The elections 2022, and the recent history of Brazil, are an example of how social constructions such as political parties are able to survive and succeed over long periods of history. They can do this if they are rooted in the social, economic and political structure of a country and they combine that rootedness with the talent and coherence of leadership. This is the history of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, the PT (Workers Party), and of its leader, Lula da Silva. Once again, at 76 years of age, he is a candidate for president and he has a real chance of winning, even in the first round of the presidential elections on October 2nd, 2022.
The story of the PT begins at the end of the 70s with the mobilisations of a new trade unionism. Its epicentre was in the industrial regions of greater São Paulo. It rejected the old trade union structures. In one way or another they had yielded to the associated interests of capital and the military dictatorship, which had been in power since the 1964 coup d’état.
The ABC strikes in the late 70s in the suburbs of Sao Paulo were a social and political revolt against the military government and for democracy. They strongly influenced other pre-existing political and social movements, such as the Catholic grassroots movement, This movement was itself strongly influenced by “liberation theory”, with enormous popularity in Brazil. It was linked to struggles such as the struggle for access to land, against agrarian violence and also, at an urban level, against poverty and for social rights.
Many left-wing and progressive intellectuals saw in this emerging actor a possibility for change, and they joined. Also, political parties of various tendencies and leaders of left-wing in the labour sphere of the struggle.
In short, the movement that catalysed the founding and rise of the PT was made up of these pillars: the new trade unionism, intellectuals and leaders of the leftist parties, and the Catholic grassroots movement.
The PT was what emerged from this social mobilisation. It continued the ideas built in the heat of the social struggle and translated them into electoral language, in its 20-year march to finally winning the presidential elections in 2002.
During that time, there was an awareness of this passage from social mobilisation to electoral struggle, and it was the subject of much debate. This in the Federal Chamber of Deputies (like South Africa’s House of Assembly – ed). He participated in the Constitution-making process that culminated in 1988. (the PT had 16 members of the 559-member Constituent Assembly). After that, the electoral dimension of the PT was consolidated by winning the elections in some municipalities. This led to the PT’s first participation in the direct presidential election in 1989. Lula was defeated by Fernando Collor de Mello, a young candidate of a minor party who gained the support of the entire conservative spectrum. This was the first radical expression of so-called “antipetism” (anti- PTism – being against the PT).
The PT was rooted among the people through the trade union network, pastoraland grassroots churches, and its strong influence in leftist social organisations. In spite of this, it continued to be, in a way, a “Left” party with a presence among progressive sectors of the middle classes, but still without access to the popular and poor masses of Brazil. This was especially the case in regions dominated by conservative regional strongmen, the traditional conservative middle classes and sectors of the economic and social elites. During the 1990s, the most difficult task was to persuade the economic elites and convince the middle classes that the PT could make a government that could lead the country out of economic instability and transform the Brazilian state into a tool for the mitigation of poverty, unemployment and hunger. The end of hunger was specifically its main focus.
This implied an engagement in dialogue with the political centre – this engagement was called discursive “deradicalisation”.
It was not without its problems within the traditional alliances of the Brazilian Left. The most iconic act of this transition was the “Letter to the Brazilian people” in which, in 2002, Lula informed the establishment that he would not do away with “legal security” in Brazil – he would honour contracts signed by his predecessor, and wouldn’t change the economic rules adopted by him. That year, Lula was elected president in his third run for the highest office. The lesson is that, unlike what may appear to be the case, if you want to participate in the democratic game, it is possible to dialogue with broader sectors without losing your identity. You can still retain the values that can and will guide the government’s actions, as the PT in government demonstrated, particularly in Lula’s first two terms in office.
Dilma’s government, which attempted deeper changes in the economic structures, failed to take note of the growing discontent of the middle classes caused by a relative loss of class privileges. This pushed the elites and the whole society to the institutional coup of Dilma’s impeachment. This led to the demonisation of the PT, the “antipetism” and the victory of Bolsonaro, a radical – and marginal – right-wing deputy of a tiny party, that allowed the elites to block the PT’s return to power in 2018.
The PT cycle
Separating Brazil from the rest of the world, it can be said that the June 2013 revolts expressed what we call the “PT cycle” – from its creation, to its arrival in government and then to more than ten years managing the Brazilian state. Then, despite the relative bonanzas for them, the elites and the middle classes began to abandon the PT. They had been irreparable. However, despite all the attacks, Lula’s party has a reasonably good chance of winning the elections on Sunday, October 2 (or in a second round, on October 30). How did this happen? How was the relationship rebuilt between Lula – and perhaps the PT as a whole – and, to date, 47% of the Brazilian population?
