Will this be the last election of Brazil’s New Republic?

The first 2018 presidential election poll has been released today (31 January). It is also the first since Lula’s conviction was upheld by a regional court on 24 January. Despite his likely banning from the contest, Lula maintains a strong lead in all scenarios in which his name appears (34-37% of voting intentions).

Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro is in clear second (15-18%), albeit not having increased his lead over the past month, despite Lula’s legal troubles and Bolsonaro’s positioning as the anti-Lula candidate. Indeed, in first round scenarios with Lula exempt, polling shows Bolsonaro in first, but only increasing his lead by two percentage points (up to of 20%) versus scenarios with Lula included. We may have found Bolsonaro’s ceiling.

The lesser noted story here though is the significant degree to which rejection of all candidates manifests itself. In a historically fragmented presidential contest (Datafolha prompted voters with lists of over ten candidates, most showing no higher than low single figures), around 16% of voters intend to abstain or vote blank. But when Lula is excluded, this rises as high as 32%. It goes even higher (35%) if one takes into account only those earning up two times the minimum wage – or, broadly speaking, the bottom half of Brazilian society.  If Lula doesn’t run, a full third of the electorate will throw away their vote.

What Lula signifies

So, firstly, we must note that Lula’s exclusion from the contest represents a de facto disenfranchisement of millions of Brazilians. For the bottom half of earners in Brazil, hardly any candidate would win more than 15% of the vote. Only, in one single scenario, does Marina Silva make it to a measly 18%.

At the same time, one might argue, Lula is just an individual candidate; he is supposedly the representative of his party. Lula’s voters could just migrate to another PT candidate. Polls though hardly suggest this will happen. In the Lula-less first round scenarios, the PT governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner, receives 2-3%, while academic and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad doesn’t even register. Intended votes for Lula are just that – intended votes for Lula. So can PT really argue that their voters are being disenfranchised if they aren’t – at least according to polling – willing to vote for another PT candidate?


Well, presidential politics in a mediatised age encourages personalisation. And whatever else one may say about him, Lula is a towering political figure, both for his personal biography and charisma, as well as political achievements in founding and building one of the most innovative Left parties of recent decades, anywhere. So given the rules of this personalised game, banning one (exceptionally popular) individual from running does seem like disenfranchisement.

At the same time, for all that PT has been the target of elite machinations against it, over the past 15 years it has also, partly, been the architect of its own downfall. It is the party itself who have gone all-in on Lula, encouraging the cult of personality, demobilising its base, and not sufficiently cultivating new talents amongst its cadre. For all that Lula is a historically unique figure, there is no one even remotely close to him in the next rank below.

‘There is no Plan B’, PT has asserted over and over. This has been a clever short-term strategy, because it allows the party to continue to build Lula’s candidature at a time when no one else on the political scene has any charisma or credibility. It means that if – at the last moment, twenty days from election – Lula has to handpick a stand-in, PT can hope that a large portion of Lula’s voters will transfer to the dauphin. Without a long campaigning period for the stand-in, this ‘successor’ could avoid closer scrutiny. He would benefit from PT voters’ sense of persecution. But any longer term perspective has to recognise the road to ruin this strategy represents.

Even if Lula is somehow allowed to run, he has no real programme. A vote for him is a vote for his personal authenticity – the only major credible politician in the country – and for memories of a better time. A vote for him is a vote for the status quo ante. A return to the pre-2013 period. For all the rhetoric against the brutal counter-reforms of Temer’s government – as well as the persecution claims about the parliamentary coup that deposed Dilma and has sought to imprison Lula – there’s little indication that a PT government wouldn’t pursue the same sort of conciliation it has over the past two decades. It would likely maintain similar alliances with the supposedly patriotic national bourgeoisie and its representatives (PT maintained, for example, state and local alliances with the golpista PMDB in 2016’s municipal elections), and it would still pursue some moderate reforms, for example of pensions. In doing so, it would be of a piece with Social Democracy’s historic role over the past half-century: selling workers moderate, pro-market reforms that the centre-right lacks the authority to do.

The vital centre?

So Lula and the PT represent very much a centrist proposal. But it is a centrist proposal in a much more fundamental way than specific policies or electoral alliances. PT has come to represent the 1988 settlement, more than any other party. It is they who are the defenders of the Constitution. In the 1990s, it was PSDB who perhaps best occupied this role – itself an offshoot of the (old) MDB, the in-house opposition of the military dictatorship. The PSDB’s rightward, neoliberal drift, and a fortiori its support for the institutional coup, has extinguished that role as guarantor of the Constitution, of the ‘New Republic’ itself. PT, meanwhile, embodies the 1988 settlement in all its contradictions. It is the most prominent guarantor of the social rights provided for in the Constitution. It also, in an ironic way, embodies the old corruption that the Constitution inscribed. Despite PT having been the ‘ethical party’, it allowed itself to be corrupted by the structures of Brazilian politics. So its alliances with regional coronéis and dependence on dodgy funding as much exemplifies its role as standard-bearer of 1988 as does its defence of spending on health, education, housing, and welfare.

