Brazil’s Rousseff Re-elected Despite Anti-Workers’ Party Sentiment: What Now?

The last polls before the second round of Brazilian elections indicated a victory for Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), with Aécio Neves, from the centre-right PSDB, trailing closely behind. This was within the reported margin of error and Sunday’s results could not be confidently predicted until the official announcement of Rousseff’s re-election. This is the tightest presidential race for the Workers’ Party in 12 years and the reasons for this are varied and relate both to the reality of Brazilian politics post-June 2013 and the impact of 12 years of PT government on the imaginary of the Brazilian people.

Rousseff is not the only one to take on many challenges as the president of Brazil for the next four years. The PT needs to decide where it stands both as political party and as government leadership. The radical Left parties and social movements need to organize as opposition in ways that promote immediate gains as well as long-term ones. Finally, the problem of depoliticization needs to be taken seriously by all of these actors if the country is to avoid another close encounter with an openly neoliberal and conservative alternative in four years.

The meaning of four more years with Rousseff

Without the advantage of a comfortable victory, Rousseff needs to first and foremost identify ways for reconciling the opposing groups that went head to head during the heated second-round. Such a move would involve reducing the disturbing reactions of the losing side, which have involved racist and xenophobic comments, and the anti-dialogical position promoted by the mainstream media’s blunt support of Neves. Rousseff’s victory speech attended to these aspects by focusing on dialogue, hope, and political maturity. She stressed that she does not believe the elections have split the country in half, although it is evident that she will have to deal with the impacts of the heated polarization of the past months throughout the next four years; calls for consensus will not be enough. Rousseff will also be dealing with a very conservative Congress, which may pose challenges for her campaign promises to expand social rights through inclusion and listen to social movements and popular demands.

She will also be dealing with an energetic opposition from the Left, mainly radical leftist parties, organizations, and movements that believe Rousseff and PT can no longer claim to represent the Left and that Rousseff’s re-election is only a victory insofar as it meant Neves’ defeat. In fact, the socialist political parties PSTU and PCB urged the population to annul their votes given the very few differences between Rousseff and Neves’ political projects and the years of disappointing neoliberal and harmful neo-developmentalist policies on behalf of the PT. The PSOL oriented the 1.6 million people who voted for their presidential candidate Luciana Genro to freely choose between Rousseff and annulling their votes, as long as no vote would go to Neves. In many ways, any support for Rousseff coming from the radical Left was accompanied by explicit critique of the PT and framed as a direct veto to Neves and his policies, which culminated in the campaign pun “Aécio Never.” PSOL’s national veto position and the direct engagement by some of its public figures in support of Rousseff may have actually contributed to some of the votes that decided the presidential race.

Aside from movements and organizations in the Left that have maintained a more paternalist relationship with the PT, there are no illusions in the radical Left regarding Rousseff’s ability to take the country in a more progressive direction. General projects related to security policy, public service investment, and development promoted during Rousseff’s campaign indicate a high level of continuity of failed governmental politics under both right-wing and left-wing administrations in Brazil. One example is Rousseff’s insistence on a militarized approach to public security that has consistently targeted poor black youth and failed to promote alternatives to the costly and problematic war on drugs. This insistence comes despite strong cries from the masses for demilitarizing the police institutions and for more socio-educational approaches to crime prevention. The dilemma that established Rousseff as the ‘least worst’ candidate is illustrated through such issues, since Neves’ proposals dared to deepen these policies and complement them with private prisons and the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility to sixteen years old. Other failed policies or lack of action by Rousseff and the PT relate to women’s reproductive rights, agrarian reform, urban reform, concrete action against homophobia, and any effort to address the impacts of president Lula’s disastrous social security reform during his first term in office.

Anti-PT sentiment

Rousseff’s campaign found its main challenges in the ever more visible anti-PT sentiment fed by the mainstream media and right-wing parties, as well as the consolidation of conservatism beyond the rich elites and class divides. Anti-PT sentiment or “antipetismo” is somewhat of a constant in Brazilian journalism and opinion builders and dates back to opposition to Lula’s social programmes and the lively coverage of corruption scandals involving PT members. In June 2013, the most massive protests were populated with loud voices against corruption, which, in a moralist turn, were easily swayed into antipetismo and authoritarian calls for Rousseff’s impeachment and the extinction of the party.

Yet, aside from immediate policy measures proposed by Rousseff at the time to address the crowds and the promise of political reform, the PT has arguably done very little to fight the growth of anti-PT ideology and its implications for Brazilian democracy. Up until now, signs of antipetismo could be easily addressed through the power of Lula’s persona and the party’s appeal in terms of social mobility. One of the differences this time around, however, is that social mobility experienced by parts of the middle class, especially related to inclusion through increased consumption and access to credit, was counterbalanced by the reach of conservatism and the moralist opposition to corruption into groups previously benefitted by Lula, Rousseff, and the PT.

Media democratization, a strong demand by the progressive voices in June 2013, would help to address one of the main sources of anti-PT sentiment and the depoliticized polarization produced by the corporate media both daily and during elections. The matter has been largely neglected by the PT governments, although this is expected to change after Rousseff’s strong response to the attempts by the corporate media, especially the very anti-PT magazine Veja, to associate her and Lula with a major corruption scandal at Petrobras just days before the election.

