Brazil: PSOL: A congress of crisis and uncertain future

Fighting to make PSOL ready to face the challenges of the historical moment

The second congress of the Party for Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) took place in São Paulo on 21-23 August, against a background of widespread uncertainty about the process of re-composition of the socialist left in Brazil. Although the congress elected a leadership with a different composition, it failed to give answers to the most important questions facing millions of Brazilian workers and youth.

In the grips of an internal crisis that came close to endangering the unity of the party, (triggered by a split in the camp that has led the party since its first congress in 2007) the congress didn’t decide on its position regarding the important 2010 elections. Neither did it draw the most important lessons from the process that led to such a crisis developing.

PSOL was born in 2004, in order to gather together the socialist left that didn’t “sell out or surrender”, to use an expression often repeated by the main public figure of the party, the ex-senator Heloísa Helena. After obtaining an important social base in the more radical trade unions and social movements in struggle against the neoliberal policies of Lula’s government, (like the pension counter-reform of 2003), the party played an important role in the general election of 2006. On that occasion, PSOL managed to show to broad layers that the left had not died with the PT (Workers’ Party) after Lula’s government had embraced big business.

With more than 6.5 million votes (almost 7%), Heloísa Helena, even with an programme more moderate than that of the party as a whole, managed to pose as an alternative to the false polarisation between the traditional right, represented by the PSDB (Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy), and the new right, represented by the PT. The same challenge remains for the 2010 election. However, this time Heloísa Helena probably won’t stand and the party is in a dilemma regarding what to do in 2010.

2010 election

In the run up to 2010, Lula’s government is trying to build support for the minister Dilma Rousseff, basing itself on the claim that the economic crises had little effect on Brazil. The traditional right (PSDB) is trying to use the fact that Lula cannot stand again to attempt to get the governor of São Paulo, José Serra, elected.

In this, the first presidential election since the end of the military regime without Lula standing, the electoral scene is still very uncertain. Lula maintains high approval ratings because of the rapid economic growth of the last years and the expectation that the country will succeed in avoiding the crisis through an enormous injection of state funds into the economy. But the possibility of transferring the support for Lula to a lesser-known candidate like Dilma, who lacks Lula’s ‘charisma’, is not automatic or easy.

Even if the government succeeds, through the injection of hundreds of billions of reals of public money, in containing the worst effects of the recession, avoiding a worsening of the crisis until the elections, it won’t be able to assure good conditions for the next government. Both Dilma Rousseff and José Serra will represent much weaker governments than the current one and will be forced to implement austerity measures to rein in the fiscal deficit. This means they would have to confront the working class, leading inevitably to political and economic instability.

Even sections of the government acknowledge that there is much space for an alternative to the left of the PT and PSDB. The ex-minister, Ciro Gomes, (of the misnamed Brazilian Socialist Pary, PSB) has argued in favour of him being the government’s candidate, as he supposedly has a more left-wing profile than Dilma and could open up a dialogue with the voters that could be attracted to Heloísa Helena, for example.

However, the big new factor in the Lula ‘succession’ dispute is the emergence of the candidacy of Marina Silva, also an ex-minister (environment) and currently a senator, who recently broke with the PT and joined the Green Party (PV). Her decision to break with PT was aided by the deep crises in the Senate, with corruption scandals involving several senators and, mainly, the President of the Senate and former President of Brazil, José Sarney (PMDB), who has the unconditional support of Lula and the PT’s senators. The attrition caused by this support for Sarney, hated by the public, led to the desertion of yet another senator, Flávio Arns, who also left PT.

Marina Silva, as a candidate for the presidency, will explicitly try to occupy the space left by Heloísa Helena. Her political and personal profile resembles Heloísa’s. At the same time, she tries not to pose as a candidate of the opposition. Her life story, coming from a poor background in the Amazonian region, who fought together with the well-known trade union and environmental activist Chico Mendes (assassinated by land owners in 1988), reminds one of Lula’s own history and is attractive to layers that sympathise with the government.

At the same time, Marina criticises (even if modestly) the government’s lack of commitment on environmental issues, in particular the preservation of the Amazon. Recently, the government approved a law that stimulates the taking of land in the Amazon by agri-business and those who illegally take land, which will lead to further devastation of the rain forest. In this, she tries to get rid of the burden of having been member of the government and open up a dialogue with more critical voters.

The Green Party, which she is joining, has no ideological commitment to protecting the environment. It is just another political label in the Brazilian electoral market, used by career politicians of all kinds. The party gives support to Lula’s government and gets its share of the privileges and posts in the state apparatus, but supports governors and politicians of the right, as in São Paulo, where they support the state governor, José Serra, (PSDB) and the mayor of the capital, Gilberto Kassab (of the explicitly right-wing and neoliberal “Democrats”).

