Brazil: Local elections see collapse of PT (Workers Party) support

Mass disillusionment with political system but gains for PSOL left

The main feature of the recent local elections in Brazil on 2 October was the defeat suffered by the Workers' Party (Partido Trabahista – PT). This development dominated the political scene in Brazil and has allowed a certain revival of the tradition right-wing forces and, at the same time, increased political disillusionment with the entire political system. Against this back ground, the new left represented by PSOL took significant steps forward as an alternative to the PT.

Taking place a little more than a month after the Senate impeached the former President and PT leader, Dilma Rouseff, these local elections represented another big blow to the PT.

The impeachment of Dilma, which amounted to a “coup”, gave the opportunity for the right-wing counter offensive, with an agenda of carrying out hard neo-liberal policies, which was also reflected in the local elections.

The collapse of the PT in these elections was of gigantic proportions and will not be reversed in the second round of the elections in 55 local councils on 30 October. The PT will go into this second round competing in only municipalities where it has little prospect of winning.

The PT went from being the most voted for party in the 2012 elections, with 17.3 million votes, to coming fifth in these elections, with 6.8 million votes. The number of mayors it won fell from 644 in 2012 to 261 today. The party fell from third to tenth place in the number of elected Mayors.

The PT was virtually wiped out in the state capitals, this time only winning in one, Rio Branco, the capital of the Amazonian state, Acre, in the north of the country. It will go into the second round in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, but with little prospect of winning.

The collapse in PT support also occurred in its traditional strongholds.  This was the case in the so-called ABC districts of Sao Paulo – the zone with a strong history of metal and car workers' struggles and one of birth places of the PT. The same collapse occurred in the areas conquered by the PT in the era of Lula's Presidency (“Lulismo”). For example, in the North East of the country, the party has been left in ruins.

The most symbolic defeat took place in Sao Paulo, which had been governed under the PT governor, Fernando Haddad. This was important, as it was hoped that a renovated PT leadership would allow it to survive. Haddad emerged with 16.7% of the first preference votes, the worst result obtained by the party in the city. It was also the first time that the party has not gone into the second round.

Growth of the PSDB

This defeat for the PT took place as the party of the traditional right, PSDB (Partido social demócrata Braziliera – traditional right-wing neo-liberal party) took 53% of first preference votes for its candidate Joao Doria.

Doria, is from a very rich family with a history of slave owners but presented himself as a “worker and manager” of the city. The fact that he was not a professional politician was a point of attraction for many in the election. His powerful anti-PT rhetoric – sometimes anti-left, in general – was also a factor which attracted sections of the most ideologically conservative sections of the middle class that have a significant social weight in Sao Paulo.

The PSDB was the main winner in these elections. Apart from Sao Paulo, it won in more than 792 municipalities and will go into the second round with the prospect of winning more, in total, possibly winning in 812. In 2012, the PSDB won in 701 and got 13.9 million votes. This increased to 17.6 million in 2016.

This victory for the PSDB will not heal the big divisions and crisis which exists in this party. The victory of Doria, in Sao Paulo, will strengthen the position of the state governor, Geraldo Alkmin. He is in dispute with the party president, Aecio Neves, and the current Foreign Minister, Josse Serra, for who will be the PSDB’s presidential candidate in 2018. There even the possibility of three candidates standing under different party banners.

The PMDB, the party of the current President, Michel Temer, continues to control the most prefectures, re-affirming itself as the party of regional barons based on local corrupt groupings. They have 1,029 Prefects compared to 1,017 in 2012. The PMDB (Partido Movimiento Democratico Brazilera) is a capitalist party based on regional dynasties, which formed part of coalition government with Dilma.

The PMDB’s control of local authorities has remained more or less the same but the party suffered a terrible defeat in Rio de Janeiro, where it controlled the council with the support of the state governor. Despite getting more TV time and having more campaign money, the PMDB failed to get through to the second round. In contrast, PSOL (Partido do Socialismo y Liberdade) went through to the second round and will face a right-wing evangelist candidate.

It is clear that the electoral advances made by the PSDB and the right-wing will favour the government’s planned neo-liberal attacks. This does not mean that the government will have an open road to do as it wishes. President Temer is extremely unpopular and the measures he is proposing will generate a lot of resistance, especially amongst the youth and the population, in general.

