For the PMDB, ousting Dilma looks like the easy part. Selling voters on the party’s rightward turn, is another story.
- By Catherine OsbornCatherine Osborn is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO — During the six-hour vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil’s lower house on April 17, Congressman Newton Cardoso Jr. of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) leaned in close to his microphone. He announced that he would be voting to impeach Rousseff, in an effort to bring growth back to Brazil and restore “hope in the heart of all Brazilians.”
For months now, that’s the line the PMDB, Brazil’s largest party, has used to advance Rousseff’s impeachment. For two years, her center-left Workers’ Party (PT) has earned scorn for revelations about its involvement in the massive bribery scheme at state oil company Petrobras. At the same time, the country’s economy has cratered, with 1.5 million Brazilians losing formal sector jobs last year. Rousseff’s approval rating, consequently, has plummeted from 41 percent before the first Petrobras revelations to 13 percent this month.
Amid the crisis, the PMDB, a national coalition of powerful regional leaders who have historically focused on directing public investment toward their communities, says its size and strength can bring about the consensus needed for economic reforms. In February, the party released a dramatic TV ad that pushed this theme in a bid to whip congressional support for Rousseff’s impeachment.
But the PMDB is, itself, riven by divisions, not to mention its own struggles with endemic corruption. In December 2015, watchdog site Congresso em Foco reported that 28 PMDB senators and congressmen are being investigated by Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, versus 17 for the PT. Leonardo Picciani, the PMDB’s leader in the lower house, was among several party congressmen who voted against impeachment, and over the last few months, the PMDB has debated internally — with some dirty laundry spilling into the public — about how to govern Brazil in an increasingly likely post-Rousseff scenario.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, PMDB Congressman Darcísio Perondi said that Brazil’s current woes are so great that Brazilians and the international community should not focus on the inconsistencies in his party, but instead recognize its penchant for deal-making and realize that it is offering “a government of national salvation.” Much of that hoped-for consensus stems from the party’s recent effort to push itself sharply to the right. Now, the full glare of the spotlight is on the PMDB, as it strains between its roots and a new profile that is economically liberal and fiscally tight.
As Brasília’s kingmakers may ascend the throne for the first time in 26 years, their dramatic rebranding brings serious questions about what kind of leadership the party really stands for and what kind of Brazil it may shape.
Over the years, the PMDB has thrived on its penchant for political power-brokering. It was founded as the officially sanctioned opposition party during Brazil’s military dictatorship that began in 1964 and ended in 1985 after both armed guerrilla and civil society re-democratization movements. No PMDB member has won a presidential election through direct popular vote; if current Vice President Michel Temer takes Rousseff’s reins, he would be the third PMDB politician to assume the office via an indirect route.
Historically, the PMDB has allied itself with the ruling coalition in the country’s splintered National Congress. While the PT and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) built up their voter bases around relatively pro-labor and pro-business platforms, the PMDB, according to U.S. diplomatic cables written in 2004 and released by WikiLeaks, grew through “a vast grassroots apparatus built around regional chiefs and patronage networks, which it [nurtured] by joining the governing coalition at the state or federal level whenever possible.” And the PMDB proudly embraces its politics of patronage. A 2010 video produced by the party featured top officials highlighting social investments they had made across Brazil: their support for new hospitals in the state of Maranhão, infrastructure investments in Paraíba, and an expansion of school programs in Rondônia. “What’s better for Brazilians is better for Brazil,” Temer says in the video.
Temer and Rousseff were re-elected together in 2014. As Brazil’s economy slumped in 2015 amid the commodities slowdown and the Petrobras scandal, his party initiated a major break from its past political profile in order to distance itself from Rousseff and gain support of the financial community. It published a document called “A Bridge to the Future,” which proposed the implementation of a neoliberal economic program in order to regain investor confidence in Brazil — in other words, a turn to the right. The document argues that the government committed “excesses” of public spending, that the Brazilian economy should be more plugged in to international commerce, and that private enterprise — rather than public banks and companies — should lead the country’s development strategy.
The document also proposed abolishing spending requirements for federal and state budgets on health care and education, an element of Brazil’s 1988 constitution that was acclaimed for its success in helping reduce social inequality among Brazilians in recent years. “The document correctly proposes redefining the role of the state, giving more space to private initiative and strengthening regulatory agencies,” Insper and University of São Paulo economist Naercio Menezes Filho wrote in a Valor Econômico column this month. “But there are not specific proposals that would keep the social gains made in the 2000s from becoming completely reverted by the current crisis, nor to improve the quality of public service in its various dimensions.”
