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Chained to the Magus

Tom Hennigan writes from São Paulo: In the end Brazil’s democratic defences did not hold. The disarray in the country’s politics (see “A Killer for President” blog post, Septmber 15th) opened up too many breeches through which the far right has now stormed to seize power for the first time via the ballot box. Come January 1st, Jair Bolsonaro will be president.

His dismal campaign confirmed two salient facts, that he and his inner circle have no real commitment to democracy or civic discourse, and that Bolsonaro himself has little fixed idea about how to govern Brazil, bringing to the job no serious intellectual analysis of the problems he now faces, just a burning conviction that because he is a good honest soldier things can only get better once he is in charge. For all his novelty, he is another iteration of that very Latin phenomenon ‑ the national saviour stepping forward at a time of crisis to humbly offer his services so the pátria can finally realise its glorious destiny. This never ends well; just ask Venezuelans.



There is much blame to be spread around for this disaster, which sees a country that until recently was a beacon for progressives around the world, turn to the worst sort of reactionary populist. The corruption of the entire traditional political class, its responsibility for the economy’s longest ever recession and an immoral indifference to the eternal crisis in public security help explain the rise of Bolsonaro as voters, fed-up, furious, desperate, turned to someone who genuinely sounded like he meant it when he promised to do away with this bleak status quo.

But with less than a month to go before the first round of voting Bolsonaro was the choice of just a quarter of voters surveyed by pollsters. So how did he end up winning an absolute majority? In large part because of the campaign of the Workers Party and its leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In 2016 his party experienced its annus horribilis. Dilma Rousseff’s agony in the presidency ended with her removal from office in May of that year and in October the party took a historic beating in midterm elections, the results of which left as an open question its future viability as a major political force. The two years since have brought little relief, with Lula himself convicted and jailed for corruption. In spite of this he was nevertheless able to orchestrate a successful rearguard action whose immediate goal was to preserve as much of his party’s political capital as possible in a hostile environment and maintain its hegemony over the broader left. In this he has succeeded, while easing the path of Bolsonaro to the presidency.

From prison Lula worked ruthlessly to ensure his sometime allies in the Brazilian Socialist Party would remain neutral in the presidential race, thus cutting the legs from under his own former minister Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party. He had hoped to run with the backing of both the Socialists and the Workers Party. Some of the latter’s chieftains had wanted to back Ciro as the progressive candidate best placed to beat off Bolsonaro’s insurgency. Early polls showed he was competitive, especially in run-off simulations against Bolsonaro. But Lula’s determination to preserve as much of his party delegation in congress and maintain dominance over the left demanded that the Workers Party run its own candidate and Ciro be isolated even if polling indicated that by doing so the party risked giving Bolsonaro the second round match-up of his dreams, running against it.

The party’s candidate ended up being Fernando Haddad, as decent and moderate a politician as Brazil could hope to have lead it. He stepped in to replace Lula after he was barred by the courts because of his corruption conviction. Lula’s star power, especially among the destitute masses of the poor northeast of the country, allied with the Workers Party’s organisational heft, ensured that in the first round of voting Haddad eased past Ciro to qualify for the run-off against Bolsonaro. But perhaps even more importantly the Workers Party, though it saw its vote drop, managed to maintain its position as the largest party in congress, thus ensuring important privileges in the new legislature and a significant chunk of public campaign financing in future elections to go with a reasonable bloc of time in party political broadcasts on television and radio.

But winning what was essentially a primary of the left was poor preparation for securing an overall majority in a climate that all polls show has been consistently hostile to the Workers Party since Rousseff’s presidency began to curdle. The limits of Lula’s strategy were exposed before the first round concluded. Haddad’s rise in the polls, along with his refusal (probably under orders) to admit any party responsibility for the economic disaster caused by Rousseff’s ruinous economic experimentation, his insistence that Lula is a political prisoner, his generalised pandering to the party’s base, only reinforced Bolsonaro’s position that he was the best guarantee of preventing the reds returning to power. If Lula’s Haddad strategy did for Ciro’s chances, Haddad’s subsequent rise in the polls also killed off any lingering chances that the plodding social democrat Geraldo Alckmin, the epitome of a dull technocrat running in the wrong election at the wrong time, could hold the centre against the rise of the far-right. Faced with the possible return of the unreconstructed Workers Party many centrist voters fled further right. For Lula this was necessary. Facing a centrist would have left Haddad at a far greater disadvantage than standing as the last line of defence against a demagogue. But a Haddad-Bolsonaro match-up was exactly what Bolsonaro sought as well. Much of his rise is explained by fears of an unrepentant Workers Party, a party that appears to have forgotten nothing or learnt anything since its ejection from power, retaking the presidency. So by forcing his party past Ciro into the second round Lula ensured Bolsonaro got the match-up he wanted, nay one that justified his whole candidacy for millions.

As the second round got under way it became obvious that what the Workers Party had done to qualify out of the first round at the expense of Ciro probably ensured it lost the second. It had secured its base ‑ and primacy of the left ‑ but had done nothing like enough to make the prospect of winning in the second look likely. The three weeks leading up to the run-off saw Haddad’s campaign message almost drowned out by the sound of chickens coming home to roost.

That Lula is a political prisoner is an article of faith among his militants but a notion dismissed by the majority of the population as nonsense. After the first round Haddad stopped his weekly visits to Lula’s cell to discuss strategy, but it was already too late. For too many Brazilians he was little more than a Trojan Horse whose election would see real power return to a man in jail for corruption. Between the two votes Haddad also dropped a half-baked plan to entrench “popular sovereignty” and “social control” over institutions ‑ concepts that reeked of chavismo to many Brazilians ‑ and sought to dump the rehash of Rousseff’s failed policies that passed as his initial economic plan. He also began to tentatively admit that maybe she was somewhat responsible for the country’s longest ever recession and that some corruption might have taken place during the party’s thirteen years in government. But it all smacked of opportunism and desperation, too little too late, and a majority of voters were not buying it.

