Both British and Brazilian democratic politics as usual are now in crisis. It may seem eccentric to make any kind of comparison between countries on different sides of the Atlantic in different hemispheres that have different histories and political systems. Yet it is worth beginning by reflecting on some issues that transcend these differences before exploring them further.
One is the possibility of ending a situation in which working people are being asked to pay the costs of deepening systemic capitalist crisis, that is a crisis that is not the conjectural effect of a cycle, short or long, the refusal of neoliberals to recognise the real extent of market failure, or corporate greed, but the expression of the social irrationality of a form of economic organisation whose reproduction is imposing ever greater costs on people and the planet. It remains difficult to envisage the kind of changes in global politics that might usher in a new era in human development, and since popular responses to the stresses that current conditions are causing often strengthen the populism of the right, things may get a lot worse before they get better. Nevertheless, any signs that the tide may be turning at least in that respect must be welcomed. The British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has made a modest but significant start towards showing that there are alternatives to resignation and despair simply by showing that social democratic parties do not have to continue to cling to what Tariq Ali called “the extreme centre” in the manner exemplified by Tony Blair’s New Labour and replicated throughout the world, including by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT).
Corbyn and his supporters still face the problem of dealing with a Blairite fifth column within his own party. This opposition from within is far from being totally silenced by the result of the election, but at least part of it has had the good grace since Thursday night to accept that its judgements about the limits of the politically feasible were wrong. When the Labour Party’s finally adopted a manifesto that offered an alternative to neoliberal capitalist austerity under a leader whose style reduced alienation from mainstream politics, the result of this UK election confounded all expectations. This result was not simply because young people decided to turn out to vote, very important though that was. It was also because some working class voters in the economically depressed northeast region who had previously supported the xenophobic right-wing populism of UKIP, blaming Blair’s “New Labour” for presiding over their region’s economic decline and adding insult to injury by taking them for granted, returned to Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party instead of transferring their allegiance to the Conservatives.
Neither of those things would have happened with a less adventurous manifesto, which proved attractive to voters despite being attacked as a return to “tax and spend” or a fantasy based on an imaginary “money tree”. UK corporate taxation is relatively low and borrowing to invest in raising productivity is neither eccentric nor irrational. Jeremy Corbyn’s calm, dignified, and listening leadership and his interest in communicating with voters does deserve a good deal of the credit for Labour’s recovery, contrasting strongly with May’s catastrophic aloofness and the endless repetition of empty phrases that won her the soubriquet of “the Maybot”. By the end of the campaign and in her efforts to pick up the pieces, she showed herself to be a “Maybot” that could not be reprogrammed or rebooted, as Guardian columnist John Crace wittily put it. But the content of Labour’s manifesto was crucial, above and beyond the weakness of a Conservative pitch that was un-costed and contained elements so badly formulated that it was inevitable that they would worry Conservative voters, notably the “dementia tax”. That underscores the importance of asking what Corbyn might have accomplished had he not started off with the disadvantage of disengagement within his own party to add to the problem of ruthless attacks from a largely pro-Conservative press. In my constituency in Manchester, the Labour candidate secured over 70% of the vote but his electoral material scrupulously avoided reference to the party leader and focused principally on local issues, following the lead of the recently elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, Burham even repeated the idiotic critique of Corbyn’s speech after the Manchester bombing for “failing to recognise that ‘Islamic’ terrorism predated Western reactions to 9/11”. With comrades like that within his party Corbyn needs no enemies without.
Hopefully these people will now do some serious rethinking as it may not be long before we have another general election. I also hope that Lula and the Brazilian Workers Party, which abandoned its original identification with “socialism” to win elections, provoking the split that led to the founding of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), finds the lesson of what has happened in the UK useful and moves away from its past acceptance of many neoliberal principles of economic management and willingness to use state funding to support a private sector that squandered many of the opportunities PT governments provided. The 2016 coup demonstrated the longer term futility of trying to please both workers and crony capitalists under Brazilian conditions.
