Scandals threaten Lula

Has Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, blown it for the left in the country? The party he helped found, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), has been knocked sideways by two different forces. The first was a strategic compromise: rather as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair pledged before the 1997 election to stick with Tory economic policy for two years, Lula promised when seeking office in 2002 that he would maintain contracts and avoid a debt moratorium.

This reassured middle-class Brazilians, helping him to win comfortably (and since then he has presided over a steady economy). But it also sold the pass on fundamental reform and, as a result, left-wing deputies have been defecting in increasing numbers to a new party, the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade.

Damaging the PT even more, however, are the corruption scandals that forced the resignations of the PT's manager and president. Brazilians have been glued to their television screens, as three separate inquiries look into graft in the postal service, the award of gaming licences and the Chamber of Deputies (where the government appears to have had around 18 deputies on the payroll).

For those on the left who had high hopes in 2002, it is a sorry picture, but whether the PT was ever really a party of the left is a matter for debate. It seemed so when social movements, progressive Catholics and socialist and communist factions came together in the 1980s; and Lula, the poor north-eastern boy who lost part of a finger in an industrial accident, personified the heroism of strikers who held mass meetings as gun-toting helicopters buzzed overhead. But it has always had a rigid, almost Leninist strand who believe the end justifies the means, and Lula himself, though radicalised in the 1970s by the arrest and torture of his communist brother, is best described as a reformist.

The corruption story, too, is not what it seems. In the late 1990s, after the PT high command got sick of being beaten in presidential elections and made their compromise with Brazil's elite (which leftists believe didn't stop at economic policy), money began flowing into party coffers and the corruption began almost immediately. But in Brazilian politics, where no one party controls Congress, pay-offs, patronage and perks are the norm. The PT didn't invent this corrupt system, but nor was it ever strong enough to do away with it.

Meanwhile, the government has done some good. About eight million people are benefiting from the Lula government's bolsa familiar, a family credit scheme, and its anti-hunger strategy may be having an impact. Despite interest rates of more than 19 per cent, employment is increasing. Although the government has lost friends among the landless campaigners, it has won international regard for its diplomacy, and Lula is on quite civilised terms with George Bush and Blair.

The PT is not finished. Although some left-wingers and opportunists have dropped out, party membership is still around 800,000; and in Brasilia the government, by releasing funds to the right deputies for their favourite causes, has recaptured the Chamber of Deputies presidency. It is even possible Lula will win next year's presidential elections.

The question remains, however: will Brazil - a country where income distribution is one of the most unequal in the world - ever get a real government of the left? There have always been large obstacles in the way: the complications of a federal structure; an electoral system that favours more conservative states; the culture of patronage, corruption and conciliation, and the influence of commercial capitalism, to name but a few. Now there is another obstacle: disappointment with the PT.

Richard Bourne is researching a biography of Lula for the University of California Press