(I wrote this text for The Guardian between the first and second rounds of the local elections in October. They ended up turning it down, because they thought the topic was already a bit old. Since I didn’t have the time to look for another outlet, I left it in the drawer until I remembered I could just stick it here so at least someone might read it.)
(Escrevi este texto para o Guardian entre o primeiro e o segundo turnos das eleições municipais em outubro. Eles acabaram não publicando, com o argumento de que a pauta já estava meio velha. Como não tive tempo de procurar outra publicação, deixei-o na gaveta até me lembrar que eu poderia pô-lo aqui para que pelo menos alguém pudesse vê-lo. Pretendo, caso tenha tempo, fazer uma nova versão em português para breve.)
The recent attacks on the 2014 World Cup mascots in Brasília and Porto Alegre, right around country-wide local elections, got the media’s reflexes going: they were deemed ‘politically motivated’, an old trope from the days in which the commentariat would invariably discern the Workers party (PT) using its ‘transmission belts’ for its own electoral profit behind every social mobilisation. As with much media discourse in today’s Brazil, the phrase rings ironically anachronistic; a less and less believable relic, wheeled out to stoke the embers of the Cold War mindset with which many, against all odds, still approach the ruling party.
The irony is obvious, given that PT ‘owns’ bringing the World Cup and the Olympics to Brazil more than anyone else, and hence has no interest in tarnishing the façade of unity surrounding the mega events. In fact, as in most protests in recent years, PT activists were in both cases thin on the ground, an absence highlighted by its past ubiquity. Further irony comes from the fact that the first incident, in which mostly young people without party affiliations were heavily repressed, took place in Porto Alegre, the Southern city whose international progressive credentials were established by four consecutive PT administrations, the World Social Forum and innovative practices such as participatory budgeting.
Yet these seeming paradoxes are rather instructive about Brazil’s present political predicament.
The Porto Alegre mayoral election was a two-horse race between two nominally leftwing candidates. The victorious incumbent is a former PT vice-mayor now in the Democratic Labour party (PDT), which participates in the coalition governing the country. His only credible competitor was a young female MP, whose Communist party has always been a faithful partner of PT; more recently, it turned heads by becoming an ardent defender of agribusiness, an alliance that paid off in Porto Alegre, where its candidate had the support of the landowning right.
For a place where elections used to matter, the difference between the two was too small to generate enthusiasm. The protest was not so much about the elections as against the processes of speculation-driven urban ‘regeneration’ and privatisation of public spaces that have crept on the city in recent years, and which both candidates, generously financed by property and construction interests, seemed set to continue. Called ‘The Public Defense of Joy’, the street party occupied a central square that saw many cultural and political manifestations in the past, but which was recently outsourced to Coca-Cola, its use by the population suffering restrictions.
These elements – the increasing indistinction of parties, alliances and programmes; the current development model and mega events; the decreasing ties between social mobilisation and traditional leftwing parties – offer us a key with which to read the recent elections. Four conclusions can be drawn.
First, the present development model is still electorally successful. This was clear in the incumbent’s landslide victory in Rio, which undergoes an extreme makeover in the run-up to both World Cup and Olympics. So far, the positive effects on the local economy have eclipsed the price hike caused by an unsustainable property bubble and the evictions and human rights abuses that have been its underbelly; increased security in the predominantly rich south side has muffled accounts of collusion between the local government and organised crime in the poor west and north.
This model’s connection to mega events is very effective. FIFA and the IOC sell a very peculiar kind of product, a sort of state of exception package that enables shock doctrine-style ‘creative destruction’ probably impossible under normal democratic procedure. It facilitates the hefty public investment and heavy-handed policing that go into creating the conditions for private accumulation.
Second, those who oppose the model have to understand the ways in which, by improving infrastructure or creating jobs, it also responds to legitimate popular desires; it would be wrongheaded and simplistic to say that people are being duped. The basis for PT’s hegemony in the last decade is the betterment of people’s material existence; the question is how this process should continue, and who should burden what costs. It falls on critics to articulate a more inclusive, environmentally sounder, transformative alternative.
Third, its very hegemony creates a long-term problem for PT. As its horizon of social transformation disappears, its focus becomes more restrictively quantitative, its goal becomes more modestly defined as inclusion of the poor as consumers, and the means to do so acquire the more traditional outlines of state-induced private accumulation with distribution mechanisms, what once made it unique risks disappearing.
No-one can be elected in Brazil today who does not at least pay lip-service to social inclusion and wealth distribution. This has spelt the end of much of the traditional rightwing, but also its migration towards or alliance with centre-left parties. It is increasingly likely that a future challenge to PT will come from a more palatable supporting party rather than from the opposition – which, incapable of winning under its old flag, will mutate into something else (as it did with Henrique Capriles in Venezuela). This was visible in Porto Alegre and Recife, the key Northeastern capital where a socialist candidate prevented PT from securing a fourth term. Why stay faithful to one party, or even to the left, when all parties start speaking the same language? PT still has so many negative associations that the day may come when anyone promising ‘PT without PT’ might defeat it.
Fourth, if and when it comes, PT will have lost its organic ties to all but the most institutionalised and incorporated social movements. For a long time, all new social protagonism would find a place in the party; this is less and less the case now, and it is not clear what institutional channels it may take in the future. The only campaign that seemed to elicit real enthusiasm, engaging people without party affiliations in Rio and across the country, was that of runner-up Marcelo Freixo, of PT-splinter PSOL – a party whose growth in these elections is a sign of rising dissatisfaction in the left, but which still has a long way to go to. Yet it is not PSOL, but the motley composition of those who campaigned for Freixo and who protested in Porto Alegre, that may point the way. In both cases, one saw a first tentative convergence between the victims of the current wave of development – those targeted by evictions and ‘social hygiene’ policies – and an educated, internet-savvy youth bringing into the agenda issues like the environment, public space, urban mobility, a critique of consumerism. Those excluded from quantitative growth and those raising qualitative questions: an alliance already seen in the urban support to indigenous resistance against the Belo Monte dam. Should these two poles really connect, it could reshuffle the deck of a left in the process of becoming a hostage to its own success.