Learning Curve: Da Silva on the National Scene

By Loperena, Gabriel | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Learning Curve: Da Silva on the National Scene


Loperena, Gabriel, Harvard International Review


The 2002 elections were good to the left-wing Worker's Party (PT) in Brazil. The 57-year-old former metal worker, Luis Inacio da Silva, or Lula as he is more commonly called, was swept into office after almost a decade of unsuccessful attempts to rise to the country's highest public office. As The Economist correctly synthesized in a March 2003 article, "Idealism and impatience with government-as-usual are much on display in Brasilia two months into the government of Luis Inacio da Silva."

However, the great success of a party that has been slowly growing into prominence since the late 1970s veils a deep tension that threatens to undermine the effectiveness of Lula's administration. It is a tension that arises from the conflicting idealism that is palpable in the political atmosphere and the pragmatism and compromise that have been required for that idealism to reach the higher echelons of Brazilian power polities. In order to have a chance at winning the 2002 elections, Lula and the PT leadership had to become "electable." The party had to compromise on key issues in its platform that were too left wing to engender broad support among Brazilians. Once in the presidential palace, this pragmatic trend has only been reinforced by the relative inexperience of the PT machinery in national politics. The Lula administration has been forced to submit to the financial orthodoxy of the Cardoso years. The top priorities for reform have also been adopted from the previous government. The Worker's Party, in the name of a broader "social pact," has even had to agree to political arrangements with previously hated "oligarchs." This all means that the only way in which Lula and the party leaders can keep the PT strong and in power is to convince the rank-and-file to support policies that they have rejected vehemently in the past. This is no easy task, and it will take most of Lula and the PT leadership's political energies to successfully overcome this rising tension.

The persuasion of the rank-and-file of the PT toward compromise is particularly difficult because of the very nature of party politics in Brazil, and especially PT politics. Given the vast area of the country, its perennial communications and transportation troubles, and its social heterogeneity, party politics have always been markedly local in nature. The Worker's Party itself was born out of trade unionism in Sao Paulo in 1979 and did not incorporate significant numbers of professional politicians or students in its ranks until the late 1980s. It is a truly local, mass movement, grassroots party that is divided into no less that six factions along the political spectrum--Lula's Articulation is only one of these factions. In other words, the PT is an excellent specimen of the local party politics at work. …

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