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Will Lula Mount a Sufficient Challenge to Bolsonaro and the Far Right in Brazil?

Two socialist candidates say Brazilians need an electoral force that will fight to undo Bolsonaro’s pernicious reforms.

Towels with images of presidential candidates Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro are displayed in a street stand in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, on September 21, 2022, ahead of presidential elections.

On Sunday, Brazilians will go to the polls in the first round of elections that will be watched around the world. Incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro has seen his support plummet amid a devastating coronavirus pandemic, rising inflation and food costs, increasing poverty and severe deforestation in the Amazon. His most recognized challenger is the former president and Workers’ Party leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Amid the many crises facing the Bolsonaro government, various representatives of the Brazilian capitalist class have gone over to the Lula campaign. Among them are many leaders of the impeachment process (in reality, an institutional coup) against Dilma Rouseff, Lula’s successor. The largest party to the left of the Workers’ Party, the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL), has also decided not to run its own presidential candidate and will instead support Lula in the first round. This despite Lula’s promise to maintain all the privatizations and labor reforms enacted under Bolsonaro. Yet there does exist an electoral force which maintains class independence and calls for the revocation of all Bolsonaro’s measures, the Socialist Revolutionary Pole (PSR). Left Voice spoke with Marcello Pablito and Maíra Machado, two members of the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement (MRT) party who are running for seats in the national legislature on the PSR slate.

Left Voice: How do you characterize the national situation in the midst of this year’s elections?

Marcello Pablito: This year’s elections in Brazil will take place in a deeply polarized political scenario. On one side is the current president Jair Bolsonaro, a representative of the Brazilian extreme right wing that detests women, Black people, and the LGBTQ community. On the other side is Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, the former president and leader of the Workers’ Party (or PT). Lula was prevented from running in the previous elections due to a highly anti-democratic Supreme Court ruling. In these elections, Lula, who is currently ahead in the polls, is running on a ticket with Geraldo Alckmin, a representative of Brazilian neoliberalism. It’s important to note that Bolsonaro came to power after the institutional coup of 2016, spearheaded by Congress and the judiciary. After approving measures such as a labor reform, welfare reform and the unrestricted outsourcing law, the same sectors that were in favor of the completely authoritarian measures that brought Bolsonaro to power are now standing against him and demagogically calling for “defense of democracy.” They are united with Bolsonaro, however, in their defense of all the ultraliberal and anti-worker economic measures of recent years.

Maíra Machado: Bolsonaro’s government was not only responsible for more than 700,000 deaths in Brazil during the pandemic but also brought more hunger, unemployment, and misery to a country that has been battered by economic crisis since 2013. The pandemic worsened all social indicators for the poor, who also faced countless economic austerity measures by the coup government of Michel Temer beginning in 2016 and later the government of Bolsonaro. The global inflationary crisis and the rise in food prices with the war in Ukraine is severely impacting Brazil and creating an unstable economic picture. This has a direct impact on the Brazilian elections. Despite a partial recovery in GDP, the structural crisis remains and is being felt by millions of people who work in precarious jobs and are hit by rising cost of food. It is telling that Brazil is facing its lowest meat consumption since 1994, with 33 million people suffering from hunger and 120 million people in a situation of food insecurity in the country that produces the most food in the world.

Lula, meanwhile, promises to return the country to the economic bonanza of the 2000s. It’s a total illusion in the face of the current economic projections. The scenario is vastly different from the period in which Lula first assumed office. Two decades ago, the price of raw materials was high and there was an inflow of dollars into the country, due to both the growth of the Chinese economy — which has since slowed considerably and is now growing at its lowest level in 30 years — and investments from Western capital. Lula already warns that if he wins the elections “he will not be able to perform miracles,” a euphemism for continuing many of the same economic policies enacted since the 2016 coup, like the labor reform and social security reform, an agenda he shares with the liberal Right.

Why did MRT decide to launch candidacies this year? How would you define the MRT’s main ideas and proposals?

Maíra Machado: We decided to present candidacies to put forward a left-wing perspective across the country. We have been in the front lines of the struggle against the institutional coup, while always organizing independently of the Workers’ Party. Our candidates are running on the ticket of the Socialist Revolutionary Pole, composed of several organizations of the Brazilian left like the PSTU, the CST and other left-wing activists. We’ve come together in these elections, alongside other left-wing allies and intellectuals, to advance our revolutionary and class independent positions.