This is not the place to offer a more detailed critical analysis of the contradictions of what the PT actually did in government. (I’ve done so elsewhere with my wife, Maria Gabriela Hita, but for a Spanish speaking audience at the LASA congress in Lima, English version to be published by Berghahn in 2018). As far as the politics of now is concerned, the immediate problem facing the PT, and the rest of a still disunited Brazilian left, which also includes, at least in principle, the Democratic Labour Party founded by Leonel Brizola to continue but extend through the more inclusive idea of “moreno socialism” the historical legacy of Getúlio Vargas’s populist embrace of “Labourism”, is that Brazil’s current political crisis is about whether Brazilians will actually have a meaningful opportunity any time soon to vote on their future. A package of neoliberal austerity on steroids is being imposed on them via a coup backed by Brazilian bankers, real estate speculators, industrialists and agribusiness that not only stands for social regression and abandonment of the vestiges of economic nationalism that the PT governments did maintain, but has also strengthened the socially illiberal sectors of Brazilian society. Nevertheless, although it is particularly clear in the case of Brazil that all socially liberal and democratic forces need to think deeply about reforming the political system itself, it is worth spending a little more time reflecting on the contradictions of the British political system before returning to the Brazilian scenario.
As Theresa May struggles with the consequences of a “hung parliament” and the jibe of former Tory finance minister turned newspaper editor George Osbourne that she is a “dead woman walking”, the current UK situation is likely to renew arguments about whether the British simple majority-based (“First past the Post”) electoral system is adequately democratic. Its defenders claim that it makes for “strong and coherent” government, since coalitions are not normally necessary. But by losing the Tories an overall majority, May’s snap election has not produced the “strong and stable” government which was her own main campaign pitch. Brazil offers an example of the possible downsides of a system that makes coalition government inevitable. Cabinet offices and bureaucratic sinecures have to be distributed amongst members of allied parties irrespective of ideological differences. Governments have to horse trade extensively to win parliamentary support to enact legislation, and in Brazil the horse trading all too often involves bribing politicians using resources that are acquired through corrupt relations with private companies bidding for public contracts. But there are also positive examples, even in Brazil, of administrations that make the most of including a plurality of figures from different parties, and as the advocates of proportional representation in the UK have always argued, continental Europe offers plenty of positive counter-examples of the virtues of coalition government. In a simple majority system, tactical voting becomes an art form, and responsible parties often stand down their candidates to avoid splitting the vote and allowing the party they most dislike to win with a minority share of the vote.
It is unfortunate that the UK’s most recent experience of coalition, the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that followed Labour’s failure to win a majority in 2010, mainly pursued the agenda of the dominant Conservative partner (a failure that cost the Liberals’ former leader, Nick Clegg, his parliamentary seat last Thursday). Under Cameron, modern UK conservatism itself was strengthened by its relative liberalism on social questions and incorporation into government of conservative elite representatives of ethnic minorities, including British Muslims, although the party cannot compete with the pluralism of Labour’s new crop of MPs. But the Conservative Party itself was also a coalition of warring interests, and Cameron’s attempt to resolve that problem by holding the Brexit referendum blew up in his face. History has now repeated itself, and the legacy of the original Brexit referendum vote, with its strong generational and regional divides, was still evident on June 8 in differences in voting patterns between constituencies dominated by electors who voted “remain” in the referendum and ones where the “leave” vote prevailed.
Nevertheless, the results of Theresa May’s gamble to increase her majority in parliament through a snap election might seem to underscore the strength of British democratic institutions, as did the successful legal challenges by private citizens in our Supreme Court to her initial refusal to allow parliament a vote on triggering the process of British withdrawal from the European Union. The chances of May herself remaining prime minister for the next five years are probably zero (and the knives are being sharpened already, although in the short term the Conservatives seem to be stuck with her). But the Conservative party did win the highest number of parliamentary seats, and although it lacks an absolute majority of the popular vote, its share of the popular vote (48.9%) is higher than that of its nearest rival, the Labour Party (40.3%), although it is important to stress that this was Labour’s largest share of the popular vote since Blair’s victory in 2001. Labour was followed at a long distance by the Scottish Nationalists on 5.4%, the Liberal Democrats on 1.8% and the Democratic Unionists (DUP) on 1.5%. Under the rules of British Parliamentary Democracy, Teresa May is entitled to govern with the support of the DUP, which would not only provide a majority in parliament, but also be based on a combined share of the UK popular vote of (just) over 50%. This is arguably a stronger basis for claiming a popular mandate than Donald Trump has at his disposal.
