Since the main centrist opposition Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) suffered its third successive general election defeat to the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in October 2010, it seems to be imploding.
With the recent defection of a key ally to form a new party, the opposition in the federal parliament, comprising the PSDB and two other parties, Democratas (DEM) and Partido Popular Socialista (PPS), is now in its weakest position in 16 years, with just 96 deputies in the 513-seat lower house, or just 18.7% of the seats. Proportionally, the Brazilian opposition is now weaker than in neighbouring countries like Venezuela (where 40% of the parliamentary seats are opposition-held) and Bolivia (32.8%).
Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1993-2002) is doling out fresh strategy advice. He called on the PSDB to give up its efforts to mimic the PT as a mass party “of the common people” (povão), which he argued is bought off by the governing PT through social welfare handouts, and instead focus its efforts on winning over some of the new middle class, the 30m Brazilians that have swelled the ranks of the so-called “C-class” in recent years to 94m people, or half Brazil’s population. Cardoso argues that the PSDB needs to redefine its target electorate. He advised the party to stop aping the PT and instead hone its own message in support of a social democratic market economy, defending the regulatory and administrative role of the state but also the role of the market in promoting the modernisation of Brazil. He chided the PSDB for allowing the “populist” PT to dismantle his legacy and called for louder criticism of the party.
Reactions in the PSDB were mixed. Some were mortified that FHC was painting the party anew as ‘elitist’, undoing its lengthy efforts to cast off that mantle. It certainly played into the hands of former president Lula da Silva (2002-2010), who reacted furiously in defence of the “common people”. Marcelo Neri, of the Fundacão Getulio Vargas, said FHC’s initiative was “the second most intelligent idea to come from the opposition in years, since the stablisation plan [the Real plan] of 1994-2002.” Neri agreed that the new middle class will alter the electoral scenario. This new Brazilian, he said, “wants to dream, not merely lessen his nightmares”. Others took issue with Cardoso’s suggestion that the “common people” blindly follow the PT, arguing that these sectors actually follow whoever is in government. “The povão is governist,” one academic noted. While the PSDB fared badly in October’s legislative polls, it did well at the state level (taking eight), and, with its DEM allies, controls 10 states. This gives it a strong platform from which to relaunch itself ahead of municipal elections in 2012 and general elections in 2014. But President Dilma Rousseff is evolving the PT. Her technocratic style of government, with its targeted focus on improvements in key state deliverables like infrastructure, health and education, as well as its embrace of private sector initiative in areas where the state is not able to deliver, may well again, if successful, ‘cannibalise’ the PSDB – and Cardoso’s – proposed offering.
It is also the case that individual candidates, rather than parties, tend to win elections in Brazil’s highly personalised system. The PSDB, while it may lack a clear brand, is not short on big personalities and is pinning particular hopes for 2014 on its ‘star’, Senator Aécio Neves, formerly a popular governor of Minas Gerais. However, the party appears riven between the traditional Paulista barons, who backed José Serra as the 2010 candidate, and supporters of Neves, who feel that the baton should now pass.