The rise and fall of Brazil’s social democrats

. Jul 27, 2020
PSDB: The rise and fall of Brazil's social democrats Illustration: André Chiavassa/TBR

Six years after the start of Operation Car Wash, the anti-corruption task force is zeroing in on historic figures of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). In recent weeks, Senator José Serra and Geraldo Alckmin — both former presidential candidates — have faced multiple corruption allegations. Federal prosecutors indicted Mr. Serra for money laundering — accusing him and his daughter of moving millions of embezzled money to hidden offshore accounts. Days later, Mr. Alckmin was accused of receiving at least BRL 10 million from the Odebrecht construction group.

While Messrs. Serra and Alckmin don’t enjoy nearly the same level of political influence and prestige they once did, they have a rich political history, combining for almost two decades at the helm of the state government of São Paulo — Brazil’s wealthiest state — and four presidential bids, with three runner-up finishes. They represent a time when the PSDB still bore a relation with the social democratic values it carries in its name, when it stood for something beyond power-grabbing and rent-seeking, for which it has now become known.

</p> <p>As Brazil lurches from crisis to crisis under President Jair Bolsonaro, it is worth reflecting on <a href="">what happened to the PSDB</a> and how this relates to the weakening of the country’s democracy. The collapse of its legitimacy has been a key factor in driving radicalization and polarization in Brazil — for&nbsp;which the party can only blame itself.</p> <p>After winning or coming second in six successive presidential elections, the PSDB managed a <a href="">measly 4.76 percent of the vote</a> in the 2018 election, with the notoriously dull and milquetoast Geraldo Alckmin as the candidate. The party had lost its once firm hold on its middle-class base to the insurgent extremist candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <h2>The origins of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party</h2> <p>The PSDB is rooted in the opposition to Brazil’s <a href="">military dictatorship</a>, which governed the country from 1964 to 1985. During this period, only two political parties could legally exist — the <a href="">Brazilian Democratic Movement</a> (MDB), the &#8216;official opposition&#8217; party, and the Alliance for National Renewal (Arena), the party of the dictatorship.&nbsp;</p> <p>At the height of the military regime, it became clear that the MDB was a powerless shell of a party. As was the joke at the time, Arena was the party of &#8216;yes,&#8217; and the MDB was the party of &#8216;yes, sir.&#8217;</p> <p>By the mid-1970s, however, the regime loosened its political grip and the MDB began mounting a credible opposition. It became a sort of Noah’s Ark for any politician not aligned with the generals. This created a party with leaders from all different types of ideological backgrounds and convictions — from the feudal oligarchs of the Northeast to liberals, old-school conservatives, socialists, and communists.&nbsp;</p> <p>It rebranded itself the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) in 1979, just as a new groundswell of movements against the dictatorship emerged, which increasingly found their political expression through the PMDB. The most successful of these causes was the <em>Diretas Já</em> (Direct Elections Now) campaign in 1984, demanding direct presidential elections in the country and eventually leading to the end of military rule in 1985.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>When José Sarney took office as Brazil’s first civilian president after decades of military rule, the PMDB began giving birth to several spin-offs with varying ideologies. On the left, entire sections joined the rapidly growing Workers’ Party and Democratic Labor Party (PDT). And one group —&nbsp;made up largely of São Paulo-based politicians and intellectuals sharing a common vision — came together to form the PSDB.</p> <p>While the Workers&#8217; Party was born out of a militant labor movement, the PSDB was conceived as a party of the elite, with several extremely influential and successful politicians among its ranks, such as André Franco Montoro and Mário Covas, both of whom served as governors of São Paulo. Its political base was in Brazil’s richest and most middle-class state —&nbsp;which the party has ruled without interruption since 1995.</p> <p>The early PSDB can be compared to Britain’s tradition of Fabian socialism, which saw the path towards social transformation as being led by an enlightened elite rather than the self-organization of the working class or a revolution. Hence, the PSDB’s political inspirations at the time were the socialist parties of figures such as French President François Mitterrand, rather than the USSR and Cuba —&nbsp;or even Chile&#8217;s Salvador Allende.&nbsp;</p> <p>It saw itself as a vanguard that would lead the nation towards modernist social democracy.</p> <h2>The Brazilian Real — and PSDB&#8217;s rise to power</h2> <p>The 1989 presidential race marked the first time the Brazilian population would choose their head of state in 29 years —&nbsp;and there was no lack of suitors. A total of 22 candidates squared off, with PSDB&#8217;s Mário Covas earning a mere 11 percent of the vote —&nbsp;mostly from voters in São Paulo. Four years later, however, the party would win the presidency in a landslide first-round victory — with PSDB candidate Fernando Henrique&nbsp;Cardoso finishing over 30 percentage points ahead of the runner up.</p> <p>The massive win was made possible by the <a href="">creation of the Brazilian Real</a> — the new currency originating in July 1994, just months before the election. The new economic plan relied on two pillars: aggressively cutting the public deficit and pegging the Real to the U.S. Dollar. Inflation rates went from 48 percent in June to 1 percent in September of that year. People’s purchasing power increased — with many middle-class families being able to afford imported goods or international trips for the first time ever.</p> <p>Mr. Cardoso, who was the Finance Minister at the time, became the face of the Brazilian Real and the improving economic scenario gave him an easy path to victory.