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Issue 55, April 2001

Testing Times for the Workers Party

    Did the PT turn 'pink' to win?
    PT disaster in Rio de Janeiro
    Cardoso and mass struggles

Brazil's Workers' Party (PT) controls six state capitals. One of them, Porto Alegre, hosted the World Social Forum, an international anti-capitalist gathering in January, with much of the left-of-centre press presenting the PT as an alternative to neo-liberalism. But what is the real character of the PT? ANDRÉ FERRARI, from Socialismo Revolucionario, looks at last year's election successes and the PT's development.

IN JANUARY 2001, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) took office in six state capitals - São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Belém, Recife, Goiânia and Aracaju. The PT holds the mayor's position in 187 cities, and has increased its control in the large cities (of over 200,000 inhabitants) from five to 17 municipalities.

There is now a real red belt around Great São Paulo, with PT city halls in most of the ABC region (the predominantly working-class areas where the PT was founded), in Guarulhos, São Paulo (the state capital), and Campinas (the second-largest city in São Paulo state). As PT leader, Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva, said, even where PT lost it won. Coming second in Curitiba, the state capital of Paraná, felt like a victory after the scandalous campaign waged against the PT from the right.

On the other side, the big losers in these elections were the parties that have supported the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The Partido da Frente Liberal (PFL) was defeated by the PT in Recife, home of Brazil's vice-president, Marco Maciel, and also lost unexpectedly in Rio de Janeiro. The Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) came third in São Paulo, despite controlling the state government and using all the weight of the state machine. It was reduced to running the smaller cities. Paulo Maluf and the PPB (Progressive Party) limped into the second round in São Paulo but was defeated by Marta Suplicy of the PT, showing the limits of reactionary Malufism.


As soon as it became clear that the PT would make significant gains, the government tried to find excuses for its election failure. Cardoso did not link the growth of the PT to dissatisfaction with his government and the terrible situation facing most people in Brazil. He claimed it was due to a widespread but 'neutral' sentiment in favour of more honesty in municipal and public services.

There certainly was anger because of the corruption scandals, and this was an important factor in the victory of the PT, especially in São Paulo. The party was seen by most people as the only one capable of carrying out a clean up of municipal governments. In São Paulo, the PT was the main opposition to the Malufist stooge government of Mayor Celso Pitta, up to its neck in corruption and local gangster networks. There was a similar situation in Embú, where every councillor was removed for corruption, except the PT member, the only one not involved. He ended up winning the election. In Guarulhos the mayor was removed and the PT went on to win. The corruption issue is not politically neutral. People connected it to the general situation: the economic policy, unemployment, the collapse of public services and so on.

The Cardoso government was directly involved in some corruption cases. Former secretary-general to the presidency, Eduardo Jorge Caldas, is at centre of a number of scandals traced to the time he occupied an office next to Cardoso's. The government vetoed a parliamentary committee of inquiry investigating the relationships between the corrupt judge, Nicolau dos Santos (now a fugitive from justice), and leading members of the government. Also on the run is the banker, Cacciola, who received funds from the central bank illegally to avoid his own bank going broke. The anti-corruption vote was an anti-Cardoso vote and was also directed against local right-wing politicians.


top     Did the PT turn 'pink' to win?

THE MEDIA IS plugging the idea that the growth of the PT was due to its turn to the right. It was the 'pink' PT that won, not the 'red' one, they say; the red PT would have had no chance electorally. Alternatively, they put the PT's gains down to exclusively local or specific issues unrelated to the federal government or the situation in the country as a whole.

This interpretation does not hold water. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the PT has moved towards the right. But it has not gone as far as the European social-democratic parties. The PT still has a worker and people base and organises the vast majority of the workers and activists currently involved in the social movements. The moderate line of most of its election campaigns was nothing new. But this had no direct relationship with the growth in votes.

The PT's 1996 local election campaign in São Paulo was even more moderate than the current one. The then PT candidate, Luiza Erundina, did not promote a clear PT identity. She literally changed red to white on her TV broadcasts and campaign materials. The election result was a fiasco!

On the other hand, Lula's best electoral result in the presidential race was in 1989, when the PT's line was clearly more to the left than it is today. At that time, Lula made the second round against Fernando Collor and lost by a small margin. His programme included the suspension of the payment of foreign debt and the possible nationalisation of the banks. But in 1994 and 1998, with a more moderate line, Lula did not even make the second round against Cardoso.