If Lula and his party calculated that the threat represented by Bolsonaro would force all democrats of good will to rally, however reluctantly, around an unrepentant Workers Party if for no other reason than to prevent an unhinged demagogue coming to power they were proved to be painfully mistaken. Haddad’s effort to secure an endorsement from former president and social democrat grandee Fernando Henrique Cardoso ended in failure. He laid much of the structural groundwork for the economic successes enjoyed by the Lula presidency, but Lula, for narrow political reasons, would never allow a statesmanly acknowledgement of this and instead always spoke of his “damned inheritance” on taking office. This has clearly rankled with the somewhat vain Cardoso ever since and when Haddad came looking for his endorsement he was very publicly told where to go.

Environmentalist Marina Silva, who had seen her third presidential bid once again disintegrate before the first round took place, was more generous. Despite the brutal and deeply unfair treatment she received at the hands of Rousseff in 2014’s election she did endorse Haddad. But she did so only days before the vote in a move that looked more about preserving her own democratic bona fides than actually trying to help her former cabinet colleague win. A similarly bruised Ciro likewise endorsed Haddad. But, repaying in kind Lula’s refusal to allow his party support his once promising bid, Ciro now refused to be a subordinate in a Workers Party-led “democratic front” against Bolsonaro. After his elimination he pledged a “critical support” for Haddad in the second round but immediately jetted off to Europe with his family rather than return to the campaign trail in support of Haddad. His brother Cid, just elected senator, did campaign but in one of the race’s most dramatic moments he was caught on video at a rally arguing with Workers Party supporters, telling them that their failure to conduct any self-criticism after the disastrous end of the Rousseff administration had helped “create” Bolsonaro and meant they would “lose ugly”. The video quickly became a much shared Bolsonaro campaign clip.

The impression that is left after the second round is that the Workers Party has lost the ability to engage broader Brazilian society in dialogue. It is now paying the price for retreating into the comforts of talking to itself, still claiming that Rousseff’s impeachment was a “coup”, the recession she provoked the responsibility of its opponents and that its leadership is not corrupt but rather the victim of a vast conspiracy involving police, federal prosecutors, judges, media and whoever else you like. This is red meat for the militants but most Brazilians are not having it. The disconnect with reality is just too glaring. How to take seriously warnings from the Workers Party about the authoritarian risk posed by Bolsonaro when it still defends the increasingly bloody dictatorships of allies in Venezuela and Nicaragua? Bolsonaro is a real risk to Brazilian democracy and rule of law, but the Workers Party is a poor vehicle for communicating this so long as it insists on serving up to a sceptical public self-serving political fantasy as truth.

Thus by forcing its way into the run-off the Workers Party ensured that better-placed candidates of the centre and centre-left who polls showed would defeat Bolsonaro in a run-off never got a chance to do so. It is every party’s right in a democracy to contest elections, but if the threat Bolsonaro represents is as grave as Workers Party leaders claim why did they not step aside and instead support a progressive who had a better chance than it did of defeating him? By refusing to do so Lula has helped deliver up Brazil to Bolsonaro, his bastard heir.

Maybe Lula and the Workers Party miscalculated in thinking the risk the former army captain represented meant enough of the population would however reluctantly swallow them one more time. Or maybe there was no miscalculation. Lula has accomplished the primary task of preserving the party’s position as a major political force with the largest delegation in congress, four state governorships and prevented ‑ for now ‑ the emergence of a serious rival on the left. It remains a serious step down from where it stood just five years ago but none of this looked a given after the mid-term rout in 2016. The presidency might always have been a bridge too far in an unfavourable cycle. One hears that some in the party did not even think it wise to win this year. Better let a hubristic far right blow itself out and wait for the inherently contradictory and unstable Bolsonaro phenomenon to implode, allowing for another attempt on power in more favourable conditions in a few years’ time.

As a strategy this might sound cynical ‑ especially as Bolsonaro has displayed zero interest in tackling Brazil’s social injustices, the Workers Party’s raison d’être ‑ and it plays with the risk of authoritarianism. What if Bolsonaro does not allow another vote in a few years’ time? Or only after he has fulfilled his promise to wipe “red bandits” from the map? But the strategy has ensured the immediate future of the Workers Party, in contrast to its great rival the Social Democrats, which emerged from the election in far worse shape and now looks like a busted flush.

But this does not end the debate about whether the party should conduct a self-criticism about its past errors. To do so will be very difficult, if for no other reason than that it risks being seen as acknowledging the conviction of Lula and other leaders for corruption as sound. But without one the party risks limiting its future potential. Brazilians have demonstrated they prefer to bar the return of an unrepentant Workers Party to power even at the risk of putting an authoritarian in charge instead. The trauma of the final years of the Rousseff administration runs deep and the comrades would do well not to underestimate it or assume it will be forgiven in a hurry. Bolsonaro might very well fail but it is not a given that should he do so the Workers Party will see power fall back into its lap. Ciro has returned from Europe, still reeking of hurt at his treatment from Lula and is now busily launching himself as the leader of the opposition to Bolsonaro. His task will be easier if the Workers Party sticks to its refusal to conduct any sort of self-criticism. But whether the party can start such a process remains unclear so long as it remains in thrall to its jailed Magus.

1/11/2018