Yet despite the absence of politically feasible alternatives, a Conservative-DUP alliance solution to the problem of securing “governability” has obvious downsides, even though it is not to take the form of complete coalition, but a “confidence and supply” agreement under which the DUP would agree to vote with the government on legislative proposals in specified areas. The first problem is that the process of constructing a new power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland was already stalled. Whilst that might not constitute an immediate threat to the continuity of the peace process, an alliance between the British government and the DUP as only one side in Northern Ireland’s contentious politics could prove very destabilising, and the Irish prime minister has now voiced public concern over the matter. The second problem is the strong social illiberalism of the DUP. The only conservative who has emerged from this election in a strong position is the Scottish party leader, Ruth Davidson, whose success in capturing seats for her party from the Scottish Nationalists has not only transformed Conservative fortunes in Scotland and limited the impact of a more modest Labour come-back north of the border, but also made it much less likely that there will be a second Scottish independence referendum in the near future. As a LGBT rights campaigner about to marry her female partner of Irish Catholic background, Davidson was quick to demand “categoric assurances” from Theresa May that no concessions would be made to the DUP on this or other fronts on which existing Conservative policy would be compromised. As others were quick to point out, the DUP’s postures are indeed problematic on many fronts, including climate change, because the party embodies a strong streak of Christian fundamentalism.
A third problem is that the DUP favours a “soft” Brexit and has red lines on the subject of the border and freedom of movement and customs arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and the Province of Northern Ireland that could constitute a difficulty as the Brexit negotiations unfold if May finds herself trapped into a corner by the “No deal is better than a bad deal” posture that she repeated ad nauseam during the election campaign. Fourthly, adding another gaffe to the tally of recent weeks, May announced that a deal had been struck with the DUP prematurely, only to be told by DUP leader Arlene Foster that there needed to be more negotiation over the scope of the agreement. Since a fifth problem with the DUP is that it needs to attend to the concerns of working class protestants, and is opposed to measures that hit pensioners and damage the National Health Service, it is not only opposed to most of May’s austerity agenda, but likely to demand extra resources for schools and hospitals in Northern Ireland. Given the imminent start of Brexit negotiations and May’s vulnerability, she may have to concede more than will prove prudent in the long term, thereby stacking up future problems.
So the British parliamentary system has brought us to a situation of horse trading that may seem nothing in comparison with its Brazilian congressional equivalent but remains fraught with dangers for a weakened Conservative party under a seriously discredited leader who will also have to continue to contend with divisions within the ranks of her own party that could become quite a problem in the coming weeks and months because of Brexit. A number of Tory MPs now have very small majorities. There is elite pressure for a “soft” Brexit (and some moves even to propose that Brexit should actually be abandoned) but May has locked herself into maintaining unrealistic promises about immigration and the speed with which alternative trade deals might be struck with countries outside the EU. The parliamentary situation is made a little easier for May because Sinn Fein MPs refuse to take up their seats in Westminster on grounds of nationalist principle (though Sinn Fein has in fact abandoned quite a lot of its earlier principles in other areas and is now fairly centrally situated in the field of politics as usual). But with all these pitfalls ahead of the government, British parliamentary life is certainly going to be lively.