 The electoral growth of the right will strengthen its position in the political institutions and infrastructure. Yet a large part of those who voted for the right-wing candidates, like Doria, are opposed to the neo-liberal agenda. These people voted for the right as a form of protest against the PT or for figures they perceived as being outside the traditional political system.

The new mayors elected on this basis have generated a lot of expectations that they will not fulfil and will lead to widespread opposition.

They will also face opposition from the millions of voters who simply did not vote for any party and spoiled their ballot or voted blank (despite voting being compulsory in Brazil). The growth in numbers of these people in these elections reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the electoral and political system in Brazil.

Increase in abstentions

Despite the clear win for Doria of the PSDB in Sao Paulo, he had a lower vote than the total who voted for no candidate. 3,085,000 voted for Doria but 3,096,000 either did not vote or voted blank.

Abstentions, annulled or blank votes were greater in 10 capital cities than the votes cast for the winning candidates. In the case of the big cities, like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, these were concentrated in the marginalised and poorest areas. In the richest areas, the number of abstentions and blank votes fell.

In the poorest areas it is clear that the increase in abstentions reflects disillusionment with the PT rather than a switch to the right wing parties. These are the areas that a new left partly, like PSOL, can reconquer in the future. This is dependent on participating in the struggles which develop against the new right-wing councils and against attacks by the federal government. This is one of the main challenges now facing the new left, like PSOL, and the most combative social movements.

Corruption and economic crisis

There is no doubt that the collapse in the support for the PT in these elections is linked to its involvement in some of the big corruption scandals. The fact that deputies, senators, party officials and others are imprisoned due to corruption has been a big reason for the massive loss of prestige of the PT.

The state’s “Operation car wash”, allegedly inspired by “Operation clean hands” in Italy, was deliberately directed against the PT by the right-wing. The right-wing was able to use this and is still deploying it against the PT. Their objective is to ensure that Lula cannot contest the presidential elections in 2018, even if this means the imprisonment of Lula.

Operation car wash will continue to be crucial for the future of the PT as its investigation comes ever closer to Lula, who is seen as the only hope for the PT to recapture its support in 2018. Even though it is a destabilising factor in the political situation for the ruling class, one of the central objectives in the coup against Dilma was to try and limit the investigations and rescue the credibility of the political system.

The other objective was to create the conditions for the application of more brutal neo-liberal policies that Dilma wanted to introduce but was not in a position politically to do so. This pogramme of counter reforms is the response of the ruling class to the worst economic crisis the country has historically had to confront.

Yet the fundamental reason for the collapse in support for the PT is not to be found in the corruption scandals. Corruption scandals and imprisonments of PT officials erupted in 2005. Yet Lula was easily re-elected in 2006. This was in the period when the country was growing economically and there was the perspective this would continue and things would continue to improve.

The reason now for the crisis in the PT is the economic and social disaster which exists and the failure of the PT to offer a way out through the application of left socialist policies.

Brazil is immersed in a crisis which is possibly developing into its worst crisis in its entire history. The fall in GDP in 2016 will be between 3-3.5%, about the same as in the previous year, when it fell by 3.8%. In 2014 growth was practically zero (0.1%) and anticipated growth for 2017 will be no higher than 1%. The country faces the worst crisis in its history. 

The social effects have been terrible. Official unemployment levels now stand at 12%, which means 12 million are without work. In the industrial sector, alone, in one year 1.3 million jobs were lost. In the motor industry, over two years, 200,000 jobs were lost. The crisis in the industrial sector of the economy is also affecting other sectors.

On top of this, the informal sector of the economy – precarious work, with terrible conditions – is no longer absorbing the workforce, including those who lost employment in the formal sector. This is leading to a clear tendency to drive down the earnings of the working class.

This situation will be made even worse by the counter reforms being introduced by the Temer government. It means a driving down in living standards and social rights of workers.

Temer openly says he is going to “throw the red out of Brazil”, referring to the “leftism of the PT”. He blames the country’s crisis on the previous Dilma government, ignoring the fact that he served as Vice-President in her government. In reality, Temer, and the traditional right are just as responsible.

