Rebuilding a progressive movement from the ground up in Brazil

Published on 21 December 2018

Image of Thomas Cooper-Patriota
Thomas Cooper-Patriota

Postgraduate Researcher

Less than a decade ago, in the last months of 2010, President Lula was finishing his second mandate with a record high 87 per cent popularity rating, having lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and delivering 7.5 per cent GDP growth in 2010. Eight years later, the Workers’ Party (PT) suffered its first national defeat at the polls since 1998, not to its historic centre-right adversary, the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), but to a hitherto obscure former army captain turned MP, President-elect Jair Bolsonaro. For the first time in the country’s history, the far-right reached the Presidency through the ballot box.

How did this happen? For one, self-defeating divisions and uncoordinated strategies amongst progressive parties certainly prevented the constitution of a united left front which would have had much better chances of winning the electoral contest. However, the electoral behaviour of the lower-middle and working classes – including millions of urban periphery youth, who either abstained or voted for the far-right candidate in the second round – deserves to be properly understood, if progressive forces are to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings of the past, and collectively rebuild a sufficiently robust support base for the future.

Who voted for whom, and why?

Not surprisingly, the richest and whitest cities and neighbourhoods voted overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro, and the poorest and blackest for the PT’s Fernando Haddad in the second round. However, the picture is less clear with voters belonging to more intermediate sectors. The progressive vote within middle classes was divided fairly evenly between Haddad and the Democratic Labour Party – PDT’s Ciro Gomes in the first round, though Gomes had a bigger share among better educated and higher income voters, while Haddad had the bulk of votes among lesser educated and lower income earners. In the second round, the Northeast voted predominantly for the PT candidate, while other macro-regions of the country gave a majority of votes to Bolsonaro. However, a closer analysis of municipalities and city districts reveals a more complex picture, since many smaller towns in rural areas voted predominantly for Haddad in the South and Southeast, while the Bolsonaro vote was highest in most larger cities, including some capitals in the Northeastern states.

One of the key constituencies to abstain or shift towards the far-right were indeed lower middle income earners in the peripheries of larger cities, many of whom live on just enough to satisfy their basic food and shelter needs, but whose previously flourishing expectations of obtaining more stable jobs, quality public services and consumer goods have been shattered by the post-2014 economic downturn. More chronically, the country has the world’s highest number of homicides and one of its highest murder rates, which has gone up even during the economic windfall years of the PT administrations. The overwhelming majority of assassination victims are black young men from urban peripheries. Many of those whose everyday lives are already plagued by the ‘de facto fascism’ of criminal militias and corrupt police lawlessness in urban peripheries were therefore presumably not impressed by the electoral discourse from a mostly white upper middle class left party leadership calling on the ‘defence of democracy against the risk of fascism’. When combining the above factors with a constant media onslaught since at least 2014, selectively magnifying the corruption misdeeds of the left while downplaying those of the right, one should hardly be surprised by the record high 42.1 million blank/annulled/abstention votes (almost a third of the electorate), and significant number of urban periphery votes for a candidacy promising hard-line (no matter how grossly caricatured and misguided) measures against criminality and corruption.

The tendency of gradual loss of urban peripheries to conservatives had already been evidenced by the 2016 municipal election results, in which leftist candidates for the countries’ two largest cities – Marcelo Freixo (PSOL) in Rio de Janeiro and Fernando Haddad (PT) in São Paulo – were defeated in most of the poorer districts, and their advantage was confined to upper middle class progressive neighbourhoods. The growing disconnect of left parties with their historical social base in the peripheries of larger cities is perhaps best illustrated by some of these neighbourhood’s own public voices. For instance, writer Ferréz recalled, in the wake of the June 2013 demonstrations, how the once effervescent presence of professors and other social activists linked to the PT in popular neighbourhoods in the 1980s had gradually waned in following decades. Similarly, rapper Mano Brown sounded the alarm during a PT rally between the first and second rounds of the 2018 elections, when stating that ‘a party of the people has to understand what the people wants. If it doesn’t know, go back to the base, and find out’.

The urgent need to listen to urban peripheries

Progressive political forces must indeed reconnect with the men and women designated by the often confusingly used terms ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. Different and partly overlapping social categories – such as ‘precariat’, ‘sub-proletariat’, and ‘new middle class’ – have more recently also been used to designate various strata of a heterogeneous demographic majority represented by lower middle income Brazilians. The latter encompasses not only formal wage earners (e.g. factory workers), but also informal or semi-formal workers, many of whom take up several jobs to get by (e.g. domestic cleaners, delivery bikers, street vendors, etc.), and frequently combine one’s own labour force with small business management activities. One key characteristic most do appear to share, is to increasingly perceive ownership of their own small business as a better chance of social ascension than formalized wage contracts. Indeed the latter have become increasingly precarious, despite PT administrations’ effective push for significant increases in the real minimum wage.