Although the fact that UKIP failed to gain any seats in this election indicates that part of this political problem for the Tories has been solved, at least for now, the cost of this election is that the Conservative government itself has nowhere to go but further rightwards, locked into an economic strategy that is likely to get even more unpopular as the consequences of Brexit bite more deeply. May has been unwilling to utter any public criticism of Donald Trump, even in the context of his decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris climate agreement, when his foreign policy decisions justified Joseph Stiglitz’s assertion that Trump has turned the United States of America into a rogue state, and the US ambassador to London felt obliged to defend the Muslim Labour mayor of London Sadiq Kahn against the idiocy of Trump’s tweets. Trump may still turn out to be a very useful idiot for US corporate interests, but May is looking anything but a safe pair of hands even from that perspective. It is not simply the minefield of Brexit negotiations that may force May’s new government into new elections relatively soon.
A new election could result in further Labour recovery in its old heartlands in Scotland and the North of England and further reinforcement of a new found strength in the south of England that even lost the conservatives Kensington and has left May’s home secretary and TV debate stand-in, Amber Rudd, with a wafer thin majority in the Hastings and Rye constituency. What the Conservatives might have going for them under the current electoral system were their plans to reduce the number of members of parliament to 600 and change constituency boundaries in a way that would disadvantage Labour, but another downside of calling an extraordinary election before the scheduled end of what was to have been a five year fixed term parliament, from the Conservative point of view, is that these plans had to be put on hold. It is too early to speculate on what might happen now, particularly if this new government does not continue until 2022. But we can at least be sure that both public and parliamentary debate is now going to present the incumbents with bigger challenges than in the past. If young people do not become disillusioned with politics again, and Labour builds on what it has achieved already, rallying and unifying opposition to unpopular Conservative policies and perhaps even following Corbyn’s instincts on issues such as the horrendously expensive renewal of a nuclear deterrent that is irrelevant to today’s security challenges, we could be looking at very considerable change in British politics and society, including relative to Labour’s last tenure of office.
Finally, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that demographics have a lot to do with the current shape of British politics. The Conservatives (and Brexiters) have benefited from the support of an ageing population, much of which has experienced an undermining of its identities and sense of place in the world, all too frequently misrecognising the causes of these changes because Blair’s Labour just went with the neoliberal capitalist flow and argued that any other posture was electoral suicide. May no doubt hoped that her recognition that something had to be done about the tax burden that caring for older people would place on the young would work in her favour. Her problem is that younger people concluded that there were other ways of raising the taxes and that doing something to correct the inequalities produced by a financialised neoliberal capitalist system would be more likely to improve their lives than expropriating the modest patrimony accumulated by an earlier generation of workers and middle class professionals.
Brazil’s incumbents also face growing challenges, but of a different kind. The current executive was not elected but came to power because the lower house of congress and senate provided the necessary votes in favour of impeachment of the democratically elected president with more or less total disregard for whether a judicially valid case really existed to condemn Dilma Rousseff for crimes of responsibility. The parliamentarians who judged Dilma enjoy exceptionally high levels of remuneration in comparison with their British counterparts, along with special pension privileges. They suffered from low public esteem even before so many of them were touched by the country’s federal police corruption investigations and by Attorney General Rodrigo Janot’s determination to keep asking the Supreme Court to open cases against politicians affiliated to the parties supporting the coup. The former vice-president who achieved office through that coup. Michel Temer of the PT’s largest coalition partner, the PMDB, never enjoyed approval ratings that might have won him an election as a candidate in his own right, and is now rejected as worse than Rousseff by a majority of Brazilian electors. The economic situation has continued to deteriorate under his administration for most people, with only the agribusiness export sector showing any growth, and that is a growth that will be increasingly at the expense of the environment, rural workers and indigenous people as the coup’s regressive legislation is put into practice. Most Brazilians reject the package of measures that Temer’s government pushed through congress by resorting to the long established methods of offering interest groups and individual political representatives material inducements to vote in favour of them.
