Radicals in Power: The Workers' Party (PT) and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil

By Uggla, Fredrik | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Radicals in Power: The Workers' Party (PT) and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil


Uggla, Fredrik, Ibero-americana


Gianpaolo Baiocchi (ed.). Radicals in Power: The Workers' Party (PT) and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil, London: Zed Books, 2003.

Less than a year after Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva assumed the presidency in Brazil comes a timely contribution to understanding the politics underlying his rule. The contributing authors of the eleven chapters that make up edited work of Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Radicals in Power: The Workers' Party (PT) and Experiments in Urban Democracy in Brazil examine the previous power-holding record of his party at the local and regional level.

Ever since its foundation among labour activists in São Paolo in 1980, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) has relentlessly proceeded through the corridors of power until reaching, with Mr da Silva's election, the halls of federal government. In the process, the party has devised new institutions and forms of governance to realise its promises of popular participation and increased equity. Innovations such as participatory budgeting as well as a reputation of honesty and dedication to the marginalized sectors in society have become hallmarks of PT's rule. But the party's progress has also been marred with problems and disappointments, as the party has had to adapt to everyday politics. Factionalism, inability to fulfil its electoral promises and a remarkably poor record of re-election has thus also been prominent parts of PT's experience. Both the advances and the problems receive ample treatment in this volume.

In the wake of communism's and socialism's demise at the end of the 1980s, left-wing parties all over the world faced the acute need for an ideological and strategic reorientation. As Jorge Castañeda has noted, one solution to this quandary was to focus on local level politics. ('Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War' (New York: Vintage Books, 1994)) Eventually, advances at that level would become stepping-stones on the way to national power. Left-wing parties such as Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática in Mexico thus launched their presidential bids on the basis of their proven record in local politics. None of them has, however, come as far as the PT.

But as this book demonstrates, activism at the local level is not necessarily the most simple or tranquil way of getting into politics. In the PT's case, the party has had to confront a number of problems as its members have assumed posts as mayors or governors. In their interesting chapter on reasons for PT' s success and failure, Fiona Macaulay and Guy Burton show that some political difficulties have been particularly salient. In the first place, the PT, which has frequently come to power on a protest vote, has often found itself governing municipalities and regions on the verge of bankruptcy, a task that the party has often preferred to tackle head-on, postponing social investment until the accounts permit. Second, the PT has confronted a tension in its own midst as it has had to weight the interest of the relatively well-to-do (who often forms the backbone of the party's electoral support) against the interests of the poorest and most marginal sectors in society (which ideology and partisan convictions indicate as the primary policy aim). For instance, PT mayors and governors have had to choose between confronting the former group in the form of public sector unions, or to postpone urgent social investments and reforms for the latter category.

Third, and in spite of it being Brazil's most coherent party, the PT has often endured a high degree of factionalism within, which has in many cases lead to bitter conflicts among its supporters. While these conflicts to a certain extent mirror the previous problems, the chapters in this volume show them to be a constant in the party's history. Fourth, and finally, the PT's mayors and governors have, as a rule, never been able to rely on majorities in the local councils or regional legislatures. …

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