An opening for a new left

PSOL emerged from the elections as reference point challenging the PT from the left and is seen as much more viable. This is not necessarily reflected in the number of mayors and councillors it got elected although PSOL did make some significant advances. The party got 53 councillors elected (10% more than in 2012) and two prefects (the same as in 2012). But PSOL has also gone through to the second round in two important state capitals, Belem and Rio de Janeiro, and also in Sorocaba, in Sao Paulo state.

In a country the size of Brazil, PSOL did not have the opportunity to fight in every municipality. It lacks the resources of the main capitalist parties that function as election machines sustained and backed by state governments and local councils and which get generous exposure on television.

Changes in election rules also meant that PSOL had less time on the TV than in previous elections. The government changed the rules so that parties with less than nine federal deputies got less TV time. This meant that in the majority of municipalities PSOL had a mere 10 to 12 seconds of TV time! Also the new rules meant that the TV networks were not obliged to include PSOL in the TV debates.

Despite all this, in the main state capitals PSOL was able to present itself as a viable challenge to the PT from the left. The two parties experienced opposing trajectories – the PT declined while PSOL grew.

The elections saw a political polarisation which has marked the recent period in Brazil. In some regions, it was PSOL that challenged the right-wing rather than the PT. The most symbolic of this development was Rio de Janeiro, where PSOL is playing the role that was historically played by the PT nationally, as the ‘voice’ of the Brazilian left.

In Rio, PSOL’s candidate, Marcelo Freixo, advanced and will challenge the PRB (a party linked to the neo-Pentecostal church). The councillors elected in Rio with the highest votes were from PSOL and a candidate of the extreme right populists.

In Belem, PSOL and not the PT will challenge the sitting mayor from the PSDB. PSOL also won more than 10% of the vote in five state capitals. In Sao Paulo, PSOL won two councillors for the first time.  The councillor with the highest vote in Sao Paulo was Eduardo Suplicy from the PT, who was a senator and viewed as an honest individual.  Despite this, in the election for mayor, the PT was defeated and the PSDB won in the first round. This will give PSOL a good opportunity to make advances in the coming period.

The elections also reflected what is called, ‘The women’s spring’, due to recent struggles over women’s rights. Young, black, LGBT women were elected as councillors for PSOL. This was the case in Sao Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte, and Porte Allegre.

In Natal, in Rio Grande de Norte, Amanda Gurgel, formally a member of the PSTU (PSTU – Partido Socialista de Trabahista Unificado – Unified Socialist Workers’ Party), stood under her own banner and won the second most votes of any candidates. However, she was not elected due to the refusal of the PSTU to form a left front with PSOL and thereby secure the quota needed on a citywide basis to be elected.

In general, the sectarian attitude adopted by the PSTU, which has provoked splits in its ranks, saw a decline in its votes, including in areas where it maintains some influence in trades unions.

Overall PSOL emerged from the elections viewed as a left alternative to the PT in the main capital cities and urban centres. The PT lost its dominant unchallenged position on the “left”. Although it has more elected positions, structures and still controls the trade unions, it is no longer seen as unchallenged on the “left”.

The LSR (CWI Brazil) comrades stood as PSOL candidates in numerous cities and states and won significant results, which have strengthened its support. Our female comrades who stood in Rio das Ostras (State of Rio de Janeiro) and Bauru (Sao Paulo) won 10% and 12% of the vote respectively. In Sao Paulo Marzeni Pereira, a sacked trade union leader from the water company Sabesp, strengthened his position in the eastern zone of the city, as was the case in Rio de Janeiro. The same was true in other regions.

As part of the process of re-organisation of the socialist left in Brazil, new important struggles and opportunities are opening up. The LSR is looking to strengthen its position in the trade union struggles, the social movements and future electoral struggles.

Glossary of Brazilian parties:

PT – Partido Trabahista (Workers’ Party)

PSOL – Partido do Socialismo y Liberdade

PSTU – Partido Socialista de Trabahista Unificado (Unified socialist Workers’ Party)

PSDB – Partido social demócrata Braziliera (traditional right-wing, neo-liberal party)

PMDB – Partido Movimiento Democratico Brazilera (capitalist party based on regional dynasties which formed part of the coalition government with the PT’s Dilma. The PMDB is led by Temer, President of Brazil, following the ‘coup’ against Dilma)






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October 2016