Brazilian Elections: Labor Pain?

By: Felipe Amin Filomeno, guest scholar at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 

In 1992, on the eve of the arrival of neoliberal elites to power in Brazil, renowned economist Celso Furtado published a book titled “Brazil: the interrupted construction”. The title was suggestive enough because neoliberalism implied the abandonment of the development project based on the consolidation of the Brazilian nation-state as well as on the expansion of the domestic market that had prevailed since the 1930s. Indeed, despite the ebbing of inflation, economic stability and improvements in some privatized public services, neoliberal reforms adopted in the 1990s had a high social cost for Brazilians. Toward the end of the decade, economic recession, unemployment and a deterioration of the public health and education systems had shrunkthe popularity of President Cardoso and compromised the continuity of neoliberal reforms. In the first decade of the twenty first century, the national-developmentalist construction was resumed with the election of Lula to the Brazilian presidency. Lulismo recovered the process of national economic development and created an expanded notion of citizenship based on social rights and mass consumption for the lower classes. Lula paved the way for the election of incumbent President Dilma Rousseff in 2010. Rousseff has given continuity to Lula’s policies under an adverse global context, but by mixed results.

In the recently concluded elections of 2014, the threat of a new “interrupted construction” was very strong. On one hand, Rousseff’s victory in the October 26th presidential runoff points out to the persistence of the national-developmentalist construction. On the other hand, the new composition of the National Congress – with a larger presence of conservative forces – now imposes a serious limit on the continuity of the Lulista development cycle. It is my argument here that the tight victory of President Rousseff in the runoff and the parliamentary electoral results likely mean the exhaustion of Lulismo and almost guarantee the need for new political strategies and new development policies on the part of the new administration led by the Workers’ Party (PT). Now, either the PT will be able to turn the difficult elections of 2014 into a “labor pain” from which a new social pact for development could emerge, or it will see a revitalized President Rousseff immobilized in the face of stronger conservative forces waiting for a new “interrupted construction.”

 The mass street protests of 2013 – the Jornadas de Junho – were the first major sign of the beginning of the end of Lulismo, which isunderstood here both as a political pact and a development strategy. By that year, the favorable global economic conditions that had favored the expansive economic and social policies sponsored by Lula had been replaced by a deepening global economic crisis. On the domestic level, the adjustments introduced by Dilma in Lula’spublic policies became merely marginal or contingent, such as temporary tax breaks and improvements in existing social programs. In 2014, the increasingly sharp democratic demands on the part of an empowered citizenry and the deficit of a meaningful representation of the presence of its spirit in the country’s traditional political institutions created a fertile soil for the emergence of the populist candidacy of Marina Silva. An environmentalist activist and former member of the PT, Marina Silva began her presidential campaign as the running mate of Eduardo Campos, who was the governor of the state of Pernambuco and presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB). After Campos died in a plane crash, Silva became the presidential candidate of the PSB. She proposed the pursuit of “new politics” that would overcome the decades-long polarization between the PT and the Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Her discourse emphasized a direct connection between the government and civil society and the need to save the country; her slogan was “We will not give up on Brazil”. Being a charismatic figure with a discourse for change, Silva attracted a large part of the electorate. Opinion polls indicated that she would pass the first round of elections and face the runoff against President Rousseff. The ambiguities of her project, however, were well exposed by the electoral campaign of the PT. Silva defended a re-approximation with Western powers and policies that pleased financial markets at the same time that she promised to enhance welfare programs. A Brazilian electorate made more mature and well informed after years of old fashioned democracy got the PT’s message and finally rejected Silva’s populist spell in the first round of presidential trials. It was Senator Aécio Neves, candidate of the PSDB, and President Rousseff who were ultimately chosen to dispute the presidency in the runoff. As a leader of the conservative opposition, Neves had the support of the corporate media and was favored by a general – yet diffuse – desire for change on the part of the population.

In an electoral runoff stirred by the PT and the PSDB, the general aspiration for change, which was the common denominator of the mass mobilizations of 2013, was replaced by a polarization between regions, social classes and generations. The opinion polls showed a clear preference for Neves among the upper-middle and upper classes, whereas Rousseff had more support among the lower classes. Neves had an advantage in the more affluent South and Southeast regions, while Rousseff had the lead in the Northeast of the country. The polls also indicated that Neves had more support among young voters (who were maybe too young to remember the social costs of the neoliberalism of the late 1990s). After the election, the regional distribution of votes confirmed the divisions suggested by the polls. Rousseff enjoyed large victories in several of the poorer states of the Northeast, whereas Neves won in São Paulo and other affluent states of the South (even if losing in his home state of Minas Gerais, in the Southeast).

During the runoff electoral campaign, the right wing constituency was loudly heard on the streets and in social networks, motivated by the real possibility of victory. In the Lula years, the right wing had been cornered due to the good economic and social results of government policies and remained locked in a hypocritical discourse over corruption. One of the main victories of Lula’s presidential coalition-building was the isolation and atrophy of the right wing Party of the Liberal Front (PFL, now called “the Democrats”). The PFL had been a major partner during the administration of President Cardoso in the 1990s. Under Lula, it was reduced to a runt party. This does not mean that the right wing was absent under Lula; it was just put on the defensive since anti-PT sentiment had always been present in the corporate media and in the social circles of the upper classes. Nevertheless, in the end, the conservative forces lost the 2014 presidential run with the victory of President Rousseff and her center-left coalition.

In a global and national context of economic difficulties, in a country polarized by an aggressive electoral campaign, and with a more conservative parliament now to hold office, it is imperative that President Rousseff overcomes Lulismo if she wants to sustain Brazil’s recent trajectory of national development. Rousseff will have to be innovative with the political strategies, if she hopes to build a direct dialogue with the civil society and mobilizing the masses. Otherwise, she will become hostage of opportunistic politicians in the framework of “presidentialism of co-optation for governability” that was established by Lula. Rousseff will also have to innovate in the content of public policies. She will need a more radical reform agenda that goes beyond the social-democratic Keynesianism that Lula used to circumvent class struggle with economic growth. “Change more” (Muda mais) – the slogan of Rousseff’s campaign – will not be sufficient if inscribed in a logic of incrementalism and marginal adjustments in public policies and political strategy. In her first speeches after the election, the President stated that the priority of her second term will be a political reform to reduce the deficit of representation of Brazilian political institutions. This suggests that Rousseff is aware of the need to renovate policies and politics, since the political reform is the “mother” of other reforms. Shortly after, however, the Congress revoked a presidential decree issued by Rousseff earlier this year that had enhanced thespheres for participatory democracy existing in the federal government. This clash is an early indicator of the tough times that may lie ahead for Brazilian politics.

Felipe Amin Filomeno, Ph.D. in Sociology (Johns Hopkins University), Assistant Professor of Political Science University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and guest scholar at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs 


Featured Image by: Agência Brasi. Taken from:

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