Brazil: Where the Workers' Party came from

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2003 - 4:03

Paul Hampton looks at the history of the Workers' Party and the prospects for the future in the light of Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski's new book, Politics Transformed: Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil

The election of Lula da Silva as president of Brazil is an event of great significance. This book provides the background to this historic victory.
Lula is the first president of Brazil from a working class background. The authors argue Lula was elected on "a platform of far-reaching social change" and that he offers "a real alternative to neo-liberalism".

Lula leads the Workers' Party (PT), which was founded in 1980 to represent the working class in politics. He was a leader of the Sao Paulo metalworkers' strikes in May 1978, when 300 factories and 300,000 workers came out. These strikes detonated a wave of workers' protest over the next decade that ended military rule. Union membership quadrupled between 1978 and 1983, and the number of strikes rose from under 200 in 1982 to over a thousand in 1986.

In January 1979, the metalworkers' union congress called on all Brazilian workers to unite to build a party, the Workers' Party. The PT Charter (May 1979) said, "democracy means organised and conscious participation by workers in politics" and its founding manifesto stated, "The Workers' Party is born out of workers' desire for political independence". The PT was instrumental in establishing the militant trade union federation, the CUT in 1983.
By the early 1990s, the PT had around 600,000 members. It won seats on local and municipal councils, and at state and federal level. After the recent elections it has 91 deputies, 174 mayors and 3 state governors. The party's support can also be measured by the votes Lula received in successive elections. His first round vote in 1989 was 11.6 million, in 1994 it was 16.8 million and by 1998 it was 21.8 million. In the first round in 2002 he received 39.4 million votes, and over 57 million in the second-round run-off to win.

One of the great things about the PT is its democratic internal structure. It is a mass party in which organised political tendencies fight for their ideas. It is more democratic than the Labour Party in Britain was even in the 1980s, and still contains a number of Marxist groups.
In 1983, the leading group formally established themselves as Articulacao, led by Jose Dirceu and including Lula and the other trade union leaders, intellectuals and members of the ALN, a former armed struggle group. On the eve of the 1994 election, the main tendencies were Left Choice, which included the USFI group Socialist Democracy, with 33%, Lula's group Unity in Struggle (31%), In the Struggle (20%) and the moderate Radical Democracy (11%).

These alignments had changed by 1999. The main tendencies were: Articulacao (33%), The PT in Struggle (20%) and Radical Democracy (11%). Socialist Democracy still claim to represent a fifth of the PT - and there is no doubt that the left remains a force within the party - but it was clear by this stage that the reformists had the upper hand. (Two members of Socialist Democracy have since taken positions in Lula's government - a further indication of the left's weakness).

A number of different pressures have driven the PT away from its original project. Electoral success meant the party began running local, municipal and state governments. The PT had problems when it won the Fortaleza and Sao Paulo mayoral elections in the late

The "participatory budget" experiment in Porto Alegre and Rio Grande Do Sul state has been rather uncritically lauded (including by this book), even though it is far from any kind of workers' control. Ironically the PT was voted out of these city and state offices in October, after widespread bitterness over the austerity measures it had imposed.

The shift in the party was also precipitated by Cardoso's defeat of Lula in 1994 and 1998. The PT was unable to respond to Cardoso's Real plan, which stabilised the currency and brought inflation down in 1994. Nor was it able to react adequately when Cardoso started the wave of privatisations. Cardoso also changed the labour law to introduce short-term contracts, lengthen the working day and make it easier to sack workers. By the end of the 1990s, unemployment had doubled, and was particularly severe in Sao Paulo, the party's historic base.

Although it remains the largest trade union federation, the influence of the CUT waned and its moderate rival, Forca Sindical, began to grow. The number of strikes fell from over 3,000 in 1989 to around 500 in 1999. An historical irony is that support for the PT continued to grow as trade union militancy fell considerably.

In 1991 Lula established a "shadow cabinet" modelled on the British Labour Party and a Citizenship Institute - "an NGO dedicated to formulating alternative government policy". It was not a party body, and Lula was able to appoint anyone he wanted. The Institute was responsible for developing a policy on housing, and on zero hunger (Zero Fome) that are now an important part of Lula's government programme.

A further stage in the PT's evolution took place after his defeat in 1998. Lula made it clear that he would agree to run a fourth time only if he were given a free hand to form alliances across the political board and was provided with the resources to run a slick, professional electoral campaign.

With Jose Dirceu, he drew up a strategy to isolate the left wing of the party. They got the 1999 Congress to pass a "Programme for the Brazilian Democratic Revolution", which "gave Lula carte blanche to form whatever alliance of forces he wished, in order to increase the chances of victory". It was decided "deliberately to create a space between the party and the social movements" like the unions, and the landless movement, the MST.

The party made big gains in the municipal elections in 2000. Even Cardoso's supporters confessed that the economy was barely growing and that few Brazilians had benefited from his eight years in power. Lula argued that his new strategy had borne fruit, and set up a serious challenge in the presidential race. This culminated in choosing Jose Alencar of the Liberal Party as his running mate for the 2002 election. Alencar owns Brazil's largest company, Coteminas, and has a personal fortune of about US$500 million.

The authors speculate that the PT might be co-opted by the ruling class, but believe Lula will rule in favour of workers. In fact whether Lula will succeed in breaking from neo-liberalism and carrying through a programme of radical change depends on the struggle within the PT, in the unions and on movements like the MST.

Politics Transformed: Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil by Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski, Latin America Bureau, 136 pages, paperback, £6.99

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