The candidature of Marina Silva will not represent any coherent alternative, due to her commitment to Lula’s policies and her refusal to oppose even the traditional parties of the right. Even her environmental policies don’t escape from the logic of the market and of capitalism. Even so, her candidacy could appear as something new on the electoral scene of 2010 and attract a layer of those disillusioned with the present choice of candidates, especially in the absence of Heloísa Helena.

PSOL and the elections

The PSOL congress didn’t decide anything regarding the 2010 elections. Instead, an Electoral Conference will be held in October to make the main decisions. The justification for this is the attempt to convince Heloísa Helena to stand again. Her plans are to stand for the Senate as a representative of her state (Alagoas) and not for president.

By postponing this decision, the groupings that led and lead the party avoided drawing a balance sheet of their policies, including in 2008, making alliances with parties who support the government or have a bourgeois social base, for the first time. A discussion about the fact that the party accepted financial support from big private companies, amongst them, the big multinational steel company of Brazilian origin (Gerdau), for its election campaign in the city of Porto Alegre, was also avoided.

All the proposals for 2010 from the Socialist Resistance bloc (a bloc comprising LSR – CWI in Brazil – and three other currents) were deferred for later discussion.

Our congress document, with the headline, “Put socialism on the agenda! Make PSOL ready for the historical moment!”, defended a Left Front for the election, only including parties allied with the struggles of the working class (like the PSTU and PCB), with an anti-capitalist and socialist platform, as an alternative to the crisis and with a election campaign rooted in the social movements and workers’ struggles, with conscious financial support from workers.

In spite of the divisions within the former majority in the party leadership, both sides defend a policy of broad political alliances that include parties of the base of Lula’s government and opportunist parties with bourgeois social bases.

No current in the party admitted the possibility of a formal alliance between PSOL and the Green Party (PV) of Marina Silva, but the issue was part of the political debate. If PSOL doesn’t present an own candidate, it will lose support and this could lead to disillusionment amongst layers searching for an alternative to the PT. Marina Silva, in spite of her ambiguous stand, could end up occupying part of this space and reducing drastically the available support for a coherent left opposition.

In a situation where PSOL is standing no candidate, parts of the party could end up conducting electoral campaigns that are ambiguous in relation to Marina Silva, or even make informal alliances, not to mention the possibility of formal alliances with the PV in the states.

For this reason, the best candidate for the 2010 election is Heloísa Helena. However, Heloisa, who has been on between 10% and 24% in opinion polls, depending on different scenarios and opponents, makes it clear that she does not intend to stand against Marina Silva and only aims to regain her mandate in the Senate.

There is an impasse on the issue of an alternative candidate. There is the possibility that support for Plínio de Arruda Sampaio, an old left activist who came from the Catholic left and that has a more radical position today, could grow as an alternative. Plínio has been aligned with the left in PSOL in the last period and because of that, meets with resistance internally, but could gain if sections to the right of PSOL think that they can partially contain his more left leaning posture.

PSOL and the reorganisation of the trade union and social movements

One of the few votes that took place, in spite of the chaos of the congress, was about the process of reorganisation of the trade unions and social movements taking place in Brazil. With the coming to power of Lula, the CUT (national trade union centre), founded in 1983 during the mass movements against the military regime, was transformed into a conveyor belt for government policies. From that moment, new initiatives to coordinate fighting trade unionism emerged.

The National Co-ordination of Struggle (Conlutas) was founded in 2004 by sections of the left of the trade union and popular movements, including the student movement, in particular those with links to the PSTU (United Socialist Workers’ Party), but also PSOL, and became an alternative to CUT in 2006. Also in 2006, Intersindical emerged, uniting sections of the trade union movement (but no popular movements) linked to PSOL, but also others that were late in breaking links with the CUT.

In its first congress in 2007, even with strong disagreement and internal debate, PSOL passed a resolution, later confirmed by its Trade Union Conference, calling for the formation of a new TU federation, uniting Conlutas and Intersindical. This process of unification gained momentum with the effects of the capitalist crisis and the attacks on workers. Regional seminars and a national seminar are scheduled between September and November and a National Conference to found a new united federation, including fighting sections of the trade union movement, could take place next year.

The main debate today about this process is the character of this new federation. Some groups, especially Intersindical, argue that it should be exclusively made up of trade unions. On the other hand, the majority of Conlutas, including the Bloc of Socialist Resistance (which also operates within Conlutas), argue that it organises, alongside trade unions, workers organised in popular movements, like the homeless, landless, anti-racism and gender oppression movements, but also student movements, with a working class orientation.