</p> <h2>The PSDB era in power&nbsp;</h2> <p>The PSDB that came to power in 1994 was already vastly different to the one that was conceived in the 1980s. It followed a global movement of social democratic parties towards the right — and Mr. Cardoso enthusiastically took up the &#8220;third way&#8221;: free market-driven modernization and the Washington Consensus. He strove to become the Brazilian answer to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair or U.S. President Bill Clinton.</p> <p>The PSDB still had room for some state intervention, but development and modernization would be driven by the market rather than the developmentalism that Mr. Cardoso made a name in academia by critiquing. The party still had a social program, however, and it would introduce modernizing reforms through privatizations and opening up Brazil to the international market. But it would invest in infrastructure, education, and public healthcare.</p> <p>It was under Mr. Cardoso&#8217;s auspices that Brazil developed what would become arguably the <a href="">world&#8217;s biggest public Aids program</a>. The administration took on two big foreign drugmakers, threatening to <a href="">break the patents</a> on their HIV drugs and getting them to cut their prices.</p> <p>However, the roots of the party’s degeneration can be found in the party’s first term.</p> <p>Mr. Cardoso chose to wager the political capital he had accumulated — in large part a legacy of the success of the Real — on amending Brazil’s Constitution to allow him to run for a second term. His bid was successful, but in doing so he and his party embraced the dark side of Brazilian politics. They aligned themselves to the most backward and venal forces in the country and indulged in no small amount of skulduggery in pursuit of constitutional change.</p> <p>Moreover, there was no particularly good reason for him to seek a second term. There was no shortage of potential candidates among the ranks of his party. And while he insisted that the campaign emerged from the spontaneous desire of Congress to change the rules, he initiated this process and, perhaps his party along with the country as a whole, paid the moral and financial price for it.</p> <p>When he finally left office, he had gone from a man who had won two elections without the need for a runoff, to a president with a <a href="">rejection rate</a> bigger than his support.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, his presidency still marked a historic moment for the country, as he was the first Brazilian president to peacefully hand over power since Juscelino Kubitshek in 1960.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2002, as the country longed for change, then-Health Minister José Serra failed to beat the left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a result that would repeat itself three more times. The Workers&#8217; Party in first —&nbsp;and the PSDB as the runner up.</p> <p>The social democrats, however, became the official respectable center-right opposition party rather than the modernist social democratic project it began its life as. But by 2014, it was well set on its journey towards the current mess it finds itself in. Corruption accusations and scandals were commonplace in the party, particularly in their fiefdom of São Paulo state.</p> <h2>Giving social democracy a bad name</h2> <p>The PSDB is now a pale shadow of its former glories, with no real political project beyond power and rent-seeking.&nbsp; The 2018 elections saw it reduced to the standing of a regional party, only truly relevant in São Paulo.&nbsp;</p> <p>Its leading figure, São Paulo Governor João Doria, is the antithesis of what the party originally stood for. Mr. Doria is a narcissistic figure prone to <a href="">changing his beliefs according to his convenience</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>He embraced the far-right to fuel his political ambitions and won a tight gubernatorial race on <a href="">Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s coattails</a> —&nbsp;promoting a “Bolsodoria” platform to gobble up the anti-Workers’ Party vote in the state. <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> showed on many occasions that, despite his current status as a mortal enemy of the president, he has more or less a similar agenda of authoritarian state repression and fiscal extreme libertarianism.</p> <p>The process through which the PSDB sought to grant Mr. Cardoso a second term saw the moral transformation of the party, it transformed it into another faction of Brazil’s rent-seeking political class, but this itself is not enough to explain its current moribund status.</p> <p>Regardless of the Workers’ Party’s errors in power, anti-left sentiment has become an almost religious sentiment that set millions on the journey towards the far-right. It radicalized the PSDB base to the point where the party’s stolid center-right leaders were &#8220;too moderate&#8221; and were even accused of communism. Mr. Bolsonaro, for instance, famously wished death on <a href="">Mr. Cardoso</a> back in 1999.</p> <p>The second part of the party’s fall from grace was the failed candidacy of Aécio Neves, a venal playboy scion of one of Brazil’s oldest political dynasties. In 2014, Mr. Neves lost a closely fought election to the Workers’ Party’s candidate Dilma Rousseff in a brutal contest accompanied by accusations of corruption and misdeeds on both sides.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>However, Mr. Neves refused to accept the election results, declaring them fraudulent — against the wishes of many of the leading lights of his own party. The result was that the official opposition party’s leader at the time refused to accept the result of a democratic election, challenging the very legitimacy of Brazilian democracy, as corruption scandals, mass protests, and economic crisis threw the country into chaos.&nbsp;</p> <p>With this move, the PSDB, the first party to peacefully surrender power in Brazil’s new democracy, opened a pandora’s box of mistrust and polarization, eventually consuming the party on the wild ride toward Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency. These forces have helped produce the unfolding Covid-19 tragedy in Brazil, as the virus rages through a country governed almost unopposed by President Jair Bolsonaro.

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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