The death of Brazil’s social democracy

. May 31, 2019
Social Democracy Party leader João Doria João Doria taking office as the governor of São Paulo

Today, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) as we know it will come to an end. Barring a hecatomb, São Paulo Governor João Doria is set to confirm his grip of the party—ending the rule of the intellectuals of the São Paulo elite and marking PSDB’s sharp turn to the right. In a race with one only candidate, former member of Congress Bruno Araújo (who cast the deciding vote on Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment) will be elected the party’s chairman after being handpicked by Mr. Doria.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Last week, during an event introducing new members to the party, Mr. Doria set the tone for the future of the &#8220;new PSDB,&#8221; as he called it. &#8220;From now on, the party won&#8217;t live off its past glories, it will do things differently.&#8221; And, to show who&#8217;s the boss, he added: &#8220;Those who don&#8217;t agree are free to leave.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Until last year, the PSDB was one of Brazil&#8217;s most important political parties. Founded by a group of politicians with a long history in politics, it presented itself as a group that would conciliate social policies with pro-market reforms. It won two presidential elections by a landslide, in 1994 and 1998. Despite several mistakes and many corruption allegations, PSDB&#8217;s time in office was marked by important reforms and investments, and for starting the wealth distribution policies that would be boosted by the Workers&#8217; Party, under former President Lula.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">After its two major electoral wins, the PSDB finished runner-up in the next four following races, defining itself as </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">the </span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">alternative to the <a href="">Workers&#8217; Party</a> across that span. As Lula&#8217;s party became the hegemonic force in the center, the social democrats slowly—but steadly—moved towards the right. Now, after the party&#8217;s abysmal performance in the 2018 elections (where it received less than 5 percent of the votes), that transformation is complete.</span></p> <p><script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script></p> <h2>The new king in the nest</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Founded in 1988, the PSDB has always been marked by internal divisions. With too many politicians who see themselves as presidential material, leaders&#8217; number one priority seemed to be not to let fellow party members become too powerful, more than actually winning elections against the Workers&#8217; Party. The rise of João Doria, as it happens, is the result of such a dynamic.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Until three years ago, João Doria wasn&#8217;t even a member of the PSDB. An ad man who briefly presented the Brazilian version of </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Apprentice</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, Mr. Doria was introduced in 2016 as a possible candidate for the São Paulo mayoral election by then-state Governor Geraldo Alckmin—who wanted to control the party and assure that he would be on the party&#8217;s 2018 presidential ticket. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">And while Mr. Alckmin flopped as a candidate, his former protégé won the mayoral race by a landslide and quickly consolidated himself as the party&#8217;s main force. In the final weeks of the 2018 campaign, when Mr. Doria was trying to make the leap from mayor to governor, he unapologetically abandoned Mr. Alckmin, declaring support for the winning horse, Jair Bolsonaro.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Old school leaders had little reaction to Mr. Doria&#8217;s speedy takeover of their party, in part because of their lack of electoral strength, but also because the party&#8217;s historical top brass has seen itself involved in scandal after scandal. &#8220;It has been a walkover—the old guys are politically dead,&#8221; said a party member.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;What happens now is the peak of a process that started decades ago—it&#8217;s PSDB&#8217;s final transformation. The party was born as a center-left group, a combination of social democracy enthusiasts and Christian democrats. As it becomes more successful, it incorporates new leaders, who are always to the right of the original ideals,&#8221; <a href="">told </a></span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Época</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> political scientist Fernando Bizarro, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University—who studied the party&#8217;s history.</span></p> <h2>The &#8220;Black Heads&#8221; in the Social Democracy Party</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Once upon a time a center-left party, the PSDB never knew how to deal with being out of power. It gradually shifted more and more to the right, falling into a gray area that was too conservative for liberals, and too liberal for conservatives. On many divisive issues, the party was also blamed for being overly cautious and always on the fence.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Those days are over, according to the group coming into power. The new ruling faction is known as the “Black Heads” (a reference to their youth and lack of gray hair), a new brand of politicians who are less social democratic and more hardcore right-wing. Besides taking sides in all matters, as Mr. Doria has pledged, the new group wants to distance itself from the image of lenience towards corruption. A new code of ethics was approved, setting harsher penalties for members battling criminal allegations—and expulsion for those with convictions.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">And true to the new zeitgeist in Brazilian politics, the party may even go after a total rebranding—dropping the name &#8220;Social Democracy&#8221; and tossing its classic toucan mascot. A merger with Democratas, a long-time conservative allied party, is not out of the question.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">All of this is being done with one thing in mind: the 2022 presidential election. There are few certainties in Brazilian politics—one of them is that João Doria will be on the next presidential ballot.

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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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