What explains the growth of the PT is mainly the mood of bitter dissatisfaction with the Cardoso government, the economic crisis, unemployment, poverty, deterioration of education and health services, etc. The PT did well not because of its turn to the right but in spite of its moderation. The PT leadership's line and programme in the local election campaigns were generally moderate: for a more democratic, caring capitalism.

There was an emphasis on combating corruption, democratising administration through the wider participation in allocating municipal spending, and social measures against poverty, such as the guaranteed minimum income programme and school student scholarships. Faced with bankrupt city finances, the PT's position is to renegotiate debt. Suplicy, for example, rejected the idea of suspending the repayment of debts to the big capitalists. She thinks that financing São Paulo's social programmes will come from ending corruption and through partnerships between state and federal governments and the private sector.

The links between the PT and the landless workers (Movimento Sem Terra - MST) was raised by all the right-wing candidates. The PT's response was generally lukewarm. Suplicy said she understood the MST but disagreed with the tendency towards radicalism. Despite this, Lula declared after the elections that 'the PT did not hesitate to defend the social movements, in spite of anti-communist attacks on the PT in the Northeast'. In Recife, Pernambuco, in Northeast Brazil, the PT responded to a radicalised strike of the state police force by attempting to distance itself from it.


The situation in some cities, such as Recife, Belém and Porto Alegre, led the PT to adopt a more openly anti-Cardoso line. In general, the position of the party was not to prioritise attacking the federal government. Suplicy went as far as holding an event with the PSDB state governor, Mário Covas, when he declared his support for her in the second round. Suplicy's symbolic kiss with Covas was nauseating to the trade union and student activists. Still fresh in their memories were the cowardly attacks by the governor's police force during the teachers' and state employees' strike.

The left in the PT reelected the mayor in Belém (capital of Pará state, North Brazil) and won councillors in other cities. In general, however, they also moderated their line in the campaign. In Porto Alegre (capital of Rio Grande do Sul), the incumbent mayor, Raul Pont, (of the PT tendency Socialist Democracy, linked to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International) was defeated in the primaries and was not elected by the party rank and file to contest the election. He was replaced by Tarso Genro - politically from the party's centre.

top     PT disaster in Rio de Janeiro

THE ELECTIONS IN Rio de Janeiro were the most outstanding example of the disastrous politics of the PT leadership. The PT candidate did not even make the second round, thanks to a policy that almost led to the destruction of the party in Rio.

The origin of the crisis goes back to 1998. A dramatic intervention of the national leadership annulled the democratic decision of the PT state conference (which had a left majority) to stand a candidate in the elections for state governor. The national leaders imposed support for the bourgeois PDT (Democratic Labour) candidate, Garotinho. He won the election and the PT right-wing joined his state government, with the support of vice-governor, Benedita da Silva.


After more than a year in Garotinho's government of corruption scandals and right-wing policies, even the PT right-wing eventually accepted the need to break with the government. But the damage was already done. The PT right won in the internal primaries (fraudulently) and stood da Silva for mayor. Da Silva is directly connected to the Garotinho government and this did nothing to encourage the active PT membership. The result was an electoral fiasco and a profound party crisis. The dispute between the PT left and right in Rio is heading toward a critical situation, with threats of expulsion of the left again being made.

The Brazilian ruling class is not always as accommodating as the PT. Whenever the PT looks close to winning, the right shifts to a no-holds-barred attitude. Suplicy in São Paulo was the target of an intense reactionary campaign which raised issues relating to her defence of the right to abortion, gay rights, human rights for prisoners, etc. Populist TV stars and reactionary priests all aided the right-wing campaign. It tried to provoke panic by implying that landless labourers were on the verge of invading the cities if the PT won.

There was a wave of physical attacks against candidates and PT members. In Suzano, in metropolitan São Paulo, PT and MST activist, Netinho, was decapitated to intimidate the left. In Caruaru (Pernambuco state, Northeast Brazil), PT member, José Ribamar, was shot 14 times. Sinvaldo Dias, PT president in Cuiabá (Mato Grosso state, Center-West Brazil), was shot in the head. Countless other cases of less successful attacks and death threats were recorded. The right-wing attacks show up the divisions within the bourgeoisie, with some sections still feeling unable to totally trust the PT as an ally.


These attacks contrast with the position of some of the most important representatives of the bourgeoisie. Horácio Lafer Piva, chairman of FIESP (São Paulo employers' association) stated, 'no businessman will be leaving São Paulo because the PT has won the elections'. This was a reference to a former FIESP chairman's statement in 1989 that 800,000 businessmen would leave the country if Lula had won.