But now, as a result of the plea bargaining testimonies of executives of Odebrecht and JBS, we now have a detailed picture of the scale of the corruption that pervades the political party system. This is not simply a matter of illegal campaign funding, but charges of personal corruption that have touched key figures of the current cabinet, most of its congressional base, and finally, the illegitimate president himself. The defeated candidate in the 2014 presidential election, Aécio Neves of the PSDB, the party that had hopes of being the principal long-term beneficiary of the coup, has now been unmasked as a national champion in this kind of activity, even in a country where politicians with relatively “clean hands” do exist but are conspicuously thin on the ground to judge by evidence now made available in the public sphere by order of Supreme Court judge Edson Fachin.
Plea bargaining evidence should always be taken with a pinch of salt, and at least some prosecutors seem to have made it clear that sentences would only be reduced for giving the “right answers” (that is, mentioning the names of ex-presidents Lula and Dilma and other leading figures in the PT). But federal police investigators have now produced independent evidence of wrongdoing in the cases of Neves and Temer. Temer’s position should theoretically have become untenable following the imprisonment by order of the Supreme Court of his “bag man”, advisor and former federal deputy, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, who argued that having his head shaved on arrival at the penitentiary would constitute “inhuman and cruel treatment”. Rocha Loures seems likely to be adding his voice to the growing chorus of accused seeking to mitigate their sentences very soon. Temer’s apparent efforts to obstruct justice in collusion with the boss of the JBS meat-packing company in the interests of silencing the now imprisoned former leader of the lower house of congress and initiator of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Eduardo Cunha, have backfired on him, since crimes committed while in office are not included in the immunity to investigation granted to incumbent presidents. But Temer is still refusing to resign. Neves has been removed from the Senate by the Supreme Court and has been removed from the presidency of his party, the PSDB. But he is still talking to Temer, and struggling to prevent the PSDB abandoning the ruling coalition. These conversations seem to be gravitating around mutual saving of skins.
One means of removing Temer without resignation or impeachment would have been for the Supreme Court judges of the Higher Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to rule the 2014 election result invalid because of illegal campaign financing, in response to the action brought against the Dilma-Temer ticket by Aécio Neves as sore loser. But the judge with primary responsibility for the case, Herman Benjamin, failed to convince a majority of his colleagues that the new evidence provided by plea bargaining testimonies should be included alongside that offered and available when the case was initially launched. The final verdict was split, with three judges in favour of removing Temer from office by concluding that the successful election campaign of Dilma and Temer was based on abuse of political and economic power and three against. This gave the casting vote to the TSE president, Gilmar Mendes, who backed the colleagues who voted against declaring the 2014 electoral mandate invalid. Mendes has always been known for his PSDB sympathies and when it was basically a case of Aécio Neves versus Dilma, appeared to be leaning toward a different position. Voting in favour would have resulted in damage to Dilma’s reputation and removal of her rights to seek future political office for enough years to end her political career. But removing Temer now would complicate speedy completion of the coup’s legislative agenda and could open the way for a strong campaign for the direct election of a successor.
Although the cancellation of the result of a presidential election would be virgin legal territory complicated by the existing provisions of the 1988 Constitution, direct elections have been allowed when state governors have been removed from office on these grounds. Should there be a direct election now, all polls indicate that ex-president Lula would win easily against all comers, and he could not be made ineligible to stand by a quick verdict on one of the legal processes being conducted against him in the lower court of Judge Moro in Curitiba in time to prevent him from standing because he would appeal to the Supreme Court. Trying to stop Lula by judicial means at this moment could also have severely destabilising and unpredictable political consequences. But the scheduled elections in 2018 would be a completely different ball game. The coup therefore needs to play for more time and so on this occasion Mendes argued that it was not the TSE’s job to resolve a political crisis, adding that Brazil needed a political reform that should represent a move towards a system that was less presidential and more parliamentary. Congress does, of course, still have the option of removing Temer by impeachment, but that would also take a considerable time, quite possibly up until virtually the end of Temer’s existing mandate, assuming the congress approved impeachment in the first place.
