Brazilian Social Democracy Party reaches 30 with little to celebrate

. Jun 27, 2018
psdb history PSDB leaders in the 1980s
psdb history

PSDB leaders in the 1980s

The date was June 21, 1995. Sérgio Motta, Brazil’s then-communications minister, was all smiles. In Brasilia, his Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) was settling into government having recorded an overwhelming victory at the 1994 presidential election. The PSDB candidate, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, received 54 percent of votes, wrapping up the election without the need for a second-round runoff. And all of this only six years after the party was formed, in 1988. The future seemed filled with possibilities for the PSDB.

“Our project is to hold power for at least 20 years,” said Mr. Motta back then. “The PSDB must be the dominating political force in Brazil.” When these predictions were made, few among Mr. Motta’s party members doubted they would come to fruition. Especially when, in 1998, Mr. Cardoso scored yet another first-round win at the presidential election. But flash-forward to 2018, and the reality of the PSDB is far less rosy than it once was.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Rejected by 75 percent of Brazilians, the party is lost. It lacks unity, militancy, and a clear project. Love it or hate it, you knew what the PSDB was about in the 1990s and early 2000s. When it took charge of the federal government, the party pushed for social democratic public policies, while being socially progressive and economically libertarian.</span></p> <div id="attachment_5363" style="width: 709px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-5363" class="size-full wp-image-5363" src="" alt="Mr. Cardoso during his inauguration, in 1995" width="699" height="420" srcset=" 699w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 699px) 100vw, 699px" /><p id="caption-attachment-5363" class="wp-caption-text">Mr. Cardoso during his inauguration, in 1995</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Now, the party is scrambling to avoid being relegated into obscurity. Some of its major leaders are at odds with the Justice system, and no one seems able to unite its multiple squabbling factions. This identity crisis is made explicit by the party&#8217;s underwhelming 30th-anniversary celebrations &#8211; a gathering of old male politicians in a conference room at the basement level of a hotel, without the presence of former President Cardoso.</span></p> <h3>How the PSDB used to be</h3> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Brazilian Social Democracy Party was officially registered on June 25, 1988 &#8211; amid work of the constituent assembly which drafted Brazil&#8217;s Constitution following 21 years of authoritarian rule. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This new party was formed by politicians who defected from the Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MDB, formerly PMDB), which was &#8211; and still is &#8211; a party without much of a defined ideology. The PMDB was the only party allowed to make a timid opposition and stand against the official party of the military dictatorship, ending up reuniting anyone who wasn&#8217;t with the generals &#8211; which explains its lack of identity.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">When the PMDB became a formal ally of the party that housed most of the politicians who supported the dictatorship, a group of center-left congressmen jumped ship, thus giving birth to a new political family.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Not everyone, though, believes that the origins of the PSDB are purely ideological. Political scientist Celso Roma </span><a href=";pid=S0102-69092002000200006&amp;lng=en&amp;nrm=iso&amp;tlng=pt"><span style="font-weight: 400;">claims</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> it was only a matter of disgruntled politicians wanting their own party. Mr. Roma wrote that &#8220;when we follow the trajectory of the PSDB, we can observe that it celebrates alliances with the forces it was bound to fight &#8211; and promotes the same agendas it was bound to reject.&#8221;</span></p> <h3>More and more to the right</h3> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But even if the PSDB was never as <a href="">ideologically pure</a> as its supporters like to believe, it was a truly centrist political family. However, after losing the presidency in 2002 to the Workers&#8217; Party &#8211; 12 years before the deadline given by Mr. Motta in 1995 &#8211; the PSDB was shrugged off the center and pushed towards the right-wing.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Once in power, the Workers&#8217; Party, led by then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, perfected and universalized several public policies started by the PSDB. Coupled with a commodities boom, which propelled the Brazilian economy to unprecedented levels of growth, Lula managed to help millions leave extreme poverty. At the same time, Lula&#8217;s administration continued the federal government&#8217;s policy of helping out business lobbies, helping the rich increase their fortune.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Very quickly, Lula and the Workers&#8217; Party became the political center in Brazil. In order to find an electorate of its own, the PSDB increasingly shifted its policies to the right-wing. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In 2002, current Senator José Serra was Lula&#8217;s adversary in the election runoff stage. Strip back the different rhetorical styles, and the proposals of both presidential candidates weren&#8217;t </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">that</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> different from one another. Mr. Serra, after all, was a man who grew up on the left, being a leader of student unions and living in exile during the dictatorship.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Four years later, the party had already moved a notch to the right. Geraldo Alckmin (who will be the PSDB candidate for 2018), a Catholic conservative, presented a more &#8220;hard on crime&#8221; stance that helped him avoid a Lula reelection in the first round. But that wasn&#8217;t enough to avoid Lula getting four more years.</span></p> <div id="attachment_5364" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-5364" class="size-large wp-image-5364" src="" alt="geraldo alckmin" width="1024" height="576" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-5364" class="wp-caption-text">Geraldo Alckmin</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In 2010, Mr. Serra returned to try and take over from Lula again &#8211; who enjoyed an 87 percent approval rating at the time. In a desperate move to avoid an electoral crush by Lula&#8217;s appointed rival, Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Serra played the abortion card to exhaustion. His campaign accused Ms. Rousseff, who had in previous years declared that she was in favor of the decriminalization of abortions, of promoting &#8220;the murder of babies.&#8221; Ironically, his campaign took a major hit when a video of his own wife admitting to having performed an abortion surfaced.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Since Ms. Rousseff&#8217;s reelection, the PSDB has surfed on the anti-Workers&#8217; Party wave, crushing the left in São Paulo&#8217;s 2016 municipal election. But that hatred towards Lula&#8217;s party is not enough, as it seems to fuel far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro rather than any name of PSDB, as shown by Mr. Alckmin&#8217;s paltry <a href="">poll numbers</a>. As a matter of fact, the party is in a limbo: it has become too conservative for centrists, but too moderate for conservatives.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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