With the recent shocks that the Operation Car Wash investigation has dealt politicians of various parties, Brazil’s characteristic political fragmentation and the consequent instability of party alliances will almost certainly deepen. The country’s three main political parties—PT, PMDB, and PSDB—will emerge weakened, which can make way for other smaller and potentially volatile parties with less strategic coherence. With so many uncertainties, drawing up a multiyear plan to win the presidential election in 2018 will not be an easy task.1
In the past few years, Brazil’s major political power, the Workers’ Party, has endured a long period of uncertainty and disgrace. This began with the “Mensalão” scandal in 2005, 2 and deepened enormously starting in 2014, with Operation Car Wash. The discovery of these corruption schemes tainted the political novelty once enjoyed by the PT during Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration (2003-2010). The Workers’ Party was completely centered on Lula and the magnitude of the party’s troubles played down his administration’s social achievements—especially the fight against poverty—which was one of the PT’s proudest feats.
But though the Workers’ Party is in a weakened state, it will continue to be a major political force in the country. Although it has lost the support of much of the middle class (who used to favor Lula’s government), the Workers’ Party still has strong links with trade unions, civil servants, and various social movements. For the time being, Lula has the lead in the 2018 election polls, with approximately 20 percent of the votes. It is important to take into account that this is the worst crisis the Workers’ Party has faced since Brazil’s transition to democracy. A 20 percent lead in the polls is remarkable and is largely due to Lula’s persona, as he is considered a strong leader for those from the Left. It also reflects the weakness of other national politicians.
If the economy doesn’t respond quickly to Temer’s policies, his entire support group — PMDB, PSDB and parties such as the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB), Democratas, etc. — will be shaken as they enter the presidential race.
Other left-wing players such as the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) and United Workers’ Social Party (PSTU) will continue to jockey for political position. Although these parties have not been directly affected by the Operation Car Wash scandal, public opinion and support networks in various social movements still consider them as minor players on Brazil’s political stage.
Meanwhile, the PMDB and PSDB will each have a hard time reorganizing themselves in the post- impeachment period, as both lack strong leadership. In addition, it’s expected that Operation Car Wash will reach some of the most important names in both parties, which will limit the choices for candidates on a 2018 presidential ticket.
The PMDB and the PSDB are also struggling to develop support beyond just their opposition to the Workers’ Party. Even though both parties backed recent protests against the Workers’ Party, the center- right’s market-based policies—especially in the economic field– tend to win them little support in the country. Indeed, not even a majority of business leaders tend to support very pro-market policies.
With Temer, the PMDB intends to push market-based reforms, particularly those for social security (the main proposal for this reform would be to increase minimum retirement ages). However, the PMDB’s impetus for putting forward these reforms is to slow down the recession, not to promote an excessively market-based ideology. On the other hand, an important section of the PSDB defends these market- based views on ideological grounds.
Regardless of intentions, voters will see these reforms as a shift to the right promoted by the PMDB. The big question here is whether voters will condone this shift in light of the current crisis. Until impeachment proceedings are finalized—in other words, while Temer’s adminstration is still provisional—the interim president has two main priorities: a fiscal adjustment for the economy; and for politics, maintaining his significant block of support in Congress. The content of Temer’s plan does not differ substantially from the previous administration’s program; however, Dilma Rousseff was unable to win sufficient support from lawmakers to get her policies approved.
Michel Temer (right) and finance minister Henrique Meirelles have been entrusted with reorienting Brazil's economy.
Only after the Senate confirms Temer’s mandate will his real administration emerge. It is expected that he will then alter his Cabinet and launch an aggressive infrastructure package (changing the role of state-owned companies such as BNDS, Eletrobrás, Petrobras, in addition to concession and privatization models). He is also expected to raise taxes and restructure social security, increasing the minimum retirement age. Additionally, Temer will try to make Brazilian labor laws more flexible. His policies will tend to be more market-based and similar to the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (PSDB, 1995-2002).
Assuming these initiatives are undertaken, they will certainly impact the 2018 election and will be a test for what type of government Brazil wants: pro-market or interventionist. If the economy doesn’t respond quickly to Temer’s policies, his entire support group—PMDB, PSDB and parties such as the Brazilian Labor Party (PTB), Democratas, etc—will be shaken as they enter the presidential race.
Traditionally, the PMDB has not put forth its own presidential candidate, choosing instead to join coalitions with other groups. But recently, speculation about a PMDB presidential candidate has surfaced. It is unlikely that Michel Temer would be considered for the ticket. However, if his government is able to refuel significant economic growth and contain the political and social crisis, it may help set up the candidacy of Temer’s finance minister, Henrique Meirelles.
It is also expected that the PSDB will pick a candidate and try to win back its traditional place as the major political opposition party to the PT, as in the Lula-Dilma administrations. The biggest question is how the PSDB will produce a meaningful candidate in the next year and a half, especially taking into account internal divisions, which are likely to deepen with the current crisis. It has been suggested that Aécio Neves—who was a candidate in 2014—will soon be implicated in Operation Car Wash. But Geraldo Alckmin—Governor of the state of São Paulo and Lula’s second round opponent in the 2006 presidential elections—has a better chance to lead a ticket in 2018.
There is yet another group, more vocal and more media-savvy than the traditional parties, that has been gaining ground in the political game: the new conservatives. As a response to the more progressive movement’s concern with social issues and minority rights, some evangelical leaders, former police officers and chiefs, former mid-level military officers, and others have sought to foster policies that are mainly linked to fighting crime, family values, and gender issues. But without a clear economic agenda, these conservatives are more focused on challenging the left’s role in defending civil rights and individual freedoms than on issues related to the country's development.
This conservative wave will increasingly influence the national and regional legislative powers, but the chances for their representatives to gain significant power in the executive are slim. In any case, due to the political fragmentation in Brazil and the instability of national political coalitions, the smaller and more conservative parties will have more sway than apparent in the mere number of seats won in Congress. And in 2018, this influence is likely to grow even more.
Finally, new political forces with fresh profiles and new proposals are emerging in the political spectrum. This change is taking place not only among the urban middle classes—especially younger voters—but also with those linked to environmental issues, as well as certain business groups. These initiatives and their proponents have been gaining ground since 2013, due to their position against the corruption scandals and as an alternative to traditional politicians.
One of the main forces gaining with this type of initiative is former presidential candidate Marina Silva and her newly created party, Sustainability Network (REDE). Silva is a dissident of the Workers’ Party and has a long history with environmentalists both in her home state—Acre—and in the industry’s major non-governmental organizations. She was one of the few national political figures whose popularity rose after the street demonstrations that shook Brazil in 2013. 3
Silva remains an important electoral force and has, for now, threatened Lula's leadership in the polls for the 2018 race. In 2014, she was a serious presidential contender but lost her edge by failing to convince voters of her experience in the economic field. She is a likely candidate for the 2018 elections and remains an alternative to the PT-PSDB party cycles for the Brazilian presidency. But more importantly, not a single member of Silva’s party has been seriously involved in the “Mensalão” or Operation Car Wash scandals thus far.
Street demonstrations, beginning with those that swept Brazil in 2013, signal a search for clear alternatives in the upcoming election, even with the creation of the Sustainability Network party. According to surveys, the demographic that would likely support the Sustainability Network did not participate in either pro- or anti-impeachment demonstrations. Some of these groups defended the need for new elections and political reform. They did not view the impeachment proceedings as sufficient to alter the pattern of Brazilian politics. Winning this part of the electorate will be essential for whomever wants to take the 2018 election.