is not a party group. "They are mostly in universities. They can write for newspapers, are well known, they speak on television."

Opposition from the Right

The right wing, Professor Pinto said, "feared exactly what the radical left wanted to do." On the whole, however, the groups to the right of the PT are less vociferous than their left-wing counterparts. "The PSDB today mounts a very mild opposition, while the PFL, which is now out of government, is moving toward an alliance with the PT." Intellectuals of the right include some former Workers Party figures. "They say things like, 'I know that the PT is Leninist.' They write for important newspapers and television. They have some power because they can write and some were once in the PT."

A Dream of Ungovernability

What was really upsetting the critics of left and right? Celi Regina Jardim Pinto put it bluntly:

"There was no 11th September 1973," referring to the bloody U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile and brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. "The PT governed, there was no breakdown, no coup d'etat. For some people from the left of the PT, they felt that if the PT were doing as it should, things wouldn’t be turning out as well as they are. There was a dream of ungovernability. For the far left, the election of Lula should have opened the possibility of revolution. For the right, it should have led to a chance for impeachment or even an institutional breakdown. That didn't happen."

How the Workers Party Was Able to Govern

Why was the expected crisis averted? The Workers Party's own explanation, Pinto said, was that it frequently went over the heads of governmental institutions to mobilize people in the streets, which put pressure of other political actors to step back from moves against the Lula government that they may have contemplated.

The PT had previous experience with this method in local government before 2003. "In the south the PT was in the regional government for four years. There were three or four proposals of impeachment, but it did not happen."

Pinto cited three important elements that facilitated stability in President Lula's first year. These were maintenance of good relations with international financial agencies, the unusually strong institutional character of the Workers Party, and Lula's considerable personal popularity.

On the first, the new government made a decision not to seek a clash with the IMF and the World Bank. "This is not going to change very much in next few years."

The PT as a New Kind of Party

For years many of Brazil's liberal academics had been developing a critique of Brazilian democracy. It suffered, they said, from ideologically and organizationally weak parties easily manipulated by individual leaders. What was needed was a new party system. Most of these critics, Pinto said, "were close to a French tradition of well organized parties."

The Workers Party "in certain ways was the answer to this critique. The PT came from trade unions around Sao Paolo." It was formed around an existing institutional base that was independent of particular party leaders.

At the same time, the PT did not inherit long traditions of political routine as was common in the revivals of democracy in other Latin American countries that had suffered under dictatorships. "The people who founded the party were new to politics, young people, not from other parties." Pinto contrasted this to Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina: "These were all democracies, but old parties became dominant in those countries after the period of dictatorship. In Uruguay it was the traditional Colorados and Blancos. In Argentina it was the Peronists and Radicals. In Chile it was the Christian Democracy and Socialists. In Brazil, there was a new party with a new structure. This party is very strong, this party is present all the time."

Coalition Government

The Workers Party is the largest party in the Brazilian parliament, but is still only one of 19 parties. It holds only 91 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and only 14 of 81 in the Federal Senate. Pinto commented, "It is impossible to run the system without a coalition in parliament." But here the very strength of the Workers Party poses a problem for its president.

"The left wing part of the PT doesn't agree with Lula's coalition in parliament. They say, 'We struggled against these people for 80 years!' Even the PFL now is thinking of joining the government. The problem of Lula is friendly fire from groups inside the PT. The party has a very strong discipline. Sometimes it is called Stalinist or Leninist. That is too strong, but they have strong discipline. Parliamentary fractions must vote the party position or face disciplinary action. Inside the national congress the PT appears as a monolithic bloc."

Lula's Popularity: Is There a Risk of a Populist Dictatorship?

Lula's personal popularity is the third element that in Pinto's view has kept the ship of state afloat. "He was a child from the very poor northeast of Brazil. He came with his mother and seven sisters and brothers. He worked as a boy on the beach, selling things. He became a worker in Volkswagen, a trade union leader, party founder, and president of the republic. He was treated lilke a pop star during his first months in office."

While this wide support helped to bolster the PT government, it has also fostered fears of a populist dictatorship in a model all too familiar to Latin America. Celi Pinto dismissed this as highly unlikely. "There is a very strong, well structured party that supports Lula. I don't know of any experience of a populist leader who came from a strong party. In Latin America the populist dictators came alone and created their own parties. Lula has no power independent of the party, and has to fight within his party to find his space."

Combining Representative Democracy with Participation

Celi Pinto suggested that the use of popular mobilization by the Workers Party opens the possibility of a richer kind of democracy "that can put together the representative model with the participating model. It could institute a social policy that can really promote income distribution."

She was impatient with many of the demands of the far left on the Lula government. She asked rhetorically, "How can we not pay the IMF? How can we not buy from the United States?"

Nevertheless, Pinto conceded that she is frustrated because of the slow pace of meaningful reform. Popular mobilization is sometimes reduced to "a fake participation, inviting people to participate in councils that support government. We need a social policy that can promote income distribution. Growth alone is not enough. We have seen a lot of growth that did not lead to social equality. Thirty million people make less than $1 per day. We need a real social policy, not charity."

One member of the audience asked Pinto why Lula is not doing more for the poor. Her answer was that the government doesn’t have the money to make strong social policies. "It pays a big debt service. We need a big tax reform, and the PT doesn't have the votes in the national congress to do that."

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