Marcello Pablito: Both Maíra and I are running in the state of São Paulo but in other states we are putting forward the same proposals. Our comrades Flávia Valle in Minas Gerais, Carolina Cacau in Rio de Janeiro and Valéria Muller in Rio Grande do Sul, along with others, are standing as candidates in order to amplify the fight against Bolsonaro and the Right, and fight back against the labor reforms, privatizations, and other attacks on workers. As part of the Socialist Revolutionary Pole, which brings together various socialist organizations that defend class independence, we are calling for a vote for Vera Lucia of the PSTU for President and indigenous activist Raquel Tremembé for Vice President. We draw inspiration from the Workers’ Left Unity Front (known as the FIT-U) in Argentina, which won seats in Congress for our comrades Nicolas Del Caño, Myriam Bregman and Alejandro Vilca from our sister organization, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PTS). Like the FIT-U, we believe that the capitalists must pay for this crisis and we will use our candidacies to build the strength of the workers’ movement and the youth. In this sense, our intervention in these elections is a preparation for the clashes that will inevitably arise in the next period, one in which Lula and Alckmin will likely govern but the extreme right will persist, despite the election results.

Maíra Machado: We have defined some aspects of a program that we think is necessary to confront the current situation, one in which the Brazilian working class (particularly Black people, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants) is suffering enormously. More than 33 million people are going hungry, millions are unemployed or hold precarious jobs, and young people see less and less of a future for themselves. Our program demands the revoking of all the counter-reforms that have occurred since the institutional coup, including the labor reform, the social security reform, and the spending cap on health and education. We say enough of corporations and banks profiting while working people suffer. Our program demands the non-payment of the fraudulent international debt, which bleeds our health and education budgets dry to increase the profits of foreign capitalists. We demand a radical agrarian reform that challenges the power of agribusiness and attacks the problem of hunger at its root. We fight for a radical urban reform that addresses the problem of housing costs and real estate speculation. We call for an end to precarious jobs, Uberization, and outsourcing and we demand the regularization of all workers, including gig workers, with full rights and benefits. This program can only be carried out through an independent political organization of the working class, based in the workplaces, schools and universities. That is why we continue to demand that the union federations, the National Union of Students, and youth organizations to break the paralysis and confront Bolsonaro and the Right. The strategy of waiting and channeling our into elections alone will continue to strengthen the far Right in the country. The Right will win in the streets unless we challenge them.

Why is it important to launch candidates independent of the PT and its coalitions?

Maíra Machado: Many workers and young people have a completely legitimate hatred of Bolsonaro and the extreme right and want to defeat this government and its attacks. However, it is impossible to seriously confront Bolsonaro by by forming alliances with sectors of the right wing like former São Paolo governor Geraldo Alckmin (now running on a ticket with Lula) or former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso or institutions like the Supreme Court. These were precisely the figures and institutions who paved the way for Bolsonaro to come to power and are in favor of all his neoliberal attacks. To seriously confront the extreme right we need a class-independent program that unites workers against big business and the banks.

Just look at who Lula’s supporters are. Besides having Alckmin as his vice-president, who is a symbol of the neoliberal right-wing that repressed the teachers, subway workers, and university workers when he was governor, Lula has supporters like Fernando Henrique Cardoso who applied the austerity measures dictated by Washington in the 1990s and repressed the historic 1995 oil workers’ strike. Lula is also supported by Henrique Meirelles, a former representative of international finance capital. Meirelles served as Finance Minister under the coup leader Michel Temer, and said recently that his support for the Lula-Alckmin ticket is conditional on their government maintaining the labor reforms in place. Lula has also received public support from various leaders of the Operation Carwash campaign and the institutional coup against former President Dilma Rousseff.

The victory of the Lula-Alckmin ticket in these elections will not be the end of Bolsonaro’s legacy or the authoritarian political regime. On the contrary, the reactionary opposition will retain at least 30-35 percent support throughout the country, and the military and the judiciary will continue to play key roles in Brazilian politics. It is enough to mention that the Armed Forces was recently given the right to evaluate the election results, an extremely anti-democratic interference in the political process. The extreme right will only be defeated through strikes and mass mobilizations, as our historical tradition demonstrates. The integralismo movement in Brazil, for example, was only defeated with a strong workers’ united front, with the Trotskyists organizing and uniting other forces of the Left in the famous battle of Praça da Sé in 1934.

What role do social movements, such as the black, indigenous, student, and LGBTQ movements play in defeating not only Bolsonaro but the far right in general?

