The deinstitutionalization of Brazil’s Workers’ Party

. Aug 04, 2019
The deinstitutionalization of Brazil's Workers' Party

It sounds otherworldly to Brazilians today, but before he could win his first presidential election in 2002, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had to fight for the Workers’ Party presidential nomination with then-Senator Eduardo Suplicy. Sixteen years later, few party leaders openly challenged Lula’s will to run, from a jail cell, as the party’s de jure presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the de facto candidate, Fernando Haddad, waited in the wings for the moment Lula would be barred from running by Brazilian electoral courts.

</p> <p>The slow deinstitutionalization of the Workers&#8217; Party may not take more than one paragraph of the epitaphs for the political arrangement of Brazil&#8217;s &#8220;glorious twenty&#8221;—the period between 1994 and 2014 when everyone, even <em>The Economist</em>, thought Brazil had taken off. However, it will undoubtedly play a prominent role in describing how Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s first term in office has deepened the process of democratic erosion, started back in 2015.</p> <p>Left discombobulated after an unexpected defeat to a political nobody who despises almost everything the Workers&#8217; Party stands for, the Brazilian left—which has been led by Lula&#8217;s party since 1998—has <a href="">struggled to find the ground</a> from which it can fight back. The deinstitutionalization of the Workers&#8217; Party made everything worse.&nbsp;</p> <p>Unable to put its long-term electoral goals above Lula&#8217;s political fate, the party has been stuck in a loop: demanding Lula be freed, denying its responsibility in Brazil&#8217;s economic collapse, and dismissing well-documented cases of corruption during the Lula and Dilma Rousseff years as hoaxes. Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s government is pushing his agenda forward with little to no-organized partisan opposition. So far, the main antagonists have been the courts and the center-right House Speaker, Rodrigo Maia.</p> <p>The Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s deinstitutionalization started the day after Lula was selected in the party&#8217;s primaries. At that point, leaders made the choice that would push them forward beyond anything its founders ever imagined—in 2010, the Workers&#8217; Party became arguably the largest left-wing party of the democratic world—and which would erode the foundations on which the party was built. </p> <p>By moving from a mass-based model of political organization that relied extensively on grassroots mobilization to a capital-intensive, professional electoral machine suited to winning the presidential seat in Brazil&#8217;s massive national elections (around 117 million Brazilians turned out to vote in 2018), the Workers&#8217; Party sought the big prize without enough safeguards against the consequences of actually winning it.</p> <p>In multiparty presidential democracies, the holder of the national executive office is in a unique position vis-à-vis their party: their fate usually does not depend on their party&#8217;s support, but their party depends on the president. This creates a problem for party leaders: when in doubt, they need to put the president&#8217;s fate above their party&#8217;s, leading to what American political scientists David Samuels and Mathew Shugart call a <a href="">process of &#8220;presidentialization&#8221; of political parties</a>.</p> <p>As parties &#8220;presidentialize,&#8221; they become weaker. They are less able to control their most prominent member, the president, or to adapt to new electoral challenges. There are not many cases that fit the description of this process better than the Workers&#8217; Party.</p> <p>Experience suggested that the 2018 electoral defeat would provide the incentive for Workers&#8217; Party leaders to retake control. Lost elections are, the saying goes, the mother of all changes within political parties. </p> <p>However, as Oliver Stuenkel has <a href="">correctly pointed out</a>, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s continuous emphasis on polarization and the messages <a href="">revealed by </a><em><a href="">The Intercept</a></em> proving the close collaboration between Operation Car Wash prosecutors and the case&#8217;s judge, Sergio Moro (currently serving as Justice Minister), pulled the Workers&#8217; Party back to its Lula-centered trance, delaying the reorganization that the party and the Brazilian left so badly need.

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Fernando Bizzarro

Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Harvard's Department of Government. His research is focused on the nature, the causes, and the consequences of political institutions, particularly on political parties, regimes, and their impacts on human and economic development.

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