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Brazil’s Right finds its voice

On the face of it Brazil has been governed by centre-left parties for twenty one years.

From 1994-2002, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party – PSDB – held the presidency and since then it has been the Workers’ Party – PT. And although the reality is somewhat more complicated in that the more business-friendly PSDB is more on the centre-right, the absence of a conservative right at federal level has been notable over the past two decades.

But that is now changing.

Last weekend saw large demonstrations in Sao Paulo and other cities. First out on the streets were supporters of the PT-led government, followed on Sunday in larger numbers by anti-government protesters, many calling for the impeachment of President Rousseff over the Petrobras corruption scandal.

The anti-Rousseff protesters were predominantly middle class and organised by young right-wing activists of the Free Brazil Movement with support from the PSDB-controlled local government. But some demonstrators also held placards calling for the return of military rule to ‘save’ Brazil – something that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago.

So why has the right found its voice again in Brazil?

Most reports and analysis have put this down to two things undermining the President.

The corruption scandal at the national oil company, Petrobras, where it appears funds have been diverted from the business to help fund political parties in Congress for many years, has come to light under the PT and made the party vulnerable. Ms Rousseff also chaired the board of Petrobras when Energy Minister and Chief of Staff under President Lula and her personal popularity has been dented too.

President Rousseff, who won re-election only last October, has also found her authority undermined because measures to revive a slowing economy have so far failed to boost GDP growth, which has ground to halt following impressive figures over the past decade.

So the right now has an opportunity to reassert itself because the overwhelming popularity which allowed the PT to dominate Brazilian politics for the past 12 years has diminished.

But there are other reasons which have been much less commented on.

One is the rightward drift of the PSDB which, despite its origins as a social democratic party, is now more openly pro-business. Although the austerity measures President Rousseff is trying to introduce now echo the PSDB’s defeated presidential candidate, Aecio Neves, he has lent support to the protests and the local PSDB authorities in Sao Paulo reportedly gave the anti-government demonstrators free use of the metro last Sunday.

At a more profound level, the very success of the PT’s core policies also help explain what is going on.

Presidents Lula and Rousseff – building on measures first introduced under PSDB President Cardoso – have taken the credit for reducing inequality.

Twenty years ago, Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world. But in recent years, 30 million Brazilians (out of population of 200 million) have been lifted out of poverty by federal government action.

The Bolsa Familia scheme, where the poor get cash supplements if they vaccinate their children and send them to school, along with extending employment rights to workers who’d previously worked on a casual basis have been very effective. There have also been attempts at affirmative action to give poorer Brazilians more opportunities in education.

The success of these PT policies has come to be resented by many in the traditional middle class who see them as a threat to their interests and this has fuelled the rightwing backlash.

In recent years, I have heard private complaints about children not being able to get on the course they want at university because of positive discrimination or that the people receiving the Bolsa Familia are freeloading on the taxpayer.

These grievances have been growing and explain some of the anti-PT sentiment behind the protests.

There are also what one Brazilian commentator has called the country’s bizarre McCarthyites who say the PT is trying to turn the country communist.

It is these people who are most likely to be the ones calling for the return of military dictatorship.

Many Brazilians who lived through the dictatorship see the invitations to the military to intervene as sinister. Although, the numbers of people murdered, tortured and disappeared in Brazil were not as high as in Chile or Argentina, the Truth Commission which reported last year found over 400 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the military.

The President herself was a victim of torture as a young activist – as she memorably testified to a Senate committee in 2008.

Some of the protesters holding these placards are clearly too young to remember those years, but others are not, and they are a reminder that, at the time, the dictatorship was not unpopular with many wealthier Brazilians.

The 1964 coup, 51 years ago this month, was called a revolution to save the country from communism. Under the generals, who ruled until 1985, there was economic growth before the debt crisis of the 1980s; the economic privileges of the middle class were protected and nothing was done to reduce the extreme inequality in Brazil.

As things stand, there seems little popular appetite to undermine the democracy Brazil has built since the generals handed power back to the civilians thirty years ago.

So the protests may well go on. Though for now there are no grounds for impeachment of Ms Rousseff because she was not chair of Petrobras while president, she – and the PT – have been weakened and conservatives have found their voice again.

If the right can establish itself as a coherent force in Congress, in coming years Brazilian politics may come to look more like other democracies where parties more clearly of the left and right vie for power.

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