The PT's success has been receiving attention from the international bourgeoisie. Merrill Lynch and Standard & Poor's executives recently met the PT to find out its intentions for the 2002 presidential elections. They wanted to know if the PT would maintain the International Monetary Fund (IMF) fiscal adjustment programme and whether it might impose a moratorium on foreign and national debt. The elites recognise that the PT is in a stronger position for the presidential elections. This does not mean, however, that they will accept passively a PT government.

The PT is due to clarify its position on the presidential election in the first half of this year. The PT leadership wants to broaden alliances around the candidate. There is a move underway towards uniting around Itamar Franco (bourgeois populist governor of Minas Gerais state), alongside other groups which formed an alliance with the PT in the last presidential elections, such as PSB and PDT. But this is unlikely to succeed and Lula will probably be the candidate again. Another candidate will be Ciro Gomes, a dissident from the PSDB who tries to come over as more of an effective opposition to Cardoso. His aim is to gain credibility as the bourgeois alternative in the event of Cardoso's support collapsing, or in the absence of a viable candidate being fielded by the current government.


Gomes was weakened by the defeat of his candidate for mayor in Fortaleza, capital of Ceará state, but he recovered partially with the victory of an ally in Rio. Cardoso and the PSDB still have no clear presidential candidate. They are trying to resuscitate Covas but it will not be easy. Another possibility is Tasso Jereissati, but his defeat in the election in Ceará will not help. In any event, the 2002 presidential elections will depend on the economy and the class struggle. A further deepening of the crisis could shorten Cardoso's term of office, although this does not figure in the plans of the PT leaders.

top     Cardoso and mass struggles

CARDOSO EXPECTED HIS government to regain its credibility as the economic situation improved. But there is a saying here: even when the economy seems good, the people still fare very badly. The only effect of the relative pick-up in the economy in the second half of 2000 was an explosion of labour struggles as workers fought for compensation for the losses accumulated over the previous five years. There is a unified wages campaign involving some of the heavy battalions of the Brazilian working class, such as workers in metal, oil, banking, chemicals and plastics, and post. MST is preparing a new offensive. More occupations of land and public buildings are foreseen in the face of the government's refusal to grant more credits for families it has settled on land.

Cardoso lost a decision in the courts and will have to pay private-sector workers an enormous amount in accumulated inflation losses. This affects funds from wage deductions which workers can withdraw when unemployed. Mass struggles are being prepared to force the government to pay up. To worsen the situation, the Argentinean economic crisis threatens to spread to Brazil. Although there has been a slight pick-up in growth, the fundamental contradictions of the Brazilian economy remain. Last year alone, it was forecast that 150 billion Brazilian reais (US$ 80bn) was be spent on interest charges and the rollover of public debt.


The six capitals now run by the PT owe 16.2 billion reais (nearly US$8bn) - 52.3% of the debt of all municipalities. São Paulo alone owes around US$6 billion, with much of it due this year and with new loans prohibited. The Law of Fiscal Responsibility, which was passed by Congress under orders from the IMF, bans debt rescheduling and allows for prison sentences of up to four years for mayors not complying.

In many municipalities, the PT will be under strong pressure to cut public spending and apply the IMF's fiscal adjustment policy. This will create situations similar to that faced by PT governor, Olívio Dutra, of Rio Grande do Sul. Last year's state teachers' strike caused serious damage to the PT administration when Dutra honoured its commitments to pay off the state debt instead of meeting the workers' demands.

With the practical experience of PT governments limiting themselves to policies dictated by a capitalist system in crisis, a layer of more conscious workers and youth will draw anti-capitalist conclusions. The only way forward for PT city and state administrations is to lead a mass movement to break with the policies imposed by the IMF and international bankers. This movement can only win by bringing down the Cardoso government and replacing it with a workers' and socialist alternative.

More than ever, the slogan, 'Out with Cardoso and the IMF', is on the agenda. Non-payment of foreign debt and interest to the big capitalist loan sharks, state ownership of the banks and a government of industrial and rural workers is the anti-capitalist alternative we should pose.


The strategy of the PT leadership is not to fight for an immediate end to the Cardoso government but to prepare for the 2002 elections. That increases the likelihood of more instability and clashes between PT city administrations and increasingly wider sections of the working class. Cardoso was defeated in the ballot box, now it is time to defeat him in the streets. The socialist left within and outside the PT has to be in the frontline, defending workers' interests and raising a socialist alternative.

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