Shift to the right in brazil: challenge to social movements

The PT government in Brazil is counting on a rapprochement with the opposition. Party base and trade unionists fear social regression.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff at her inauguration. Photo: ap

For four weeks now, demonstrations have been going on again in Brazil against fare increases in public transport. Mainly in the industrial metropolis Sao Paulo, but also in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. The images resemble those of spring 2013, most recently last Friday: several thousand people, mostly young people and students, take to the streets, the police use their usual violence, the press reports rioters.

But there is little to suggest that this could once again become a nationwide wave of protest. In contrast to 2013, when Brazil still saw itself as an emerging and progressive country, the omens in 2015 are rather gloomy. Contrary to hopes, Dilma Rousseff’s re-election last October does not seem to mean continuity in economic and social policy. The neck-and-neck race with right-wing candidate Aecio Neves as well as a clear shift to the right in parliament are taking their toll.

The new government, which took office on January 1, relies on conservative politicians in key positions: As a thank-you for support during the election campaign, for example, the former mayor of Sao Paulo, the right-wing politician Gilberto Kassab, will become Minister of Urban Development – for the social movements in Rio de Janeiro, for example, this is a declaration of war.

It is similar in agriculture, where the radical agricultural lobbyist Katia Abreu is taking over the ministry. This means that the supposed left-wing government of Rousseff and her workers’ party PT now includes the worst enemy of environmentalists and indigenous people, who are being driven further and further off their land by the expanding agribusiness.

Appearance in Davos

The clearest turnaround, however, took place in economic policy, where liberal-minded technocrats now call the shots. At the Davos rendezvous, the new Finance Minister Joaquim Levy gleefully declared that everything would now be different in Brazil – the market and investors should now regain confidence.

Despite the disappointment of many left-wing activists and social movements, who launched an almost desperate campaign for the PT candidate during the election campaign, this shift to the right is not surprising. "Part of this electoral system is that a government is not guided by what its constituents want, but by the balance of power in Congress," explains political scientist Sandra Dos Santos. Governability, she says, is more important than political convictions. That is why "this concession to the right, which gained in the elections, was to be expected."

Dos Santos, who left the PT years ago and sees potential for change primarily outside of parliament, at the same time predicts troubled times ahead. "Leftists and social movements have hardly any contacts left in this government. If the previously lamented lack of willingness to engage in dialogue continues, they will increasingly turn to confrontation," Dos Santos said.

Rumors of strife

There is also rumblings within the PT. Many comrades do not see that, despite the hard-fought election victory, a right-wing agenda is now gaining the upper hand. And rumors persist that a dispute has arisen between Rousseff and her foster father, the extremely popular former president Lula da Silva.

Within the PT, the dispute is primarily over social policy. Successful social programs to combat poverty, rising wages and the creation of jobs were achievements that marked the clearest difference from the right in the election campaign. These are now at least partially up for grabs. Shortly after taking office, the government announced cuts to unemployment insurance and wage guarantees.

"We are strongly opposed to this step, because it was not discussed with the unions and amounts to making the workers pay the costs of the adjustment measures that have been introduced," criticizes Vagner Freitas, president of the PT-affiliated union confederation CUT. At the same time, Freitas criticizes the new economic policy: "The rising interest rates harbor the danger of a recession. In this scenario, it is to be feared that the minimum wage will also soon come under pressure," Freitas fears.

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