Of the last five presidential elections in Brazil, four were won by a single political party. The Workers’ Party has been the single largest force in the country’s politics since the turn of the millennium, governing Brazil for 14 years, uninterrupted.

Its reign ended in 2016, when President Dilma Rousseff was impeached by Congress after being caught doctoring the federal budget. Two years later, its hopes of returning to the presidency were dashed as the party lost out to far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro.

In the wake of the result, the first time the Workers’ Party had been defeated at a presidential election since 1998, losing candidate Fernando Haddad promised an opposition which would “defend the interests of the Brazilian people,” and it was believed the party would do everything in its power to constrain the incoming Jair Bolsonaro government.

The reality has been quite different. In the heated political debates of 2019—the elections for House Speaker and Senate President, the proposal to reform the pension system—the Workers’ Party has been nowhere to be seen.

What became of the Workers' Party?

Its lack of protagonism is made even more strange by the fact the party was not decimated in the 2018 elections—certainly not to the extent of other traditional political parties such as the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party. “In local elections, the Workers’ Party actually did fairly well,” says Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a columnist at The Brazilian Report. “It is the party with the highest number of state governors, and it has the second largest bench in the House of Representatives.”

Crucially, however, the party’s reasonable performance at the polls—not considering the presidential race—came largely in the North-east and North of the country. The Workers’ Party lost a lot of representation in the richer Southeast.

The low-key role of the Workers’ Party since the election can largely be put down to two factors, says Mr. Santoro. Divisions within the party itself, and on the Brazilian left as a whole.

Left behind

In the first round of the 2018 presidential election, the second and third-placed candidates were both ostensibly from the left of center. Workers’ Party’s candidate Fernando Haddad won the spot in the runoff against Jair Bolsonaro, but Ciro Gomes, from the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), was not too far behind. Combined, the pair won over 41 percent of votes. In a post-electoral scenario, an alliance between the two would represent a solid opposition which would make life very difficult for the president.

The problem is that this joining of forces has not happened, with the fractures between these two opposition symbols appearing to be based on personal reasons rather than anything ideological. Ciro Gomes was upset that the Workers’ Party did not choose to back his presidential bid, while the Lula’s party were ticked off my Mr. Gomes’ decision to fly to France on holiday during the crucial electoral runoff.

Trouble at home, and across the border

The most profound issue with the Workers’ Party, and the reason it has not yet provided any forceful opposition to Jair Bolsonaro, lies in one essential internal conflict, embodied by one man: former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

During last year’s presidential election, the Workers’ Party insisted that Lula was the party’s candidate. However, he was (and remains) in jail on corruption and money laundering charges, meaning that electoral laws forbade him from running. Despite this outcome being clear, the party dug its heels in and campaigned anyway, refusing to change its candidate and claiming Lula was a political prisoner.

By the time the party faced reality and swapped Lula out for Fernando Haddad, it was too late. Mr. Haddad missed a number of important debates and had no time to sell himself to a population which barely knew him.

gleisi hoffmann

Congresswoman Gleisi Hoffmann

There is a wing of the Workers’ Party which is committed to the unwavering defense of former president Lula, maintaining his innocence and claiming there is a large conspiracy against him. This faction is represented by the party’s chairperson, Gleisi Hoffmann. Despite whatever merit their arguments may have, Mr. Santoro is skeptical of its effectiveness. “It’s a difficult platform to keep up, because [Lula] has now been convicted twice.”

Mr. Santoro calls this wing of the Workers’ Party “conservative,” in the sense that it is “still completely attached to the political agenda of the Lula years [2003-2010, particularly when it comes to Venezuela.”

The crisis in Venezuela is of utmost importance when it comes to where Workers’ Party situates itself in the current political conjecture. “The party seems completely unable to come up with any criticism of [Venezuelan president Nicolás] Maduro, or distance itself from his regime,” says Mr. Santoro.

In domestic politics, this dominant wing still sees its main cause as calling for Lula’s release, instead of actually providing any real opposition to the government.

There is another faction in the party, however, revolving around beaten presidential candidate Fernando Haddad. Though the friction between them was painfully clear during the electoral campaign, with Ms. Hoffmann and Mr. Haddad contradicting each other at every turn.

The reality is, according to Mr. Santoro, that as long as Lula is the central figure of the party, this internal dispute will persist. “Realistically, the only chance of Lula stepping back from the Workers’ Party is after he’s dead,” he adds.

Pension reform: a golden opportunity

The major debate in Brazilian politics right now is Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to overhaul the country’s pension system. His economic team has submitted its proposal to Congress, and while pundits on all sides have suggested it is a fairly reasonable proposal—under the circumstances—it is widely accepted that it will not pass as is.

As the largest and most traditional opposition party, one would expect the Workers’ Party to take the lead on this front. Pensions are a delicate topic for any society, and simply offering a strong critique (and potentially even an alternate reform proposal) would be a win-win situation for the party. None of this has happened yet. Besides some organized street protests from trade unions sympathetic to the Workers’ Party, opposition to the reform is largely coming from politicians within Congress, looking to protect their interests.

“An alternative reform would be one that goes after the privileges of the richest members of society and decreases inequality,” says Mr. Santoro. “I don’t think the Workers’ Party has a proposal like that prepared.”

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PowerFeb 26, 2019

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BY The Brazilian Report

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