The left and the crisis of the Lula government

Issue: 108

Paulo Trinidade, Rui Polly and Sérgio Dominguez

Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) government in Brazil was hit by a devastating political crisis over the summer. The government, which was seen by much of the international anti-neoliberal movement as offering new hope when it was elected three years ago, caused disillusion among many activists when it attacked the pensions of state employees two years ago and expelled three PT deputies and a senator for refusing to vote for the attacks. Now revelations about the corrupt use of government and big business money to bribe members of other parties has destroyed its claim to represent a break with the corruption and clientilism that has characterised the country’s other mainstream parties.

Here are extracts from analyses of the new political crisis translated from articles in the Sao Paulo revolutionary magazine Revolutas, which is produced by a group of activists within the new PSOL party.

‘All that is solid melts into air.’ This phrase of Marx expresses the political situation we are in. The denunciations of corruption by the ultra-corrupt Roberto Jefferson have caused a political earthquake that in a few weeks has entrapped the Lula government and engulfed the PT in the biggest crisis in its history.

The crisis is revealing the degree of decomposition and degeneration of the PT, uncovering in detail the mechanisms of corruption involving PT leaders, government functionaries and businessmen. The consequences of the present crisis are unforeseeable, and the attitude of socialists to this situation must be based on a careful analysis which takes into account the particularities of the crisis as well as its potentialities and possibilities.

It would be rash to say in advance that the crisis will have positive consequences involving a shift to the left by the masses. Some facts have to be taken into account. The crisis was unleashed and fed by the forces of the right and the corporate mass media, which played a key role in the exposure of corruption. The enfeebling of the PT and of the Lula government is not the fruit of a political advance on the part of the mass of workers. It is not based on a political critique of the PT government, but on one restricted to the moral terrain. And the immediate effect of the crisis on thousands of left militants has been perplexity, confusion and demoralisation.

Those defenders of Lula and the PT who see the crisis as an attempt at a ‘silent coup’ by the right are wrong. From the beginning the right adopted a strategy of ‘bleeding’ the PT but at the same time striving to preserve ‘governability’, which means basically keeping Lula in office until the end of his mandate so as to preserve finance minister Palocci’s neo-liberal economic policy.

The crisis so far is a political crisis affecting mainly the PT and the Lula government, but it is not yet an institutional crisis—though there is a strong possibility of its transformation into one. The unfolding of the crisis in recent weeks, with denunciations involving politicians from the PFL, PP and PSDB parties, shows that this is a real possibility. As new revelations occur and investigations proceed, it becomes ever-clearer that the web of corruption involves all the major parties.

At the same time, an attempt by the right parties to impeach Lula would signify an intensification of the political crisis. There is no doubt the Lula government is making plans to besmirch the investigation at the same time as shifting the focus away from the PT by spreading the mud to the other parties. It is known that the government has evidence that incriminates the previous Cardoso government and thus the PSDB. For the moment the sectors who want to push impeachment are in a minority.

The Lula government’s initial response to the crisis was to try to stifle discussions and stop the inquiry. But as more and more revelations came to light, directly involving the minister José Dirceu and PT leaders like Silvio Pereira and Delúbio Soares, this approach had to be rapidly abandoned. The resignation of Dirceu and changes in the leadership of the PT, such as the removal of José Genoíno, Silvio Pereira and Delúbio Soares, were an attempt to scapegoat. But the result was to put the party itself in the limelight. It exposed the PT to profound demoralisation, ruining its reputation as the party that defended ‘ethics in government’. And it did not stop the torrent of revelations involving the government and other PT deputies.

At the same time Lula reshuffled the government, sacrificing some important ministers and increasing the participation of the right wing PMDB party. Lula accepted the PMDB’s precondition to any negotiations—that he keep to the existing neo-liberal economic policy. There has been a deepening of the conservative character of the government, a turn further to the right illustrated by discussions over the proposal for a ‘nominal zero’ budgetary deficit made by a former minister of the military regime, Delgin Meto.

