Lula’s party turns 40 in midlife crisis

. Feb 10, 2020
Lula at the Workers' Party's 40th anniversary Lula at the Workers' Party's 40th anniversary. Photos: Cláudio Kbene/PT

It has been 40 years since former trade-union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva founded the Workers’ Party, the most successful Brazilian political group in recent democratic history. It is hard to overstate the importance of the party to Brazilian politics—of the country’s eight democratic presidential elections since the end of the military dictatorship, the Workers’ Party won half of them, and was the runner-up in all the rest. It ruled Latin America’s biggest country during its most prosperous decade—but it also oversaw failed economic policies that helped push Brazil into its worst recession on record.

For many, the Workers’ Party—and Lula, its leading figure—is the only major political force in the country which has looked to the country’s poorest people, giving scale to social policies and lifting millions out of poverty. For many more, it is the representation of some of the country’s worst vices, with the party accused of using its progressive banners as a cover for pillaging the Brazilian state, a view corroborated by the uncovering of a series of corruption scandals.

</p> <p>These days, it is hard to find anyone in Brazil who is indifferent to Lula or his party.&nbsp;</p> <p>As it turns 40 years old, the Workers&#8217; Party is undergoing the toughest spell of its history and is trying to resurge from the crisis caused by Operation Car Wash, economic hardship, the impeachment of Brazil&#8217;s first woman president, the imprisonment of the party&#8217;s undisputed leader, and <a href="">Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s convincing electoral win in 2018</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;The Workers&#8217; Party has been stuck in a loop: demanding Lula be [cleared from all corruption charges], denying its responsibility in Brazil’s economic collapse, and dismissing well-documented cases of corruption during the Lula and Dilma Rousseff years as hoaxes,&#8221; wrote political scientist Fernando Bizzarro, in an <a href="">opinion piece</a> for <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>&#8220;Meanwhile,&#8221; he adds, &#8220;Jair Bolsonaro’s government is <a href="">pushing his agenda forward</a> with little to no-organized partisan opposition.&#8221;</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-2061396"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A struggle for renewal</h2> <p>The truth is that the Workers&#8217; Party has grown old.</p> <p>According to data from the Superior Electoral Court, <a href="">less than 1 percent</a> of the party&#8217;s members are 16 to 24 years old. Meanwhile, around one-third are aged 60 or over. Granted, this is not a phenomenon restricted to the Workers&#8217; Party—16 to 24-year-olds make up only 1.5 percent of all political parties—but it helps illustrate a party stuck in time.&nbsp;</p> <p>While other groups invested in renewal and fresh blood, only three of the Workers&#8217; Party&#8217;s 53 representatives in the lower house of Congress—the biggest bench in the House—were born after the party&#8217;s foundation.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1368898"><script src=""></script></div> <p>To recover this lost ground, leaders want the party&#8217;s attentions to shift from a world of unionized, registered workers to a position that warns of the <a href="">perils of the gig economy</a>. For that strategy to work, however, the party must do more than simply shout against the so-called &#8220;Uberization&#8221; of labor, and propose concrete measures to <a href="">offer these workers some protections</a>—which has not happened yet.</p> <p>It also wants to go after evangelical voters, a group that once backed former Presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff, but have since migrated to Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s sphere of influence. As a matter of fact, researchers Cesar Zucco and David Samuels show in their book &#8220;Partisans, Antipartisans, and Nonpartisans: Voting Behavior in Brazil&#8221; that evangelical groups are the biggest anti-Workers&#8217; Party voters in the country.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1079063"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>But another problem for the party is the presence of Lula as a leader who behaves as the owner of the party—and of the broader Brazilian left, to some extent. Any emerging leaders have been hung out to dry before ever getting close to challenging the Lula hegemony. In the 2018 election, the party everything it could to muscle out center-left candidate Ciro Gomes&#8217; presidential bid. As payback, Mr. Gomes decided not to support Lula&#8217;s understudy Fernando Haddad in the runoff stage against the far-right eventual winner Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <h2>The need for soul-searching</h2> <p>One of the most recurring critiques of the Workers&#8217; Party is its refusal to own up to its mistakes. The party still claims its biggest blunder was &#8220;not having done more for the poor,&#8221; oblivious of the dozens of scandals tarnishing the reputations of its leaders—several of whom were sent to jail for corruption and money laundering.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="story/190890"><script src=""></script></div> <p>In the celebrations of the party&#8217;s 40th anniversary, Lula showed nothing has changed. &#8220;The trend is to ask the Workers&#8217; Party to be self-critical. They ask me: Lula, don&#8217;t you have self-criticism? Here&#8217;s the thing, the person wants me to be self-critical because they don&#8217;t have anything to criticize me for. Let him criticize me! I&#8217;ve never seen anyone ask the right-wing of this country, which has ruled for 500 years, if they will ever be self-critical.&#8221;</p> <p>Of course, not everyone shares that belief. Olivio Dutra, a former cabinet member under Lula and former governor of Rio Grande do Sul, says the opposite. &#8220;A party that did not rise from the top down had and has an obligation to raise politics as a construction of the common good, and not simply mobilizing at elections to fight for positions.&#8221;</p> <p>Until that soul-searching finally comes, political scientist Paulo Kramer—who acted as a political advisor to Jair Bolsonaro during the 2018 campaign—believes the party&#8217;s reputation will be beyond repair. &#8220;When it entered the political scene, the Workers&#8217; Party presented itself as better than anyone else. Now, it prays for voters not to see them as worse than everyone else.&#8221;</p> <p>In October, Brazilians will head to the polls for municipal elections, votes which are seen as crucial to set up alliances for the presidential races two years later. The results will show who was right between Mr. Dutra and Lula.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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