Moreover, anti-PT sentiment and its ideological reach has impoverished the political debate for a few elections now and it certainly configured the polarization between Rousseff and Neves as a choice between the PT and the anti-PT for many. This also impacted the official televised debates between the two candidates, which devolved into accusations and negative personal exchanges on some occasions. In fact, most of the time the debates were less about political discussions of pressing issues in Brazilian society and more about drawing a divide between what was the PT’s political project and what an anti-PT project would look like.

Instead of allowing for deeper analyses through the presence of only two candidates, the second round of debates was outshone by the first round and the concrete challenges posited by the Left through Luciana Genro, as well as Zé Maria and Mauro Iasi (outside of the televised debates) – and, sometimes, even by Eduardo Jorge (Green Party), who would eventually support Neves in the runoff. Eventually, antipetismo forced the radical Left organizations to position themselves in opposition to the PT but also tread carefully in order to also deconstruct antipetismo, as it resonated with a broader hostility to a more authentic leftist project. The depoliticization neglected by the PT has been a problem not only for the party, but also for all other progressive projects that may stand much further to the left than the PT itself.

June 2013: separating the Left from the Right among contradictions

The protests from June 2013 were not homogeneous in any way, and attempts to define them as such have failed either in relation to the loud conservatism experienced in Brazil today, or to the moderate gains made by the radical Left in the elections or in activist struggles. It is more appropriate to look at how the heterogeneity of that time, which culminated in depoliticized cacophony at its peak but evolved from very politicized struggles and informed new ones, impacted the 2014 elections. This heterogeneity helps to explain why the dispute between Rousseff and Neves ended up settled by only a few million votes.

One example is how June 2013 protests spoke against homophobia and religious fundamentalism, consolidated in the leadership of congressman Marco Feliciano, yet could not curb the growth of the fundamentalist group in these elections, including Feliciano’s own re-election. What should be noted in this regard is how much fundamentalist leaderships have intensified their political interventions and campaign support in 2014 in reaction to cries for LGBTT rights in Brazil and a clear separation between the state and religion. Battles such as these occur at a higher level than the electoral arena, as the politicization over identity rights is a lengthy process and requires reaching into spaces where religious leaders have been hegemonic for decades. While fundamentalism strongly supported Neves in the presidential race, LGBTT advocates in Brazil supported Rousseff with caution, given that her administration has been silent on many issues and actually obstructed anti-homophobia initiatives.

At the same time that June 2013 energized protests against the World Cup – the aftermath of which Rousseff still has not properly addressed in terms of negative impacts and rights violations – it also created a strangely dubious space where a more privileged crowd could criticize the PT for the World Cup expenditures while enjoying the live games and the infrastructure designed for a minority. This contradiction is also found in other areas of Rousseff’s government policies, such as the university exchange program Science Without Borders, which has largely benefitted middle-class and upper middle-class students who, on the other hand, accuse the PT from attacking meritocracy through affirmative action initiatives. This is also found in the mystique built around the Mais Médicos social program, which involves a partnership between Brazil and Cuba implemented to address vague calls for better healthcare made during June 2013. Whereas Rousseff has vowed to expand the program, her critics continue to oppose it in a blend of xenophobic claims and anti-Cuba ideology. Medical student groups and medical doctor groups came out in support of Neves as a response.

In a way, reactionary responses to the positive excesses of June (and even reactionary voices already present in June embodied in moralist anti-corruption calls) empowered those who identify as more progressive, even if not PT supporters, to veto Neves in order to prevent overt presidential endorsement of the politics of the enlarged conservative congress base. This has also led to questions for the radical Left on how to defeat antipetismo for its anti-democratic facet while maintaining a leftist opposition to Rousseff. For a social movement such as the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), which has grown in visibility since June 2013, this meant a direct recognition that Rousseff may not take June much further, but Neves would mean the retraction of any concrete gains and the creation of new barriers for popular intervention in the state. Therefore, even if the polarization between the PT and the PSDB was depoliticized at the mass level, it was the source of important reflections for progressive opposition to the PT in the streets, whether this opposition endorsed a Rousseff vote or an annulled vote.

Political reform may define Rousseff’s second term

Speaking of the prominent themes of change and reform evoked during the elections, Rousseff emphasized her focus on political reform during her victory speech. This is a proposal she has taken forward since June 2013 through the possibility of a plebiscite. Right-wing outrage at the proposal helped to bury the theme in the priorities of the president, only to arise again during the campaign and the realization of an informal popular plebiscite for political reform by civil society this September. Rousseff has promised to make the realization of an official plebiscite for political reform a priority in her second term, possibly already in the first semester of 2015.

The PT will find support for this proposal from within the radical Left, as well as from moderate right-wing actors. Ultimately, the plebiscite may also help to push the Workers’ Party away from ambiguity as a historically leftist party that now plays into the status quo as a party of order. If Rousseff’s political reform plebiscite manages to tend to matters such as campaign financing, media democratization, gender parity, and electoral structure, the pluriparty system in Brazil will also be re-organized and coalitions of interest, which the PT have negotiated well so far, will lose value. Then, the question for the PT will be: does it return to the Left or does it complete the neoliberal transition towards the Right? Rousseff and the PT will then have to take sides that go beyond the PT x PSDB rivalry, but speak to long-term political projects for Brazilian society.

(First published on Upside Down World)