This turn to the right in the face of the crisis is contrary to the expectations of those on the left who have supported the Lula government, but it is a logical consequence of the direction taken by the government since the beginning. The political crisis and the search for ‘governability’ at any cost have pushed the government not to the left, but to the right.

Recently Lula has signalled a sort of ‘return to his base’ by taking part in events in which he comes into direct contact with workers. This has led to accusations from sections of the right of a supposed ‘Chavism’ by him, in allusion to the president of Venezuela. His actions, however, are far from any type of ‘Chavism’, and simply play a marketing role as he attempts to strengthen himself among the densely populated sectors from which most of his support comes.

Popular support for Lula continues to be high if we take into account the scale of the crisis. The most recent opinion poll showed that Lula would be the victorious candidate were an election to be held today. In another opinion poll 87 percent recognised there was corruption in the Lula government, while he got the highest support (19 percent) for being the ‘most honest politician’. Although Lula is indissolubly linked to the PT, his popular penetration is much wider than that of the party. In the 2002 elections the PT got 20 percent of the votes, while Lula got nearly 50 percent in the first round. Support for Lula is greatest in the most populous, poorest layers of society.

An important feature of the crisis was the action of the social movements (the MST landless movement, the coordination of popular movements, the UNE student union, the World March of Women, sectors of the Catholic church) in launching a ‘Letter to the Brazilian People’ in which they expressed their support for the government at the same time as putting forward a list of demands including the exclusion of all the conservative ministers from the government, and a call for a change in economic policy.

These movements mobilised 20,000 people round this letter at the beginning of July. However, the deepening of the crisis, the revelations that led to the purging of key figures from the PT leadership and, above all, the increased participation of the PMDB in the government made the movement drop the claim that the talk of corruption was merely an attempt at a sort of coup by the right. Three weeks after the release of the letter, Joáo Pedro Stedile of the MST declared that ‘only a movement of the masses is capable of getting the country out of the political crisis and constructing a new project of development’. Asked if this was still possible for the Lula government, he replied, ‘Not for this government. It’s finished.’ He told the paper Folho de Sao Paulo (26 July) that he thought the crisis would be ‘serious and prolonged’ and ‘pointed to the economic policy as the reason the population has not taken to the streets in support of the PT government’.

His words signified a shift in the policies of the social movements. They called a demonstration for 16 August demanding a ‘clearing up of corruption and a reform of the political system’. Their demand is not ‘Lula out’. However, the emphasis of these movements is no longer support for the government but pressure for changes, principally as regards economic policy and punishment for those involved in corruption. This reveals the living contradictions within the social movements controlled by pro-government leaders. There is clearly pressure from a rank and file discontented with the policies of the Lula government and taking a hard stand in the face of corruption. The bureaucratic leaders of the movements cannot control their rank and file. These leaders continue to give unconditional support to the government, but at the same time they attack the pillars of ‘governability’ on which Lula rests. This is an unmistakeable sign of the erosion of the Lula government’s base, principally among militants who are active in the social movements.

The revelations about the PT have had the effect of a political tsunami on the militancy of its supporters—not only the militancy of those who are organically part of the party, but also the militancy of those at the base of the social movements who have seen the PT as their political reference point. But it would be wrong to say that the PT is finished. Reformism has a social base and articulates a complex system which involves not only the party structure but a social base controlled by bureaucratic leaderships.

For its part, the non-governmental social left has taken important initiatives. The PSOL has stood out by its initiatives in the present crisis, mainly through the activities of senator Heloisa Helena. We have taken part in the activities alongside other sections of the radical left. We have adopted the correct line of linking corruption to economic policy. But at the same time it is necessary to recognise these are still marginal activities that involve sections of the vanguard rather than wide masses.

An important point is that our emphasis must not just be a mere defence of ethics in politics that does not fight the global politics of the Lula government, particularly its neo-liberal economic policy. We have to point to the real corruption of the PT government—the adoption of neoliberal policies and support for capitalism.