At first sight, the Brazilian congress is hardly an institution that merits confidence as an arbiter of political disputes, dominated as it is by politicians funded by companies like Odebrecht and JBS. Temer himself conceded in an interview that Dilma’s impeachment had been carried forward by Eduardo Cunha as an act of revenge because she refused to protect him from prosecution for corruption. He may have more confidence in Cunha’s successor, Rodrigo Maia, of the right-wing Democrats (who is himself under investigation). Furthermore, there are a very large number of other parliamentarians, in both the lower house and the Senate, who are strongly motivated to contribute to a collective effort to impede the anti-corruption investigations and thwart actual convictions. They might be willing to see Temer fall and replace him by indirect election with another figure who would be motivated to continue to protect their interests, but by brazening it out, Temer may be banking on concerns that this would be a risky strategy.
JBS, we now know, was one of the companies that covertly funded the pro-impeachment street protests that helped prepare the political ground for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff (despite having received a good deal of help from the PT governments in building itself into a major international company whose products are sold in British supermarkets). The present congress also includes evangelicals who campaign for socially illiberal causes and run their churches as big business. Mendes, who is much more liberal on social questions, presumably recognises this downside of actually existing Brazilian parliamentarianism, but he has also adopted positions that call anti-corruption investigations into question and seem designed to foster a solution to the political crisis in which the existing mainstream party that he supports, the PSDB, can continue with politics as usual, recover from Aécio Neves’s disgrace, and contribute to the completion in this parliament of a legislative agenda that protects capitalist interests at the expense of everyone else.
Nevertheless, Temer is not essential to the coup project, is still vulnerable to police and Supreme Court action, and should he eventually be removed or forced to resign and be replaced by a new indirectly elected president supportive of the coup agenda, this would not impede the reproduction, at least for the time being, of the status quo in terms of party machines and the alliances between them. Some smaller parties, notably the PSB (Brazilian Socialist Party) have now withdrawn their support for Temer. Some members of congress are concerned about not securing re-election if they vote for measures rejected by their constituents and others will not vote for anything without material incentives, but the PSDB is still part of Temer’s government, including the foreign minister, also under investigation. The fact that there are so many investigations underway that affect the PSDB no doubt makes abandoning Temer a less attractive option, but everything depends on how fast all these investigations move and whether anything can still be done to impede them.
The latest scandal to break is a new report in Veja magazine (the Brazilian press at its most reactionary, and it should be said, quite often mendacious). Veja claims that Temer asked the Brazilian intelligence service to spy on supreme court judge Edson Fachin, responsible for the Lava Jato investigations. The supreme court’s president, Carmen Lúcia, imediately demanded an investigation, remarking that this would represent an unconstitutional attack on democratic liberties and institutions, the kind of practice that belonged to dictatorships.
Temer has predictably denied all, and Fachin himself recently claimed not to believe that “high authorities of the Republic” were attempting to interfere in the Lava Jato investigations. Yet some analysts are arguing that the postures being adopted by Veja and the Globo media empire indicate the development of an alternative solution to defending the coup that would be based on allowing the existing political class to be destroyed, Italian-style, and turning Brazil into a police state in which judges act as apparently neutral arbiters, in a context in which politics has already become highly judicialised and elements of the judiciary are not politically neutral. There are politicised factions within both the federal police and federal prosecution service, there are individuals within the justice system who may well harbour political ambitions, there are judges who had relations with executives of companies such as JBS, and there are people in all institutions simply trying to do their jobs properly and honestly. The problem is knowing who really stands for what in a world of double-speak and dissimulation. Brazilian politics as usual has offered those who enter this swamp really significant opportunities to make money out of office holding, simply being a politician is an attractive job, and the plethora of political parties reflects the opportunities provided by product differentiation in the market for political commodities as well as some significant differences in ideological positions, albeit with reaction currently in the ascendent as far as political representation is concerned. Reforming this system is a challenge, and one that few of the existing actors seem to wish to embrace, given the advantages of mutually advantageous deal-making. Nevertheless, tempers are fraying. A few days ago a parliamentarian supporting the coup who was steering another socially regressive decree through the lower house of congress reacted to an impassioned speech of objection by a PT member of the committee by shouting “how dare you insult me in my own house?!” When his opponent responded, equally angrily, that this wasn’t his house but “the house of the people”, parliamentary decorum broke down completely and parliamentarians started throwing punches, not for the first time in recent debates.