The resolution passed at the second congress of PSOL reaffirms the need for a new federation, although it has already decided in favour of one exclusively made up of trade unions. However, a profound debate will take place on this issue, so this is only the beginning. Behind this attitude lies a desire to prepare for a dispute with the PSTU within the new federation, which will not be a solid basis for a new organisation that will be created.

The Socialist Resistance bloc argued at the congress for a resolution that defended the foundation of a new ‘Centre’ and at the same time, opened the character of the new Centre up for debate, without deciding on a stance beforehand. However, only a minority supported this. Anyhow, the debate will take place within the movement, and the bloc will continue to defend its position in favour of organising the working class and its allies in a broad sense, and with a class based, democratic and socialist perspective.

Internal dispute within the party

The two main currents that formed the majority camp in the party after the first Congress were MES (Socialist Left Movement), led by the federal deputy (MP) Luciana Genro, one of the “radicals” expelled from the PT for voting against the pension reforms of the government in 2003, and APS (Socialist Popular Action), of the federal deputy Ivan Valente, who entered the party in 2005, together with other sections that came from the PT.

Both currents were responsible for the policy of alliances with parties supporting Lula’s government and bourgeois parties in 2008. MES presented Luciana Genro as candidate for mayor in Porto Alegre (capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul) in alliance with the Green Party, which in the previous election, had been in coalition with the party that supported the military regime. APS put forward the candidate for vice mayor of Macapá (capital of Amapá in the Amazonian region), in an alliance led by the PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party, which supports Lula and in some states supports the traditional right). Besides these cases, there were more than 20 cities with the same type of alliances.

Both currents were also responsible for the adoption of the rules for the second Congress, in opposition to the original concept of PSOL as a party with an active base, upon which PSOL was founded. To participate in the Congress, it was enough to have signed a membership form in time and come to a meeting to vote for a delegate. There was no requirement to pay membership fees or congress fees (the congress fees ended up being indirectly paid by the currents or parliamentary mandates), to take part in a branch meeting or even participate in any real discussion about the different congress documents presented. Consequently, about 11,000 participated in the congress process.

However, if the figures inflated, there was a narrow funnel to the top. The party branches couldn’t elect delegates directly to the National Congress. The delegates were to be elected in state congresses, which discouraged the existence of branches. In total 373 delegates participated in the second Congress, half the number of the first Congress.

In spite of the political unity between those two currents, there was always a dispute over who would control the party. The differences began to appear when MES, who negate the importance of the international crisis and pose the issue of corruption as the main focus of the intervention of the party, and which tried in a totally non-political manner recruit the Federal Police officer Protógenes Queiroz, who headed the operation that led to the imprisonment of one of the most hated Brazilian bankers.

Protógenes Queiroz supports Lula’s government and does not present himself as a socialist, in spite of having, after all the crises in PSOL, chosen to affiliate to PCdoB (Communist Party of Brazil, which supports Lula’s government). If he had joined PSOL, this would interfered with the relationship of forces within the party. A good electoral result for Quieroz would have strengthened MES inside.

The risk of a loss of status by the biggest current, led MES to wage a virtual internal war in the period coming up to the congress. On the other hand, APS tried to create an atmosphere of unity between the other currents, including the left of the party, against MES. In the state congress in Rio Grande do Sul, for example, where MES is dominant, almost all currents (including part of the left), united in a slate where the only point of unity was the desire to defeat MES. The Socialist Resistance bloc (through Socialist Alternative, a group which participates in the bloc), which has an important base in the party and the trade union movement in the state, refused to adopt this position, and called on the left within the party to form a left slate, but ended up standing alone.

In the National Congress of PSOL, faced with the fact that it would lose its position as part of the majority, MES managed to unite its allies in a walkout from the congress, threatening a split in the party. To do that, they used as an excuse that the presidium of the congress and the president of the party, Heloísa Helena, had been disrespected by the women’s caucus of the party, which loudly demanded the right to defend the abortion rights as part of the programme of the party. The issue of abortion is extremely polarising within the party, as Heloísa Helena insists in putting forward an emphatic public position against abortion, although the party voted a resolution in favour of abortion rights at the first Congress.

During the night of Saturday 22 August) after a failed attempt to gather the National Executive, the party was virtually split into two wings and the different sections were already discussing the legal mechanisms to control the party name, finances, etc.

