Doria’s nods to the Workers’ Party show broad opposition could be a reality in Brazil

. Apr 06, 2020
doria Workers' Party show broad opposition could be a reality in Brazil João Doria has been the most prominent voice against the president. Photo: Govesp

João Doria, the Governor of São Paulo state, has been a reliable political weathervane since he emerged on the political scene. Possessing no firm political convictions of his own, he always seems the first to sense the direction of where the political wind is blowing. Since 2016, he has been reliably gliding in the direction of antipetismo, the Brazilian term for anti-Workers Party (PT) sentiment, which took him to a landslide first-round victory in the city of São Paulo’s mayoral elections. 

In 2018, further propelled by Jair Bolsonaro’s tailwind, he was elected governor, promoting a “Bolsodoria” platform to gobble up the anti-Workers’ Party vote in the state. Now with his gaze firmly fixed on the 2022 presidential elections, he has shifted from bashing the left and is instead attempting to position himself as the leader of a broad democratic front, against President Jair Bolsonaro.

Mr. Doria is

the most prominent voice among Brazilian state governors clashing with the president over his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. Last week he made a novel proposition, saying that in order to vanquish an incompetent and authoritarian president, a broad democratic coalition was needed, with space for both the center-right and center-left — including the Workers&#8217; Party. He declared that “the virus has neither ideology nor party, this is the moment for focus, serenity, and hard work to save Brazil and Brazilians.”</p> <p>For a man who has made his political fortune on <em>antipetismo</em>, this seems like a significant move. Indeed, it could mark a paradigm shift in Brazil politics, which has largely been defined by anti-Workers&#8217; Party sentiment since 2013. While his comments remain nothing more than words, Mr. Doria was willing to retweet former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and was praised by his former enemy, ex-President Dilma Rousseff. Away from public life since failing in a run for the Senate in 2018, <a href="">Ms. Rousseff noted</a> that her former adversary was “absolutely correct,&#8221; adding that they &#8220;are in the same boat.”</p> <h2>The power of the Workers&#8217; Party</h2> <p>João Doria — a former &#8220;Apprentice&#8221; host-turned-politician — was by no means the only one to rise to power on the back of <em>antipetismo</em>. It also was one of the central factors in Mr. Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral victory, as millions of voters turned out not-so-much in favor of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, but to keep the Workers&#8217; Party out of government. It stopped political figures hostile to Mr. Bolsonaro — such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso — from actively campaigning against the former Army captain in the second round of the elections. Even the outspoken center-left presidential candidate Ciro Gomes refused to endorse the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s Fernando Haddad in the runoff against Mr. Bolsonaro, preferring instead to jet off to Paris on holiday.</p> <p>Even as Jair Bolsonaro escalated his relentless attacks on democratic institutions since taking office, leading intellectuals and newspapers continue to make the false equivalence in terms of radicalism and threats to democracy between the moderate social democratic Workers&#8217; Party and the incumbent president, who openly talks of machine gunning his political rivals and praises the worst crimes of Brazil’s military dictatorship.</p> <p>For nearly two decades, the Workers&#8217; Party was the dominant force in Brazilian politics, winning four national elections in a row. Despite its recent devastating defeats, it remains the largest political party in the country. Due to the <a href="">Workers&#8217; Party’s relative success in government</a> and the cycle of economic growth and social policies under its stewardship, the opposition of both Brazil&#8217;s center-right and radical left defined itself as essentially opposition to the Workers&#8217; Party, rather than tied to any particular political vision. </p> <p>Once the party was mired in corruption scandals and targeted by mass street protests, this opposition radicalized into a type of irrational fury, almost unrelated to the Workers&#8217; Party’s actual record in government.</p> <p>While the Workers&#8217; Party’s time in government did see real errors and scandals, <em>antipetismo</em> seemed more inspired by a fantasy projection of the party as an international communist conspiracy or organized crime enterprise. The conclusion of both lines of thought was that the Workers&#8217; Party was a fundamentally illegitimate force that needed to be removed from power at all costs. This sentiment lingers to this day and figures such as influential journalist Vera Magalhães have harshly <a href="">condemned Mr. Doria for reaching out to the other side of the aisle</a>.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro and the coronavirus</h2> <p>At the time of publication, there have been <a href="">11,130 confirmed coronavirus infections</a> and 486 deaths in Brazil, and these figures are set to increase significantly in the coming week. President Bolsonaro’s approach to the crisis has been to repeat disinformation, urge his supporters to ignore the quarantine imposed by state governors, and attack anyone who follows the medical consensus on the disease. It has led many in opposition to conclude that Mr. Bolsonaro himself has become a threat to public health. Key supporters have been alienated and conflict has escalated between the president and his own Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked in public.</p> <p>If the public health and economic crisis brought about by the coronavirus becomes defined as the defining issue in Brazilian politics, the power of <em>antipetismo</em> would also wane. The coalition that <a href="">brought Bolsonarism together</a> was more or less bound by a dislike of the Workers&#8217; Party more than any shared vision. The president&#8217;s truculence has perhaps fatally fragmented his already fragile coalition.</p> <p>Almost his entire cabinet — with the crucial inclusions of Justice Minister Sergio Moro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes — is siding with Mr. Mandetta. The president&#8217;s handling of the pandemic has pushed almost all state governors of the left, center and right into a united opposition, his support in Congress is dwindling, and his allies in the Armed Forces are also displeased with Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. It appears as if only those from his far-right ideological core are still standing with the president.</p> <p>If tackling Covid-19 becomes a defining question in Brazilian politics, it could open up space for the Workers&#8217; Party to once again enter the political fray as an acceptable actor in Brazilian politics. If there is space in a ‘united opposition’ for the Workers&#8217; Party, it could signal the commencement of a new era in Brazilian politics.</p> <p>However, it is far too early to write the political obituaries for Jair Bolsonaro. He retains his core base of support and 53 percent of Brazilians oppose his resignation. The example of the president&#8217;s political idol Donald Trump is also worth paying attention to: leaders can come back from causing unnecessary death through denial and incompetence if they are seen as seriously responding to the crisis.</p> <p>However, throughout Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s political career, he has favored insults and confrontation. There is every chance he will allow state governors and Congress to handle the crisis, while he and his family hurl insults from the sidelines.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, if João Doria is a reliable gauge, the power of <em>antipetismo</em> is waning, and the battle lines of Brazilian politics have shifted once more.

Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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