Although the constitution could be amended, were congress willing to do this, should Temer not complete his mandate indirect election of a successor by the congress is what the constitution specifies as things stand. This temporary presidential replacement could be a judge or any other figure judged above reproach, but there is still little sign of anyone plausible being willing to step up to the plate. This is hardly surprising: anyone from outside the ranks of existing politicians would then have to form a government and deal with an unreformed congress. Temer is resisting removal for the obvious reason that he would immediately lose his present immunity from prosecution for any past crimes committed before he took office as president. Although the Supreme Court accepted Rodrigo Janot’s request for permission to investigate Temer for possible crimes committed during his presidency, he has so far refused even to supply written answers to a long list of questions sent to him by the federal investigators as something beneath his dignity.
So the crisis will continue at least a while longer, with every day probably presenting a new surprise as the different factions struggling to assert their influence in the state make their moves and, no doubt, continue to bargain with each other behind the scenes. The 2016 coup has provoked a crisis of institutions that is touching the judicial branch of the state as well as the entire political class and its ways of doing business. The “house of the people” does contain some genuine representatives of the people practising civic and republican virtues, but it contains rather more representatives of vested interests, mostly of a reactionary kind. One of the world’s largest economies is in ruins, unemployment is continuing to rise, poverty is returning, and Brazil has lost the economic and diplomatic impetus it was developing as a leading member of the BRICS and a force on the world stage less beholden to the United States. A large segment of “the people”, across all generations and social classes, now seems disposed, at present, to recast Lula in the role of “national saviour”.
The PT was a social democratic not a populist party (although Lula himself has always made good use of a populist style), but political rhetoric on the left is increasingly appealing to the figures of the populist past, Getúlio Vargas, Leonel Brizola, João Goulart, and even Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who built Brasilia as a new capital fit for “the country of the future”. None of this is really indicative of a healthy democracy, still face forward to the future. The country needs direct elections, followed by deep reforms, to put this crisis behind it, but what the left hopes for, a popular mobilisation on the streets so massive that it would be irresistible, has still not materialised, although it may be emerging now: 100,000 turned out in Salvador this Sunday. If it proves possible to use the judicial process to block a Lula candidacy, and no strong alternative emerges on the left, the danger must be that when elections finally come, disillusion with democracy may win. The message of the polls that make Lula a front runner against other known candidates is that null and blank votes are actually in second place. In what is now a deeply polarised society, if the left as a whole cannot get its act together, direct elections in 2018 could result in the capture of the presidency by Jair Bolsonaro as candidate of the extreme right, with a minority of the popular vote, or the triumph of a wealthy political outsider, for which Brazil already has the unhappy precedent set by Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-92), the first president to be directly elected, beating Lula, after the end of the military dictatorship. This time, however, an outsider might have a better chance than Collor of getting surviving insiders of the centre-right and elements of the existing PMDB and PSDB machines on side, and be able to consolidate the economic objectives of the coup.
What has happened in Britain shows that hope should spring eternal and that challenging austerity with a coherent alternative program is a potentially winning strategy. Given the demonstrated antagonism to austerity and the rest of the coup package of a majority of Brazilian electors, including many electors who supported the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, it should be possible to turn things round in Brazil too. But the impediments posed by an unreformed political system are much greater in Brazil than they are in the UK., and even in the UK, the “dead woman walking” is still prime minister for the moment. Michel Temer has had the misfortune of looking uncannily like Nosferatu from the start, but he is still just about walking too. Corbyn says that he is banking on there being a second election this year or early in 2018, which he expects to win. That is certainly not impossible. The problem with Brazil is that what is now possible remains subject to many more uncertainties and that is the measure of how far these two national political systems differ in ways that are, in the last analysis, important.