On Sunday morning, the plenary session of the Congress was held, without the participation of MES, it allies and Heloísa Helena. But, after a while, they returned to the Congress, after a commitment from APS, that even if they were in a majority with their allies, they would offer the presidency of the party to Heloísa Helena, even though she, at that moment, was explicitly on the side of MES.

In spite of this concession from APS, there was an extreme polarisation in the congress. One effect of this was that, of the three groups that composed the left slate in the first Congress, only two maintained that position. We, the Bloc of Socialist Resistance, composed a slate together with the Socialist Workers’ Current (CST, a section of UIT, an international of ‘Morenoite’ origin). The Socialism and Liberty Collective (CSOL, a split from PSTU-LIT) ended up joining the new majority camp together with APS, alleging that this would ensure a defeat of the MES.

The current called Enlace (that has members linked to the former Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International), was the most emphatic in defending unity with APS to make up a new majority.

The final result in the leadership election was that the new majority slate, including APS, Enlace, CSOL and others, got 48.9% of the votes. The slate with MES, Heloísa Helena and others got 40.8%. The slate composed by the Bloc of Socialist Resistance and CST got 10.2%.

PSOL and the recomposition of the Brazilian left

Compared with the first Congress, the left of the party ended up smaller, due to the adherence of CSOL to the new majority. In the first congress, the left slate got 23,6% of the votes, compared with 10,2% now. In spite of that, the party has not moved further to the right.

The reason for that is, firstly, the impact of the international crisis on the party. This forced sections of the party to assume clearer slogans of struggle, like the suspension of payment of the public debt and the nationalisation of banks and companies that implement mass sackings, and the renationalisation of state companies that had been privatised in the past.

Whoever becomes candidate for the party in 2010, those slogans will be much more present then in the 2006 election campaign, for example.

But, apart from the effects of the capitalist crisis on PSOL, the division of the majority camp forced different sections to try to move left, in relation to its adversaries. Even if it is not consistent, at least it served to freeze or at least turn more slowly the momentum towards the moderation of the party.

The new majority will continue to prioritise the electoral field, subordinating the intervention in the social movements. The difference is that APS tries to get better electoral results also using an organised rank-and-file in the social movements, in contrast to MES, who prefer to invest in public figures, “good at getting votes”, as a short cut, to gain parliamentary positions.

The damage to internal democracy and the concept of a party with an active rank-and-file, caused by the pre-congress process, will be difficult to reverse. In its fight against MES, APS was forced to raise some issues about internal democracy in the party, such as the need to make clear the rules about the proportional distribution of posts in the leadership of the party. But they will not get far. Their concept of a party became clear in the pre-congress period, when they used the same methods as MES.

The sector that lost the majority at the Congress, headed by MES, will tend to present itself as a public faction of the party, or “open opposition”, as they say. They work with the perspective that in 2010 they will manage to get Luciana Genro re-elected as federal deputy easily, and also count on Heloísa Helena as senator. On the other hand, APS could have much more difficulties in electing deputies if they cannot secure Heloísa Helena as president candidate.

This can lead to a conflict between the formal majority in the party leadership and the representatives in the parliament and main public figure, acting on their own, leading to a situation of permanent conflict and internal chaos. The perspectives for the Electoral Conference in October are not clear. Despite the decision to hold the Congress, it could be postponed and a new severe crisis is not ruled out.

The fact that the Congress almost fell apart and the level of tension in the internal relations point to an uncertain future for PSOL. During 2010, some kind of agreement will have to be made between the bigger currents. After all, they all need the party label for the elections. But what will happen after 2010?

Nevertheless, the Liberty, Socialism and Revolution (LSR – CWI in Brazil) and the Socialist Resistance bloc, came out strengthened from this process. In October, the Bloc will hold an important Seminar to discuss political strategy and the necessity of a more organic relationship between the groups composing the Bloc. This will help build a coherent left, both within PSOL and in the new TU centre that will be built.

PSOL suffers firstly because of the contradictions in consciousness and in the organised workers movement. If the crisis had a positive impact over the party, the lack of a qualitative leap in the level of struggle of the masses, even after the initial the major effects of the crisis, compounds the difficulties for the process of recomposition of the socialist left in Brazil.

Even so, PSOL is regarded by million of youth and workers as the only workers’ alternative. It is necessary for PSOL in the end of 2009 and during 2010 to work to accumulate forces together with the social movements, in the struggle against Lula’s government and the governments of the traditional right, and also in the electoral process, to create a strong political reference for the left. In a more favourable scenario, with a weaker government than Lula’s, with more difficulties in implementing its policies against the majority of the people, this resistance can lead to a new offensive by workers, with an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective.

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