The first factor is that Lula could demonstrate that he was subjected to political and legal persecution and was forced to “put up with” it. Now they created a breeding ground for the rhetoric of hatred and “cultural war”. They built “antipetism” and pushed society towards radical right-wing options. Until then, these had not had expression in Brazilian society.
The corruption scandals and the judicial persecution of the main figures of the PT, including Lula, fed and were fed by this climate. This led the PT to a major setback in its electoral representation and its worst opinion poll rating. It reached a historical low of 20% of popular support. For a large part of the population, the PT became synonymous with “corruption” – a “petista” was a thief.
The period between 2015 (impeachment of Dilma) and 2019 was the worst period in the history of the PT. It was a period of “divorce” from society that seemed arbitrarily imprisoned and tried without evidence. The Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) annulled the sentences against him because they were made by a judge who was not impartial. and was politically motivated. In this way, Lula demonstrated to society that he was unjustly imprisoned and prevented from competing in the 2018 elections, which made Bolsonaro’s victory possible. By redeeming himself, he also demonstrated that he was right when he denounced arbitrariness. Along with his own reputation, he recovered the reputation of the party itself, which was once again embraced by broad sectors of society – but strongly by the popular sectors and the youth.
The second factor is that the large social movements never abandoned Lula. His link with the PT, MST, CUT, MAB (Movimento de Atingidos por Barragens), MTST (Movimento de Trabalhadores sem Teto) and youth movements associated with them, among others, was sustained. Popular fronts were built against the coup, firstly in 2015, and then for Lula’s release (“Lula livre”) and against the legal persecution (lawfare) to which he was subjected.
The strategic loyalty of these movements to the political camp was admirable and constituted a central rearguard in the adverse political situation they had faced since the fall of Dilma. This period had been marked by a generalised rollback of the social achievements of the PT governments. The onslaught of right-wing governments weakened these movements, but they have resisted and continue to be a fundamental pillar of the struggle against fascism and neoliberalism in Brazil.
The Bolsonaros administration failed. It failed mainly on the economy – he did not even fulfill what he promised to the neoliberal businessmen. He failed with the denialist policies implemented during the pandemic, and with his unrestricted support for the most savage anti-environmental and anti-indigenous agribusiness and in favour of weapons and violence. And he has become increasingly discredited internationally.
All of this, together with his anti-democratic rhetoric and threats, made him lose the support of the Brazilian liberal establishment and of a large part of the population. This created a space to rehabilitate Lula’s administration, which is remembered as one of the best in the history of Brazil. This combination of factors explains the possibility of winning the elections again.
The “return of Lula”, has proved vital to defeat Bolsonaro – who retains the loyalty of at least 30% of the electorate. It shows the significance of his leadership in Brazilian politics over the last 40 years and the relevance of his party and its allies in the traditional social and trade union movement.
However, it is not enough to solve issues raised by other social and political transformations that have occurred
in recent years and that are related to generational changes. The generation of the “PT cycle”, as well as Lula himself, is “old” and, despite the strength of the leader, there is a significant gap between these leaders and the new expressions of social and political militancy.
These new expressions are fundamentally rooted in the struggles for racial, gender and LGBTQ+ equality and the rights of indigenous peoples. From 2013 onwards, they have become more prominent, and they have channelled the militant energy of the new generations, who find in these struggles a way to enter politics or social militancy.
These new leaders, young, trans, black, indigenous and others, have organised themselves at the municipal level. They have begun to contest elections in the vacuum left by the PT, which had been the party that had until then channelled the popular side of the “social conflict”. Representatives have devised collective forms of representation and used the available parties to participate in electoral contests. Some of them used the PT, but the PT was in general an obstacle as far as the electorate was concerned. They were still mostly “antipetista”.
In this way, parties such as PSOL, Rede, PCdoB, Partido Verde, and even others more to the centre, contested the elections in a much more expressive way than the PT, which, due to its size and institutional rigidity, made it difficult for independent candidates to enter their own lists. After an electoral cycle, these representatives have begun to compete for state and federal positions and represent – together with anti- Bolsonarism – the voices of political and social renewal of the Brazilian Left.
Lula’s return and his possible election “interfere” with and, in some ways, postpone this renewal. But it will inevitably take place over the next few years. And we will see how a possible Lula administration will dialogue with these new generations, either by incorporating them harmoniously or as part of a more conflictual process of change. There is a new political and militant power in the process of maturing. It is a “mini-cycle”, started in 2013, that is struggling to grow. It may do so in the heat of the Lula government; it may do so through criticism of it. But in one or other scenario, it will certainly do so through the struggle against the conservative and reactionary forces that Bolsonaro resurrected, turning them into a mass actor and a constant threat to democracy and social emancipation in Brazil.
Gonzalo Berrón is an Associate Fellow of the Transnational Institute, working in Brazil.