/ 1 November 2018

Brazilian left reels as country lurches right

A student holds a sign with an image of Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro reading "Not Him" during a demonstration of resistance against Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo
A student holds a sign with an image of Brazil's president-elect Jair Bolsonaro reading "Not Him" during a demonstration of resistance against Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Reuters/Nacho Doce)

Still stinging from the victory of far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s once-mighty Workers’ Party now faces some tricky tasks: regaining people’s trust, reclaiming its leadership of the left and dealing with its jailed leader.

That leader, charismatic former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, led Brazil through a historic boom from 2003 to 2010, but now stands accused of masterminding the large-scale looting of state oil company Petrobras — a massive scandal that has badly damaged the party.

READ MORE: What Bolsonaro’s election victory means

Bolsonaro’s resounding win in Sunday’s run-off put an emphatic end to the electoral dominance of the Workers’ Party (PT), which had won the previous four presidential elections.

It was particularly humiliating for the PT — which was born out of the struggle against Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985) — that the man who put the nail in its coffin was a former army captain who not only served that dictatorship, but continues to openly praise its use of torture and repression against leftists.

Licking their wounds, many party leaders cannot help looking back to the past as they diagnose what went wrong.

“There was a major effort to discredit the PT with fake news… Anti-PT sentiment was created, just like anti-communist sentiment in its day,” party veteran Celso Amorim, who was foreign minister under Lula, said.

Return to roots 

Bolsonaro rode the nationalist far-right wave that has been sweeping over much of the world to defeat the man picked to stand in for Lula, Fernando Haddad.

Lula himself was barred from running because he is serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. But polls indicated he would have beaten Bolsonaro.

The party insists the case was cooked up to sideline Lula — who remains enduringly popular, though immensely controversial.

Bolsonaro, however, is a contentious figure too, given his derogatory remarks on women, gays and blacks, and policy proposals such as relaxing gun-control laws so “good people” can take justice into their own hands.

That may give the PT an opening to move beyond its graft-stained image and return to its roots.

“I think there’s a great opportunity here for the PT and other parties to put themselves on the side of good, to rally around issues historically linked to fundamental and individual rights,” said Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Time to ditch Lula? 

The PT still managed to win the most seats in the lower house, with 56, plus six senators. In one of the most fragmented Congresses in Brazilian history, it will be a leading opposition force.

Bolsonaro — whose previously minor Social Liberal Party will be the second-largest force in the lower house — meanwhile faces the difficult job of piecing together a coalition from among some 30 parties.

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But to effectively lead the opposition, the PT may have to give up or tone down its fight to free Lula, which has consumed an immense amount of its political resources.

“There’s no general outcry to free Lula, so if that’s the main flag the PT is waving, it’s going to shoot itself in the foot,” said Zucco.

‘The PT elected Bolsonaro’ 

The PT still has a solid base of about 30% of the electorate — but will need more than that to mount a forceful opposition to Bolsonaro.

Once the vanguard of the left, its prestige is badly tarnished.

Third-place presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, a center-leftist, accused the PT of aiding and abetting Bolsonaro’s rise.

“The PT elected Bolsonaro,” he said in an interview published Wednesday.

“Lula-PT-ism has become corrupt and corrupting, and it created an opposing force that is now the biggest force in Brazil. Bolsonaro just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Others, however, argue that the PT still needs Lula.

“Lula-ism is bigger than the PT. The party has the backing of organised labour and social movements, but Lula has the support of the mass of society, the poorest people in Brazil,” said Ricardo Musse, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo.

“The PT isn’t a homogeneous party… There will be a sector that will try to ditch Lula, another that will lead the political opposition (to Bolsonaro)… and another that will drive social resistance with street protests.”