Marcello Pablito: The misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric of Bolsonaro and the extreme Right serves to further subordinate oppressed people and to deepen the attacks against the entire working class, the women’s movement, the Black liberation movement, LGBTQ liberation movement and the youth. This rhetoric also appeals to his social base, which includes most reactionary sectors of society: agri-business, the military, and the evangelicals. It was not by chance that the symbol of Bolsonaro’s rise was the stabbing death of the Black capoeira master Moa do Katendê. More recently a Black woman who worked as a domestic employee was burned to death cooking with alcohol because she did not have money to buy gas for her home.

It is a government that fuels hatred against immigrants and humiliates Venezuelans who leave their country and try to survive in Brazil. A symbol of the the hatred of this extreme right wing was the murder of Moise Kabagambe, a Congolese immigrant beaten by his boss when he went to collect his unpaid wages. The far Right also directs its attacks against women who have been mobilizing for the right to an abortion. This in addition to the barbaric murders of indigenous people, residents of the quilombos [communities of the descendents of escaped slaves — Ed.] and activists for indigenous rights like Bruno Araújo Pereira and Don Phillips, who were killed after denouncing the brutal violence carried out by mining interests against native peoples.

What are the next steps after October? What is necessary to organize the youth and the working class in the next period?

Maíra Machado: The elections are an important moment in our struggle. They are a moment in which it’s possible to debate and to put forward political proposals with many more people than we can on a daily basis. That’s why we understand the elections as a space that we need to be in to strengthen the struggles of the working class, the poor, the youth, and all those who want to confront and defeat the extreme Right. But we must also prepare ourselves for the likely attempts at austerity that will come from a Lula and Alckmin government. Recently in Chile, we saw more proof of how class conciliation only strengthens the right wing. A strategy of conciliation, represented by Lula and Alckmin, is not an alternative and will not confront the structural problems of the country. In fact, Lula has already said that he will not revoke the reforms that occurred during the Temer and Bolsonaro governments and rejected the possibility of reversing privatizations. Only through struggle and organization will we be able to secure our democratic rights and take on the structural problems of Brazilian capitalism.

Here in the United States, the DSA, Jacobin and other sections of the Left have defended Lula’s candidacy against Bolsonaro as an important step in defeating the extreme right. What is your opinion?

Maíra Machado: As we said, at the moment, various sectors of the Brazilian political regime are trying to re-channel all the dissatisfaction with Bolsonaro toward a path of class conciliation and to neutralize any force to the left of the PT. It is regrettable that an important part of the Brazilian Left has completely dissolved itself in coalitions based on class conciliation. In Brazil, a large part of the PSOL, which since its foundation has molded itself on broad parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain, has been programmatically and politically dissolved in the coalition of Lula and Geraldo Alckmin. As if this were not enough, the majority of the PSOL leadership has plunged the party into a dead end, forming a federation with the Rede Sustentabilidade [the Sustainability Network party — Ed.], Marina Silva’s bourgeois party, which receives funding from the bank Itaú and is a fierce opponent of abortion rights. This turn to the right of the PSOL leadership led to the defection of major parliamentary figures from the party to the PT or the PSB (like the PSOL’s former leader Marcelo Freixo, who’s now in the same party as Alckmin), but also splits to the left, like an important group of activists and intellectuals. The PSOL has always been a party removed from class struggle, without a vision of the working class as the revolutionary subject, and with a broad party conception that blurs the lines between reform and revolution. The crisis of the New Anticapitalist Party in France, despite its differences with the PSOL, sheds light on the failure of the broad party conception. The crisis of the PSOL is an important aspect of the electoral scenario, and an opportunity for the revolutionary

Finally, what would you say to American workers and youth, who have been awakening to political and union activity in recent years?

Marcello Pablito: Here in Brazil, we followed with great enthusiasm the struggles against racism and in defense of abortion rights in the United States. These mobilizations taking place in the heart of world capitalism for us here were extremely inspiring. But we know that for revolts to turn into revolutions and to defeat the most powerful bourgeoisie in the world, it is fundamental to have a revolutionary strategy and program that, even in adverse conditions, prepares the conditions to win and build a new future. We consider it very promising that opportunities are opening up with a new wave of unionization fights in the United States and that these struggles connect capitalist exploitation to racist and patriarchal oppression. These open up space for the emergence of a new workers’ force in the heart of imperialism, which by taking political power into its hands, could open a new chapter in history, one free from all exploitation and oppression.

Translated by Paul Ginestà