By mostly looking at the wage side of the equation, and thereby promoting an unprecedented rise in living standards of up to 47 million Brazilian formal workers and public pension earners, PT administrations nevertheless failed to simultaneously prioritize sufficient policy support to a comparable number of budding or struggling, frequently informal, small-scale entrepreneurs in cities (tax breaks, cheap credit, training, management counselling, etc.). Indeed, urban periphery dwellers lacked a public policy agenda similar to what was much more successfully pursued in the countryside, through a specific ministry’s policy support to small and medium family farmers.

On the other hand, the impressive spread of evangelical churches across the country (at least 41 million Brazilians or 22 per cent of the population according to the 2010 census) is linked not only to the psychological and community support structure generally inherent to religious activities. Many of these churches have also provided essential economic and social services, including training to acquire small business management skills. By focusing on condemning the socio-cultural conservatism of evangelical churches without sufficiently looking at the socio-economic basis for their popularity in lower income neighbourhoods, many left parties’ cadres and militants have often alienated significant parcels of the population that may otherwise have been more open towards supporting them.

Emerging social movements and their connections with progressive politics

New progressive movements rooted in urban peripheries have nonetheless also been emerging in recent years, and some have built significant links with political parties of the left. These include the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) whose leader, Guilherme Boulos, was PSOL’s presidential candidate in the recent elections. There are also growing numbers of outspoken progressive evangelicals, such as Mônica Francisco, a black feminist pastor who has just been elected at the Rio de Janeiro state assembly. The brutal assassination of former state legislator Marielle Franco in March indeed prompted many black women (who represent 28 per cent of the population, but hold only 2 per cent of congressional seats) to follow in her footsteps. In Brazil’s fourth most populous state of Bahia, where more than 80 per cent of the population is of African descent, Olivia Santana was the first black woman ever elected to the state assembly – a historical milestone, but also a shocking reminder of the long road ahead in overcoming the enduring legacy of more than three and a half centuries of slavery, 130 years after abolition.

While more than half of the population are women, 54% of the population are Black, and almost two-thirds of the population are under 35, the political establishment – across left and right – is still overwhelmingly dominated by older and richer white men. The 2018 parliamentary election results, which renewed the entire lower house of National Congress, do give some encouraging signs of change: the number of women elected to the Chamber of Deputies went up from 51 to 77, or 15 per cent of total seats – still a very low proportion by international standards, but the highest historical increase between two elections in the country. Likewise, the number of black representatives has increased from 103 to 125, or one out of each four of the 513 elected federal deputies. For the first time in Brazil’s history, an indigenous woman, Joênia Wapichana, was also elected to the lower house.

This does not mean that all of these elected parliamentarians hail from progressive parties, nor that better representation of historically oppressed and marginalized segments of society at the top necessarily changes structures at the bottom. However, parliaments that are more representative of their societies tend to be more responsive towards these different groups in the long term, and the choice of a more representative congress by voters is also a reflection of deeper societal changes amongst the electorate.

For instance, the #EleNão movement spearheaded the largest women’s demonstrations in Brazil’s history in the weeks running up to the first round of the elections, and clearly demonstrate a significant spread of feminism into the wider strata of Brazilian society in the last decades, albeit with a stronger hold in the middle classes. Similarly, Levante Popular da Juventude, a youth movement aiming to rebuild socio-political activism in urban peripheries, gained visibility when it supported a massive secondary school student uprising that occupied more than 1000 schools in 2016, in protest against secondary education reform and public spending cap bills. Blacks from shantytowns have also created new autonomous movements, such as Frente Favela Brasil, which has drawn up a policy agenda, put proposals forward in debates with progressive candidates in the last elections, and aims to elect representatives to office through their own political party.

All of these, and other emerging movements, have some links to more traditionally established social movements, labour unions and progressive political parties, and can therefore contribute towards democratizing and bringing new vigour to the formers’ representative structures and programmatic debates. For it is only by establishing and deepening horizontal knowledge interconnections and bridges between working and middle classes, peripheries and centres, popular and academic cultures, that a new progressive narrative which credibly and coherently incorporates all of these, with unity in diversity, can emerge.




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