How Lula’s party fell from grace: the toppling of the Brazilian left

Brazil’s municipal elections were an disaster for the centre-left Partido dos Trabalhadores. But for some, the party's downfall was not such a surprise.

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Outside the window of Fernando Haddad’s cabinet room at São Paulo City Hall, clouds darken the sky – a first sign of approaching summer rain. The sound of drumming echoes against this hulk of a building, constructed in the 1930s in the Italian fascist style. On the wall behind Haddad, a turbulent abstract painting by the late Tomie Ohtake looms like a diabolical halo, angry black on deep red.

Haddad, who was elected as the mayor of Brazil’s largest city in 2012, exudes a combination of impatience and control. The latter earned him the nickname “Haddad Tranquilão” – or “Laid-Back Haddad”. That tranquillity is now proving useful: on 2 October, he failed to win a second term as mayor.

Brazil’s municipal elections were an disaster for the centre-left Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers’ Party. As well as São Paulo, the PT lost control of more than half of the country’s cities. Its roster of mayors nationally fell from 644 to 256.

“We’ve had one crisis on top of another,” Haddad says. “The economic crisis, the political crisis and the ethical crisis.” He clarifies: he is talking about the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and Brazil’s seemingly endless corruption scandals. “It has all left the PT in a very unfavourable situation.”

That the party would be so neatly toppled following more than 13 years in power was not wholly unexpected, he says. “What’s really surprising is that it lasted as long as it did.”

Haddad, who is 53 and of Lebanese-Christian descent, has been a member of the PT since 1983; he joined President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government in 2005 as education minister. Lula’s historic election victory in 2002 was the start of a golden age for Brazil’s left – the PT won four consecutive presidential terms – but it came to a halt in August this year with Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment.

Rousseff was removed from office on a charge of fiscal wrongdoing on 31 August, in what her supporters believe was a political vendetta crossed with an old-fashioned power grab. It was a kind of soft coup, they claim, which was followed by the rapid installation of a rightist economic and political agenda under her vice-president in the old coalition government, Michel Temer.

The mayor-elect of São Paulo, João Doria, who won the election by 53.3 per cent to Haddad’s 16.7 per cent and who takes office on 1 January 2017, is a peppy, preppy millionaire businessman. In an uncomfortable parallel with Donald Trump, Doria is a former presenter of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice and a self-proclaimed “non-politician” who stood for the centre-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) or Party of Brazilian Social Democracy. Doria, who wears pastel sweaters with the sleeves draped over his shoulders, campaigned on a car-loving “Accelerate São Paulo” platform, pledging to reset speed limits to higher, pre-Haddad levels. He also promised to reduce traffic fines and privatise the many miles of bus and cycle lanes introduced by the outgoing mayor.

Meanwhile, Haddad, a former professor of political science at the University of São Paulo, campaigned on his mayoral record. He spoke about the transformative transport policies that he implemented in the city, from the cycle lanes to free travel passes for students. He reminded voters of the hundreds of crèches that his administration had opened in low-income neighbourhoods.

Haddad, who describes himself as a follower of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, was wildly popular with the “Pinheiros set” (São Paulo’s equivalent of the people of Stoke Newington in east London), to whom his urban policies seemed like a natural progression of the take-back-the-city street activism that began in 2011. He was received like a rock star by a mainly young and affluent crowd at a farewell rally on the city’s Avenida Paulista just after his defeat.

However, Haddad failed to secure votes from São Paulo’s working-class periphery. On a cigarette break outside the salon where she works, Helen Larissa, a 20-year-old eyebrow stylist, tells me: “I decided to vote for someone who has plenty of money already. Everybody said João Doria was a successful businessman, so he’d be less likely to steal.” When I ask her whether she has heard any accusations of corruption against Haddad, she says: “Look, it doesn’t even matter. I’d never vote for him.”

Haddad is frank about many of the PT’s errors. “We became overly comfortable in government and we forgot how to organise as a party,” he says. Rousseff’s unannounced switches in policy and her lack of openness about the problems that arose when Brazil’s economic crisis began to intensify led to a loss of trust in the PT, he says.

Corruption has tainted officials across the political spectrum in Brazil but it has proved most corrosive for the PT. There have been persistent attempts to implicate Lula, the former president – who is arguably still Brazil’s most popular politician – in the corruption investigations under way for the police’s sprawling Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”). Several members of Temer’s government have also been accused, including Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of congress and the man behind Rousseff’s impeachment, who was arrested in October. Lula, whose arrest is also thought to be imminent, is under investigation for alleged corruption in three cases. He denies wrongdoing.

Whatever happens, Haddad says, “The party needs to make space for new people, new minds.” A careful and cagey man, he won’t say who that new talent might be, or if he might consider standing again, nor what he plans to do once his term ends on 31 December. He has claimed in the past that he would leave public life should he lose the mayoralty, but on that subject he now says nothing.

When I ask him if he would ever consider leaving the PT, Haddad dodges the question. Yet it is clear that he is keeping his options open. “I haven’t thought about the future at all yet,” he tells me. “I just want to get my job finished here.” 

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse