The Global Consequences of the Left Victory in Brazil

On October 26, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT) won re-election in the second round of voting by a narrow margin against Aécio Neves of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB). Despite the name of the PSDB, this was a clear left-right struggle, in which voters generally voted their class position, even though the programs of the two parties were on many fronts more centrist than left or right.

To understand what this means, we must analyze the somewhat special politics of Brazil. Brazil’s politics are in many ways closer to those of western Europe and North America than almost any other country in the global South. Like countries in the global North, the electoral struggles in the end come down to a struggle between a left-of-center and a right-of-center party. Elections are regular and the voters tend to vote their class interests despite the centrist policies of the two main parties, who usually rotate in power. The result is constant dissatisfaction by the voters with “their” party, and constant attempts by the real left and the real right to push policies in their direction.

How these left and right groups pursue their efforts depends a little on the formal structure of elections. Many countries have a de facto two-round system. This permits the left and the right to run their own candidates in the first round and then rejoin the main party vote in the second round. The major exception to this two-round system is the United States, which forces left and right forces to enter into the main parties and struggle from within.

Brazil has one exceptional feature. While in all these countries politicians change parties from time to time, in most countries this is a tiny group. In Brazil, such party-switching is virtually an everyday occurrence in the national legislature, where neither main party normally has more than a small plurality of votes. This forces the main parties to spend enormous energy on constantly reconstructing alliances, and accounts for somewhat more visible corruption, although probably no greater actual corruption than elsewhere.

In this election, the PT was suffering from the growing disillusionment of its voters. A third-party candidate, Marina Silva, tried to offer a via media. She was known for three qualities: as environmentalist, evangelical, and a non-White of very poor origins. At first she seemed to take off. But as she began to propose a very neoliberal program, her popularity collapsed and voters turned back to Neves, a more traditional rightist.

The disillusionments with the PT centered around its failure to break structurally with economic orthodoxy, plus a failure to carry out its promises concerning agrarian reform, environmental concerns, and the defense of the rights of indigenous peoples. It also repressed popular demonstrations of left movements, most notably in June 2013. Despite this, the social movements of the left joined forces, and very strongly, with the PT in the second round.

Why? Because of the strong positives of the 12 years of PT government. First of all, there was the greatly expanded Bolsa familial, which paid a monthly allowance to the poorest fourth of Brazil’s population and significantly improved their daily life. Secondly, and scarcely mentioned in the western press, there was Brazil’s highly successful foreign policy – its major role in the construction of South American and Latin American institutions that held at bay the power of the United States in the region. The left was sure that Neves would reduce the social welfare thrust of the PT and ally Brazil once again globally with the United States. The Brazilian left voted for these two positives despite all the negatives.

That same weekend, there were three other major elections – Uruguay, Ukraine, and Tunisia. The election in Uruguay was rather similar to Brazil’s. It was the first round of the presidential elections. The governing party since 2004 had been the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and its candidate was Tabaré Vázquez. The Frente Amplio was truly broad – from center-left to Communists and ex-guerillas. Vázquez faced a classically right candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou of the Partido Nacional, but also a candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, of one of two parties – Partido Colorado (Red Party) – that had ruled Uruguay repressively for over a half-century.

On the first round, Vázquez got 46.5% of the vote over circa 31% for Lacalle, not enough to avoid a second round. Bordaberry, with about 13%, has now thrown his support to Lacalle, but it seems likely that Vázquez will win, and more or less for the same reasons as Rousseff has won. In addition, unlike Brazil, his party will control the legislature. So, Uruguay too will reaffirm the effort to build an autonomous geopolitical structure in Latin America.

Ukraine was totally different. Far from being constructed around a left-right class struggle with two centrist parties trying to secure votes, Ukraine’s politics are now constructed around a regional ethno-linguistic divide. In these elections, the west-oriented government held elections in which the dice were loaded in favor of excluding any real role for the so-called separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. The latter therefore boycotted the elections and announced they would hold their own for regional offices. In the Kiev-ordained elections, it seems that those who now govern – President Petro Poroshenko in alliance with his rival, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of another party – will maintain themselves in tandem in power, excluding the truly ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) party from any role.

Finally, Tunisia is also quite different. Tunisia has been seen as the launcher of the so-called Arab Spring, and today seems to be its only survivor. Ennahda, the Islamic party that won the first elections, lost considerable strength by pursuing a too rapid program of Islamization of Tunisian politics. It was forced some months ago to yield place to a technocratic interim government, and lost large number of votes (even of Islamists) in this second election.

The winner was Nadaa Tunis (Tunisia’s Call). Its politics are in one sense clear. It is a secular party. Its leader is a venerable 88-year-old politician, Beji Caid Essebsi, who served in the so-called Destourian governments that had led the country after independence until he became a major dissident. His problem is to hold together a very split coalition of many secularist forces – primarily both the young people who led the uprising against President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and various leading members of that very government who have now re-entered the political arena.

In any case, though Nadaa Tunis had a plurality of 85 seats out of 217 and Ennahda reduced to 69, the others are scattered among several smaller parties. There will have to be a coalition government, possibly even an all-party coalition. So, while the Tunisian young revolutionaries of 2011 are celebrating their victory against Ennahda, no one is sure where this will lead.

I say, hurrah for Brazil, where the most important of these four elections was held. But there as elsewhere, the game is not over. Not at all!