Brazil Election: Life Before Debt

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Some 115 million Brazilians go to the polls on 6 October to elect a new president, and various federal and state deputies. The frontrunner for president is the Workers Party (PT) candidate, Lula, with 40 percent support in the polls.

All four candidates call themselves 'social democrats'. However, the 1 million member PT is the only political force closely linked to the unions and popular movements. For this reason Wall Street and the IMF have expressed strong reservations about a PT victory. Despite Lula's agreement with recent IMF dictates to increase debt payments, the international financial community fears he will increase spending, potentially threatening the stranglehold the IMF has on Brazil.

A PT victory would be an inspiration to tens of millions of Brazilians who want a change from the pro-business politics of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an admirer and friend of Tony Blair. Eight years of Cardoso in office have seen wholesale privatisation, mass unemployment and growing income inequality. Yet there are many worrying signs that a PT government would continue the 'business as usual' politics of Cardoso.

The PT still claims to be socialist, but in practice it has grown into a bureaucratic party, increasingly oriented to winning elections. This rightward political drift has only increased as social and economic misery deepens in Latin America's most populous nation.

Twenty years of IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies and neoliberal federal governments have created social and economic apartheid in Brazil. The statistics are chilling. About 20 million people, out of an economically active population of 62 million, are either unemployed or earn less than the $70 a month minimum wage. If we include these people's dependants it adds up to half the population being too poor to give their children a decent upbringing. Brazil is one of the top four worst countries in the world in income inequality, and suffers from a crumbling state education and health sector, and appalling levels of violence.

In response to this brutality the PT has sadly chosen to make a deal with neoliberalism rather than challenge it. This is apparent in the current election campaign.

On the economic front the PT accepts the moderate macroeconomic policy of currency devaluation to encourage exports--a policy that Cardoso adopted with disastrous results. Renationalisation of privatised industries and controls on big capital have been shelved in PT circles. The party is more interested in encouraging 'entrepreneurial spirit' among small and medium scale businesses.

At the state level the PT is pushing participatory budgeting, co-operatives and a people's bank. While socialists support these reforms, they do little to challenge the structures of economic power in capitalism. Looking inward to internal markets fails to confront the awesome power concentrated in the hands of the powerful national and multinational companies which are supported by the IMF and World Bank.

The alarmingly high level of debt also stifles social and economic investment. This is why 5 million Brazilians endorsed non-payment of the debt in a plebiscite organised by the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in 2000. A similar plebiscite in the first week of September 2002 produced similar results, yet this time the PT leadership not only refused to endorse the campaign but discouraged its militants from participating. Once in favour of a moratorium on debt payment, the PT now merely calls for its renegotiation.

From its origins as a party 'expressing' movements, the PT has distanced itself considerably from its base. As a mainstream newspaper headline recently put it, 'The PT Professionalises, Grows And Throws Aside The Social Movements'. If party leaders rhetorically express support for the movements, they also routinely chastise militant occupations of land and buildings by the MST as detrimental to the PT's respectable image.

One of the most worrying developments in the campaign is the PT's alliance with the Liberal Party (PL). From working class political independence in the 1980s, we now see the PT willing to make electoral alliances with right wing parties. Lula's vice-presidential running mate is PL president José Alencar, a prominent textile magnate. Carlos Alberto Martianano, local union president in one of Alencar's factories, stated, 'When Lula was in the factory with José Alencar, I thought, what is he doing here with the boss of the company? How do we explain to the workers that a person who represents their dreams of change is walking around with the boss?'

It is ironic that at the very time the PT is moderating its politics, militant anti-capitalist movements across Latin America have arisen to defy neoliberalism. The workers and peasants in Bolivia and Ecuador defeated privatisation, and the tremendous demonstrations and 'panelaÁos' of Argentina threaten to turn the tide of the offensive against workers and the poor in that country.

Instead of helping to build and extend radical challenges to capitalism, as it promised during its first years of existence, the PT has opted for solely winning elections. Small wonder that it has recently earned the nickname 'PT Light' among even sympathetic observers.

Activists in the unions and popular movements will welcome a victory for Lula. Proposed funding boosts to education, health and the minimum wage have attracted much support. But it is also clear that activists will need to continue fighting the neoliberal agenda even after a PT victory. As César Benjamin, a leading activist in the Popular Consultation Movement, says in a critique of the party, 'We should no longer think of society as it is nor how it appears, but what it can be.'