But in 2018’s Brazil, what does it mean to defend that settlement? What is it to be the vital centre, which nearly all others have abandoned? (Most have abandoned it to the right, though the genuinely left-wing parties can’t be said to play this role either). The changed global and national conjuncture means standing on a ‘default’, unenunciated programme of status quo ante is an absurdity. Post-2013 Brazil demands an answer. The institutional rupture of the parliamentary coup begs for a more convincing response. The commodities boom is long gone and parties of the centre-right mounted an institutional coup against a moderate centre-left party. What now? Merely rolling back the worst of the neoliberal counter-reform programme, desirable and urgent as that is, is not enough.

What has happened in this interim is not just the spectacular occupation of the streets from June 2013 onwards, but – from as of 2014/15 – a steady chipping away at majoritarian rule, at democracy, by the elite. Lawfare has been most evident means, via the Lava Jato investigations. This has fed a deep mistrust of politics, as the growing rate of abstention/blank votes indicates. The parties of the centre-right no doubt feel this consequent lack of legitimacy themselves – and this is compounded by the patent unpopularity of the counter-reforms they have advanced.

The centre-right tactic thus appears to be, (a) to position themselves as the ‘responsible centre’, as against ‘populists’ of Left and Right. This is an attempt to cast both Lula/PT and Bolsonaro in the same nhuck_aecioet – a pathetic political manoeuvre only credible in the eyes of bow tie-wearing 17 year old Hayek fans. And (b), to hope to find a young, shiny, reforming face, in the mould of a Macron. This latter attempt has only surfaced TV personality Luciano Huck (who has no party as of yet, and is polling at 5-8%; the same level as more traditional centre-right candidates). Both aspects of this strategy are clear imports from contemporary European and American discourse: responsible centrism against an amalgamated left/right ‘populist’ threat and a young energetic ‘non-politician’ to carry through ‘necessary reforms’. Needless to say, in today’s polarised and increasingly disillusioned atmosphere, few are buying what they’re selling. Good.

Legitimacy, who needs it?

All this brings us back to the fact that anti-politics is what has dominated the Brazilian political scene for the past three years. The municipal elections of 2016 attested to this fact very clearly. As I wrote here at the time, the degree of abstention and blank votes is is accompanied by a fall in support for democracy and democratic institutions as attested to in values surveys, such as Latinobarómetro’s. (I’ll be doing a deeper dive on Latinobarómetro data as soon as the full 2017 data is out).

This grave absence of legitimacy is hardly being counteracted by any section of the political or business elite. It is they after all who pushed the institutional coup, and the highly questionable judicial manoeuvres against Lula. The Left is too weak and fragmented right now to hold up the house, and its questionable whether they would seek to hold up such a rotten structure anyway. It – and especially PT – does so only as a defensive measure, because it feels worse could be on the way. Defend limited gains, and all that.

But it’s not enough on its own. And anyway, as everywhere, democratic rights were only achieved because the Left demanded them, and more. Liberal democracy is a compromise. The Right has decided to give up its end of the bargain. If the Brazilian elite had any care for even the appearance of legitimacy, it would support Lula and allow him to run. He is, after all, the best embodiment of the New Republic, and anyway is someone they can work with – as his conciliation has shown time and again.

L-R: Not elected; Corrupt, resigned to avoid impeachment; Left office with negative approval ratings; Most popular ever president, now convicted; Impeached; Not elected

But they blindly, moronically, refuse to do so. To flip around the Latin American Right’s favourite jibe, if they care so little for democracy, they should f*** off to Cuba. Consequently, I fear the game is up for the Brazilian Sixth Republic. The beginning of the end may actually have been something that I don’t believe has been fully reckoned with, internalised: the June 2013 protests.

But in itself this was not a sufficient condition. However, add in the deep economic crisis (which Brazil has not recovered from, whatever the historically high stock market says; look at the job numbers, the degree of flexibilisation that make the job numbers look better than they are, the number of people discouraged from formal employment altogether, and on and on), the rancorous polarisation of the 2014 election campaign, the even more acrimonious attitude of 2015-now, and the blatant, flaunted mediocrity and corruption of the political class… and yeah. I’m not certain how much longer this institutional arrangement lasts.

The most gloomy conspiracy theorists are likely wrong, and October’s elections will go ahead. It would be an unimaginable outrage were they not to. But the teetering structure won’t hold for much longer; just think through the outcome scenarios… Bolsonaro would create a much more authoritarian society and state. Lula – or AN Other Petista – would face a governability crisis and might be pushed out once again. Any candidate of the centre-right would govern having failed to win 70% of the Brazilian electorate over in the second round, and – even without further neoliberal reforms – would face a serious questions over their legitimacy. And this is all before we factor in (a) the worsening public security situation, a serious breakdown of which would usher in authoritarian responses; and (b) whether the Brazilian masses take to the streets again, which they’ve threatened to do, but have largely been absent since the March 2017 general strike. In any scenario, I struggle to see how this Republic lasts, and makes it much beyond the next election.

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