The “Bridge to the Future” plan would also override a labor code strict on schedules and benefits by implementing negotiations directly between workers and their employers and disconnect the minimum wage in Brazil from rises in GDP, slowing possible rises in the cost of labor. “The austerity program they presented,” says Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), “is against everything the PMDB has done in regional government.”
The pro-market orientation of the document even shocked some within the party. On Nov. 5, one week after the PMDB rolled out the plan, Sen. Roberto Requião of Paraná, a party elder, spoke out against it on Brazil’s Senate floor. The document represented “a total rupture of the party from social proposals,” he warned. It was, Requião continued, a throwback to the “moldy ideology of the Washington Consensus,” which reflected “the unconditional alignment with the dominion of finance, which presents itself as the way to salvation but, in reality, razes the bases of national productivity.” Initially, younger members of party shared Requião’s concerns, PMDB youth leader Bruno Júlio told FP. But Temer eventually leaked a practice post-impeachment victory speech on April 11 saying that he would not cut Brazil’s most famous social welfare program, Bolsa Família, restoring Júlio’s confidence.
According to Congressman Perondi, the PMDB’s austerity agenda will “return confidence to the nation.” And he claimed that the PMDB would cut tax privileges for businesses before cutting spending for health and education. Above all, Perondi insisted, a PMDB government deserves the people’s trust because of Temer’s “superior capacity to administer conflicts and unify the country.”
Skeptical analysts, however, say predictions of a PMDB future should be based not on what the party says now, but on who has benefited in the past when people’s interests conflicted with private sector interests under PMDB governance. Chico Otávio, a journalist at Rio’s O Globo newspaper, said in an interview that some PMDB politicians govern according to the priorities of their deep-pocketed campaign donors. In the 2014 elections, chief among those donors were the banking, construction, and mining industries.
One such PMDB member is Eduardo Cunha, the lower house speaker. In 2014, Cunha — who has led the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff and has been accused of taking $15 million in bribes in the Petrobras scheme — was responsible for a dramatic last-minute attempt to modify Brazil’s so-called “Internet Bill of Rights.” He aimed to decrease fair access to the Internet at the benefit of telecommunications companies, which are some of his biggest campaign donors, Otávio says.
Although Cunha draws close to his electorate via pronouncements about his strong evangelical faith and concern for their interests, Otávio says that, in practicality, Cunha “is a marketplace … and he’s open for business.”
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro political scientist Maria Abreu says the city and state of Rio over the last few years offer important examples of PMDB governance. On Tuesday, a state representative argued before Brazil’s Supreme Court that, without federal debt relief, basic services could break down. In the runup to the current crisis, Rio Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão offered tax forgiveness for companies experiencing difficulties while falling behind on paying the salaries of public employees, including teachers, Abreu says. The city “is being rebranded as business-friendly in a process that has forcefully expelled poor people from their homes and deployed a police force that aims to control low-income groups rather than serve them,” Abreu argues.
Even if the PMDB does reap the spoils of Rousseff’s possible impeachment, it still faces the problem of selling its program — and its politicians — to Brazilians. A poll this month found that 58 percent of Brazilians are in favor of impeaching Temer, and a request for impeachment proceedings against him — for signing off on the same budgetary crimes of which Rousseff is accused — currently sits in Brazil’s lower house. But the possible impeachment trial of Rousseff in the Senate, PSDB lawmaker Paulo Abi-Ackel told Bloomberg this week, could create a “honeymoon” period for Temer. Abi-Ackel estimates that Temer would have roughly 100 days to prove his credibility as an economic and political manager of the nation.
“The thought of a PMDB government makes me feel hopeless about the future,” says Jefferson Barbosa, who runs a community newspaper in Rio’s low-income outskirt Baixada Fluminense. “The ‘majority of Brazilians’ who they say they’re going to govern for are Congress’s most powerful lobbies, like agribusiness and the military lobby. I’m applying for college now, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to get a scholarship because education in the state is bankrupt. Teachers are on strike, and schools are filled with student protestors.”
In response to this, Congressman Perondi says that the PMDB is the only party that is seriously addressing the problem that “there is no money.” Because of Brazil’s fiscal hole, with national debt more than 73 percent of the country’s GDP, he adds, the only solution is that “everything must be sacrificed.”
Perhaps most telling about what a Brazil under PMDB governance might look like is the fact that the word “corruption” didn’t appear once in Temer’s leaked victory speech. “I don’t believe the PMDB is going to be a big fighter against corruption, because it would destroy the party itself,” Santoro, the UERJ political scientist, says. He brings up an old Brazilian expression to explain the country’s current moment. “In a house where there’s been a hanging, you don’t talk about rope.”
Photo Credit: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
Correction: This article originally stated that Tancredo Neves won the presidency through a direct election after re-democratization in 1985; he was actually elected by an indirect electoral college.