The principal force capable of substantially shifting the present political scene is the mass movement. Two obstacles exist to this coming about: (1) the divisions within the social movements; (2) the fact that most of the organised social movements are under the direction of government leaders.

It is important to recognise that we are not in a period of ascent for the mass movement, despite some important advances in 2004.

In our opinion, faced with this, we must adopt a policy of the united workers’ front, with a platform of concrete demands that can unite the struggles and involve all the social movements. Such a platform should be discussed and presented to the leaderships as well as the rank and file of these movements. It must also take up questions like punishment of all the corrupt elements, participation of the social movements in the purging of them, a change in economic policy, wage rises, immediate agrarian reform, a break with the IMF, suspension of debt repayment, against privatisation, etc.

The proposed united front should have the objective of fighting for these demands through demonstrations, strikes, petitions, campaigns, and so on. Winning an argument for the creation of a front of this type would put in motion a dynamic of widening and radicalising the struggles, deepening the contradictions between the leaderships and the rank and file of these movements. Not winning it, on the other hand, would expose the vacillations of the leadership to the rank and file. The policy of non-governmental socialists should be to create a permanent tension through the struggle for hegemony over the mass movement, exposing the vacillations and treachery of the bureaucratic leaderships.

We are taking up the classic tactic of the united front as defended by Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci. It is a tactic for a situation when the movement is on the defensive and not the offensive, a way of pulling the masses away from the influence of reformists and conciliators. The fact that it is based on unitary demands that are not necessarily the most radical does not signify that it is reformist or centrist. You cannot sustain the idea that to be revolutionary you have to put forward the most radical demands.

In our opinion it would be an error at this point in time to adopt a position situated exclusively in the institutional sphere. The call for a constituent assembly, for instance, is a mistake, since it proposes a juridical-political reordering of the bourgeois state in a situation that is unfavourable to the working class. The proposal for a referendum over revoking the president’s mandate could result in shooting ourselves in the foot. The risk of a verdict favourable to Lula is great—and that would be a very demoralising outcome. The principal problem with such proposals is that they remain in the institutional sphere.

The slogan ‘Lula out’ can unfold in two ways. The first is the impeachment of Lula. In this case, we are dealing with an outcome within the existing institutional mechanisms, as happened in the 1990s when Collor was replaced as president by Itamar Franco. We do not think this is the proposal that should be put forward by PSOL. The second is the overthrow of Lula through a movement of revolt like that of the Argentinazo in 2001. There is no evidence at present that that will be possible. Perhaps this will come about, but we should not base our policy on seeing as a certainty something which is only a possibility.

The approach must be from below, through taking up broad and massive struggles for workers’ demands, and linking these to the political crisis, demanding the imprisonment of the corrupt and the corruptors, demanding an end to the neo-liberal policy of Lula, Palocci and Meirelles, intervening in the dozens of wage struggles that are ahead, linking them to the struggle against the IMF and the government’s economic policy—in short, to widen, radicalise and generalise the struggles.

The tactic of the united front requires the existence of a left wing political pole capable of exerting pressure within the front and taking advantage of the contradictions in the reformist camp. The PSOL today is still a small party, not embedded in the masses. However, the formations of a political camp of the left which unites the PSOL together with currents on the left of the PT, the CUT (the main trade union federation) and other social movements, as well as other organisations of the left, can fulfil the role of acting as a left pole within a broad united front.

So the construction of a social and political front with other significant sections of socialist left, inside and outside the PT, is necessary. We need to construct a bloc capable of acting as a left pole in the mass movement, capable of entering into a dialogue, without sectarianism, with militants influenced by the PT.

We have to take advantage of the possibilities raised by this situation, to try to shift the correlation of forces, to put the class and the movements at the centre of political struggle. To achieve this it is necessary at the same time to be realistic and capable of discerning the potentialities and possibilities that exist. It is time for an appropriate tactic that starts from the real balance of forces and level of mass consciousness, with the goal of constructing the subjective conditions to advance the revolutionary struggle.